2012 Mazda Mazda5: First Drive

February 25, 2011
There's a certain charming simplicity about the 2012 Mazda5. Yes, it's a minivan. Yes, it's a little lower, sportier, and more fun to drive. And yes, it's configured for the needs of small families—simple, lean, and value-priced.

You can easily open or close the non-power sliding doors with your thumb and forefinger; the hatch is easily closed and at arm's height for even shorter moms; and second- and third-row seats fold forward without a lot of straining or reaching.

From a few paces back, the Mazda5 looks like a well-designed 7/8-scale minivan—one that might park and maneuver a little easier, too. And it does. Get behind the wheel, and there's much more to love—excellent steering, top-notch poise and roadholding, and an all-around frisky feel on the road is some of it, along with a very affordable sticker price and a good list of features for the money.

To put it all into perspective, the Mazda5 is actually five inches longer than the original Dodge Caravan, but nearly two feet shorter than what are now called minivans, like the Honda Odyssey, Dodge Grand Caravan, and Toyota Sienna. In truth, each of those vehicles now nearly take up the space of the old boatlike station wagons they were intended to replace.

Modest but sporty

With modest but sporty underpinnings borrowed from the Mazda3 s models, the Mazda5 has the makings of a vehicle that's more fun to drive than the typical van. Under the hood is the familiar 2.5-liter four-cylinder 'MZR' unit that's also used in the Mazda6 and CX-7, and here it makes 157 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 163 pound-feet at 4,000 rpm. A six-speed manual gearbox is offered only in the base Sport model, while the five-speed automatic that's optional in the Sport is standard in the Mazda5 Touring and Grand Touring models. Underneath this front-driver is a MacPherson strut suspension setup in front and a multi-link, 'E-link' setup in back that helps provide stability under a wide load range.

While that's much the same as with the last-generation Mazda5, what has changed is its tuning. Mazda admits that with the former version, which was legendary for its responsiveness and almost edgy feel, passengers could feel a bit tossed around. In order to address that, without meddling too much with Mazda's fun-to-drive qualities, engineers softened damper response and roll stiffness slightly while stiffening bushings and raising spring rates, to yield just a little more roll and soften turn-in very slightly, while retaining that excellent body control.

Had Mazda not told us about it, we might not have known the difference, in all honesty, as the Mazda5 still feels so much sportier, more settled and communicative than anything else in the class. Even right up on the limit of adhesion, the Mazda5 has the body control of a small sport sedan; the body stays relatively flat, and there aren't any of the queasy body motions you get in left-right transitions in most crossovers. It takes a lot to upset its composure. Likewise, slam on the brakes at freeway speeds, even, and the four-wheel disc brakes stop the 5 quickly, with a firm, assuring pedal and none of the dramatic nosedive that other people-movers exhibit. And the Mazda5 has excellent quick-ratio hydraulic-assist steering (with an electric pump) that's weighted about perfect and unwinds out of tight corners better than most sporty front-drivers.

 

Powertrain performance is perky, but certainly not the high point of the 5. Despite a variable induction system and a variable intake valve timing system, the engine often needs a downshift or two to even squeeze ahead for a lane change. And at full throttle, or close to it, with the automatic, the Mazda5's engine gets wheezy at the top of each gear, then surges forward as the next higher gear pulls the engine back up to its torque plateau—which seems to really find its stride near 3,500 rpm then run out of steam nearing 5,000 rpm or so. There's really no point in revving the engine into its noisy upper reaches. Luckily the manumatic controls allow you to lock in a gear—with no full-throttle forced downshift—so that you can rocket out of corners on the torque curve, without a raucous show.

A manual gearbox in a minivan? Yes!

The automatic transmission deals with hills better than most, smartly downshifting a gear before bogging down, even on shorter grades, yet not feeling too busy. Though we spent most of our time in Grand Touring and Touring automatic models, we much preferred a short stint in a manual-gearbox Mazda5 Sport. As with the manual gearbox in the Mazda3, the linkage is a little imprecise between gates, but the Mazda5 feels noticeably more energetic with the manual, with a nice, light clutch take-up and well-spaced ratios.

Fuel economy ratings for the Mazda5 with either transmission land at 21 mpg city, 28 highway. We saw about 19 mpg in two different automatic-transmission Mazda5s, driving in a spirited way on a mix of mountain two-laners and Southern California freeways. It's not all that impressive, and about what we would have seen from the Honda Odyssey or Toyota Sienna in similar conditions, but we look forward to seeing what we get in gentler real-world driving.

Back to the 5's packaging—hard to fault in any way—one of the Mazda5's many trump cards is the ease with which its seats fold down. With just a little, easy-to-reach pull strap, the third row folds forward, completely flat (provided you don't have that second row far back in its travel). That's probably what most families will do most of the time, as it opens up a low load floor with 44.4 cubic feet of cargo space. In the second row, the lower cushions flip forward to expose a storage compartment that's large enough for a purse or small camera bag, and if you leave those cushions flipped forward (and the headrests flipped forward) you can also fold the backrests forward flat, to closely align with the rest of the load floor. It's quite the continuous surface, and getting there seems refreshingly simple compared to many SUVs and even some minivans.

Mazda has added just a little more length to the lower cushions in the first and second rows to better fit taller folks, and while this 6'6" driver still didn't feel sprawled-out luxury comfortable, there was enough comfort for a few hours, if not cross-country. Second-row accommodations don't skimp; the seats feel nearly as ample (though a little less padded), and there's plenty of headroom. Getting in and out of the second row doesn't require any bow of the head either.

Inside, Mazda has updated the interior to better fit in with the interiors of the Mazda3 and Mazda6 lineups, with a more simple, matte look, with bright accents, throughout, and a few more curves added to the instrument panel. The Mazda5 gets the Mazda3's rounded climate control vents at either side, and center vents have been moved higher up for better flow. Audio systems have also been completely redesigned and reconfigured, and there's a new trip meter and display up on top, in the line of sight.

Nagare looks really good here

We like the new 5's look on the outside especially. The new Mazda5 keeps the same size and proportions, but it's the first (and perhaps only) of the brand's vehicles to fully adopt Mazda's Nagare design language, including a flow of creases and surfacing that rises over aggressively contoured front fenders and swoops along the side of the vehicle, with a sort of twist at the front of the front door. Taillights have been repositioned from the current vehicle's vertical rear-pillar configuration to a lower, more carlike design, while at the front the Mazda5 has adopted a new front-end design—much like that of the Mazda3—that positions the 'grinning' corporate grille below the level of the headlights. In all, this new design gives the Mazda5 a slightly lower, more carlike stance that tricks you into seeing it as a little lower and wider, even if it's essentially unchanged.

The presentation is hardly perfect, though. The hard, hollow plastic atop the instrument panel is among the worst we've seen in any new vehicle as of late; the dull, lightly grained black plastic used around the shift faceplate looks of the type that's easily scratched by watches or bracelets, and the vinyl-ish boot around the manual shifter feels like a parts-bin extra from the '90s. Upholsteries are about as expected for the price, with the base cloth feeling durable, grippy, and ready to take repeated deep cleans from toddlers' spills, while the available perforated leather with piping looks great but feels a little slippery and overtreated.

 

While Mazda could have put a few more pounds into noise insulation, in our opinion—especially from road noise—the automaker has actually lost a few pounds in the 5 (it weighs in just below 3,500 pounds), despite bolstering the body structure in various points throughout, with improved side and roof protection afforded by the so-called triple-H structure. Head-protecting side-curtain bags reach back through all three rows, brake and accelerator pedals are no crushable to protect the driver's legs, and a new Brake Override System is included.

Tempting price, feature set

Pricing and value are major reasons to consider the 5; the 2012 Mazda5 Sport starts at just $19,990 ($5k-$8k less than the base versions of big minivans), including destination, and includes alloy wheels and dual-zone automatic climate control—two features that are otherwise relegated to top trim levels for both rival minivan and compact-crossover models. Other standard features include power windows, locks, and mirrors; a one-touch-up driver's window; a tilt/telescopic steering wheel; keyless entry; cruise control; and steering-wheel-mounted cruise and audio controls.

The Touring model adds larger 17-inch wheels, sport sill extensions, a rear spoiler, fog lamps, leather steering-wheel and shift knob trim, Bluetooth hands-free, and Bluetooth streaming audio. And at the top of the line, Grand Touring models get a power moonroof, heated mirrors, rain-sensing wipers, xenon HID headlamps, heated front seats, Sirius satellite radio, and leather upholstery. There are nearly no options, and the Mazda5 Grand Touring still rings in below $25k.

More than a little tech-deficient though

The Mazda5's lack of several key connectivity features is puzzling and disappointing, and it feels a bit like Mazda is clearing out parts-bin pieces and forgetting just how connected the 30-something young affluent parents that probably buy the majority of Mazda5 models are. The Grand Touring upgrades to a 6-CD changer, but there's no Bose upgrade option and no USB plug or input available in the Mazda5 (though there is an aux-in), so if you want well-integrated iPod control, or even access to your songs on anything that's not on an aged optical disc, you're out of luck.

Oddly, the only direct media-player connectivity is through Bluetooth audio streaming—a protocol that we still typically have connectivity issues with, and a battery suck with most devices when there's no USB to keep them charged (who keeps a cigarette-lighter charger anymore?). At higher volumes, the audio system sounds only passable, with somewhat distorted bass response. And our issues with the audio system continue to the display, which we couldn't get to scroll longer entries; it simply cuts off song or artist names, leaving you to guess about 'Superchu' or 'It's The E'

Even more surprising is that there's no navigation option. Mazda is looking into offering a nav system in the 5, though if they do it wouldn't be the excellent high-in-sight system offered in the 3; rather it would be an in-dash, head-unit-type system.

The 2012 Mazda5 looks like a near-perfect choice for an active, urban-dwelling family of four—but it would of course work well for empty-nesters or younger, outdoorsy types such as cyclists, who decide that they don't really need serious off-road ability.

Overall, it's the Mazda5's refreshing directness—and the fact that it's the only choice for those who are repulsed by the sheer size and mass of current so-called minivans—that will assure it at least as much success as the current version. Although we wish Mazda would have paid a little more attention to tech and connectivity, the new 5 has a design with a lot more visual flair, and its driving enjoyment that still can't be beat, even if there's not a lot of power.

In some respects, in a market of bloated, loaded minivans, it seems that Mazda is the only one who hasn't forgotten about the basics.

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