With the recent rollout of new and improved minivans for 2011 there’s a common theme. Automakers are keenly aware of the stigma associated with driving a minivan and as a result are trying to take the people haulers into different segments, adding luxury for some, more sporty driving dynamics for others.
1. The second-generation 2012 Mazda5 is powered by a 2.5L 4-cylinder with a slight increase in power to 157-hp.
2. Fuel economy essentially unchanged at 21/28-mpg.
3. Brake override standard on all trim levels.
4. The Mazda5 Sport starts from $19,195; the Touring from $21,195 and the Grand Touring from $23,875.
If you absolutely need a minivan, then nothing else will do. Big crossovers and SUVs may seat as many, but they don’t often have the same cargo room or versatility, they don’t have the all-important sliding side doors, plus they almost always cost more and get worse fuel economy.
If you don’t need a minivan, then the obvious choice is the crossover segment. But there is another option: the Mazda5.
IMPRESSIVE CARGO ROOM AND SEATING FOR FOUR
Based on the Mazda3 platform it has three rows of seats with room for two in each, although the 3rd row is cramped and not meant for regular use by adults. Ideal for a family of four, with just 5.6 cubic feet of cargo room behind the third row squeezing in a week’s worth of groceries is a challenge. Drop that third row, however, and you’ve expanded the space to 27.5 cu-ft, enough for those groceries and a stroller for two.
That’s how the 5 is best utilized, as a four-seater with a really big trunk. Most compact crossovers can boast 40 cu-ft but that’s only with the second row down. The same can be said for mid-size crossovers, offering more than 70 cubic feet. But with either of these you’re still just left with two seats when you need all that room. And let’s not forget that if you have child seats, that means taking them out and putting them back in when you need to transport larger things. Even if that only happens occasionally, anyone who’s installed a child seat will tell you that even once is enough.
Add to all this cargo room and passenger space two power-assisted sliding second-row doors, and it’s easy to see why the 5 is such a likable option.
2012 MAZDA5, ALL NEW?
‘All-new’ might be a bit of an overstatement, but the 2012 Mazda5 is categorized as a second generation of the compact people hauler. Sure there’s a new exterior design, a revamped interior and a new engine, but some mid-cycle refreshes boast as much new content. Then again, due to its uniqueness in the market, the Mazda hasn’t exactly been pressured to push ahead – although that may change soon enough.
From a distance there’s little to distinguish the ‘new’ Mazda5, apart from some different wheel designs – if you’re really paying close attention. The car does feature Mazda’s now scrapped Nagare design language (the first and only car to get the new style before Mazda moved on to something more attractive). The flowing lines add a bit more character to the van up close, but it’s really a mild change, especially considering how progressive a look this sporty little van has always had. When fitted with the larger 17s, side skits and a rear spoiler that come standard on the mid-level Touring and top-level Grand Touring model, it has a Japanese tuner car feel to it that only now some full-sized competitors (the Toyota Sienna) are starting to copy.
Inside, there’s a new and improved dash layout, which is impressive considering the 5 already had an interior beyond what you’d expect for a starting price under $20,000. There are new seats, a new design and new materials; otherwise no big changes in equipment have been made.
There is, however, one important safety upgrade for 2012 - brake override. An increasingly popular industry trend since Toyota’s ‘unintended acceleration’ fiasco, now, if the brake pedal is fully pressed, the ECU automatically cuts power to the engine. Other standard safety features include six airbags, including side curtain airbags that cover all three rows, plus government mandated safety features like a tire pressure monitor and stability control.
In terms of equipment, the 5 is available in three trim levels: Sport, Touring and Grand Touring. Sport ($19,195) models get the usual power options, remote keyless entry, an auxiliary jack, tilt and telescopic steering, a one-touch up/down driver’s window as well as steering wheel mounted audio and cruise controls. Then add on an extra $1,000 for the automatic transmission.
Upgrade to the Touring ($21,195) and add 17-inch wheels, side skirts and a rear spoiler, Bluetooth and a leather wrapped steering wheel and shift knob. That price also includes the standard auto-box. Grand Touring models ($23,875) then add a moonroof, HID lights, auto on-off headlights, driver’s lumbar support, heated front seats, a full leather interior and satellite radio.
Regardless of trim, the cabin of the 5 is improved. And spending time there is more enjoyable with a more robust feeling on the road.
Powering the 5 for 2012 is the same 2.5-liter 4-cylinder (upgraded from a 2.3L) shared with the Mazda3 and CX-7. Output increases only slightly with 4-hp and 15 lb-ft for a total of 157-hp and 163 lb-ft. It’s a solid-enough amount for a vehicle like this and as a smaller van, even if you toss in two kids, the 4-cylinder doesn’t feel too taxed.
The only van on the market available with a six-speed manual transmission, ours came so equipped. While a stick shift is a great way to please any auto journalist (smart one Mazda), it’s unlikely anyone will buy the car this way and we’d caution against doing so. Sure the stick shift is great, but you’ll absolutely kill any possible resale value.
An automatic is optional on the base Sport trim and standard on the rest. It is, however, just a 5-speed unit. With either gear-swapper the 5 gets the same 21/28-mpg rating with is slightly worse in the city than the stripped-down Sport model of old, and slightly better on the highway than the rest of the lineup.
Toyota’s Sienna 4-cylinder gets 19/24-mpg, while the big V6 is almost identical at 18/24. Honda’s Odyssey does, however, deliver an impressive 18/27-mpg rating or 19/28-mpg with the 6-speed auto. With that van being significantly larger and making over 250-hp, the Mazda’s numbers seem lacking and a 6-speed automatic really should have been used for 2012.
A grocery list of small upgrades for 2012 do make for an improved Mazda5. Refreshed styling, an interior that continues to be better than you’d expect, a little extra power and a slight bump in fuel economy add up to make the 5 the best vehicle in its segment, an irrelevant statement, as it’s also the only mini-minivan you can buy… right now.
Ford will soon begin selling the C-Max in America, a similar concept with seating for seven and far superior fuel economy. Then, Chrysler is expected to bring to market something similar. For now, the Mazda5 is your only option and thankfully it’s a solid one, handily delivering more practicality than a long, long list of crossovers and SUVs.
If you truly need a minivan, the Mazda5 will not do. If you’re looking for most of what a minivan offers, including those sliding side doors, but don’t need the extensive seating, cargo room, not to mention the increasingly high price, then the 5 is an impressive package.
Based on a compact car platform it’s far more enjoyable to drive than any van or most crossovers and with some actual style you won’t be ashamed to say as much.