"It looks like a spaceship."
Not my words, but those of a friend when he first got an eyeful of the repetitively named Mazda Mazda5.
He wasn't making a derogatory Soyuz capsule reference either, he actually thought it looked cool, and he rides a motorcycle.
If you ask Mazda, they probably wouldn't be surprised. The Mazda5 literally has the company's "zoom zoom" ethos written all over it -- well, at least it is spelled out on the license plate surround -- and they claim it combines the functionality of a sport utility vehicle with the plain old fun of a sports car.
Rather than just leave it at that and let the car speak for itself, Mazda's wordsmiths had to go and proclaim the Mazda5 a "Multi-Activity Sports Vehicle." Since they made up that moniker, you really can't argue with it. But, try as they might, there's no hiding the fact that the Mazda5 has sliding doors, a telltale sign that a vehicle fits in another more clearly defined category: van.
In this case: minivan.
Now, I'm an admitted fan of minivans, probably because I'm the only person who grew up in the 1980s whose parents didn't have one, sparing me that bit of teen trauma (mine came in the form of an orange 1976 Plymouth Volare station wagon with fake wood on the sides. Oh, how I wish that I had been subjected to a nice square Plymouth Voyager instead.)
Where Mazda gets a little wiggle room in the description department is in the small size of the Mazda5. If it were just a car it would be a compact. In fact, it would be the similarly repetitive Mazda Mazda3, with which it shares many of its parts.
So, what my friend thinks looks space age is actually a mini-minivan, and the only one you can buy. You've been able to for a couple of years now, but not too many people have taken the plunge. So Mazda freshened it up inside and out this year, just in time for the great gas crisis of 2008 and sales were up 44 percent in the month of June.
Whether Mazda likes it or not, the EPA categorizes the $18,000 Mazda5 as the most fuel efficient minivan on the market, giving it a rating of 22 mpg city/28 highway with the standard 5-speed manual transmission, 21 city/27 highway with the automatic that I tested. For comparison, the Honda Odyssey that is ranked No. 2 in fuel economy at 17/25 costs $33,055, so it's easy to see the value the Mazda represents.
Obviously it can't compete with the Odyssey, or any other minivan on size, but the Mazda5 does a lot of what they do, just at 6/7ths of the scale. Where the big guys have seven passenger seating, the Mazda5 has room for six. Its 153 horsepower 4-cylinder engine comes up about 100 horsepower short on its strongest competitors, but the vehicle also weighs about half a ton less.
Where it can’t hide its disadvantages is in the storage department. With all seats occupied, the space left behind the third row is maybe big enough for a couple of daypacks and handbags, so while cross-country road trips for six aren’t in the cards, it's not bad for couples night. Legroom is a little short all around, but the second row slides fore and aft, so if everyone is cooperative, no one really gets the short stick.
Where the Mazda5 really excels is when you fold down the third row and open up the kind of huge cargo area that compact sedans and hatchbacks can only dream about. Lay the second row flat as well and you're in good shape to help your daughter move into the dorm, then pick up all the stuff from Home Depot you'll need to turn her room into your midlife-crisis poker room.
What would really be useful is if Mazda offered a second row bench instead of just the two buckets, then you could fit five with their luggage, albeit a little snugly. I'm sure this has to do with access to the third row or something like that, but SUVs come like this, so there's no reason that the Mazda5 can't too.
Ride quality is pretty good, though a bit on the firm side and let down by relatively tiny tires that don't contribute much in the area of shock absorption. It's far from a sports car, but with quick moves and not a lot of bounce and roll, it doesn't drive much like a truck either. That's not to say it's fast, but it has some spirit.
Step on the gas and here's what happens: First, the wheel tugs to the right as if Mazda's engineers studied every technique developed to eliminate front-drive torque steer over the past two decades and decided against using any of them.
Then, if the ground is wet, the wheels spin like there's no traction control, because there isn't. Once they stop, the engine thinks it's in a Mazda Miata and accelerates the car pretty well until around 30 mph when it remembers that it isn't, and takes a few moments to reflect upon its existence. At 60 mph, it decides it doesn't care and the car feels downright sprightly up to 80 mph when it starts looking for someplace to sit down and take a breather.
The only real letdown in the dynamic area is the brakes, which have a very on/off feel in the way they operate, failing my "bob test" miserably. That's when my 18-month-old son is snoozing in his car seat and I try to slow down without making his head roll forward, waking him up early with miles to go and no Elmo videos in sight.
Of course with a full load of passengers things are a bit more sedate. I was able to count to 13 before the car reached the old double nickel with five passengers on board complaining about how there is no DVD player.
There is a navigation system option, and available satellite radio, all nicely integrated into the simple but useable control panel, but no bells and whistles like live traffic or gasoline prices.
The six-speaker audio system is fine too, particularly in light of the noise it has to contend with, and I'm not talking about the whiners in the cheap seats. Despite its rakish exterior, the Mazda5 generates the kind of wind roar that reminds you that air is a fluid. I have been in speedboats that left less of an audible wake. Hectacres of windows surely don't help the situation, but they do give everyone a great view out for a rousing game of I Spy.
For a family of three or four, the Mazda5 makes a lot of sense, and offers much value if you're looking to downsize from a traditional minivan or move up from a compact car. The only thing on the road that is even close to it is the three-row Kia Rondo, but that doesn't have sliding doors so it just qualifies as a run of the mill station wagon, and what's so special about that?
Dressed up like the Grand Touring edition I spent a week with, the Mazda5 checks out at just over $25,000, which is a little on the high side and puts you into big minivan territory, but if you really wanted one of those, you'd already have one.
If you did, you'd just be the shepherd of another pack of Poindexters who don't engage in any multi-activity sports, and who can put a price on that?
Base Price: $18,665
As Tested: $25,480
Type: Front-engine, Front-wheel drive minivan
Engine: 2.3-liter 4-cylinder
Power: 153 horsepower, 148 pound-foot torque
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
MPG: 21 city/27 highway
What do you think of the Mazda5?
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