Call me a nerd. It’s November 2004, and I’m on a media tour with Mazda in Japan. I’ve already flogged the Mazdaspeed 6 sport sedan around the Okayama International Circuit, and I’ve just joined 125 other journalists for our first look at the new MX-5 Miata. There is excitement in Hiroshima. And now a small group of us are ushered into a styling studio deep within Mazda’s sprawling factory complex to hear all about . . . the Mazda 5?
I had missed the 5’s debut at the Paris show two months earlier, but now I’m instantly smitten and quickly forget about the other two Mazdas. Grabbing Mazda North America PR man Jeremy Barnes by the sleeve, I whisper, “I really think we’d like to do a Four Seasons test of one of these.”
Confusion creases his brow. “You mean the Miata, right?”
“No, this, the 5. I’m sure the new Miata will be brilliant, but this is different.”
Barnes quickly regains his composure, launches into full spin on the 5’s merits, and promises that he will see what he can do.
And that is how a cardinal red Mazda 5 landed in our Four Seasons fleet in July 2005. As soon as everyone learned that this miniature minivan was my idea, there was a stampede to my office door.
“Why do we have a pink, four-cylinder minivan for an entire year?”
“Who is going to drive this thing?”
“What were you thinking?”
What I was thinking was that the 5 represents a new class of vehicle in America: the European-style people mover. And we all agreed that it was brave of Mazda, of all automakers, to test the waters of the U.S. market with such an unlikely entry. Was the diminutive 5 a reasonable vehicle for American families, or was it a reprise of the early-1990s Mitsubishi Expo LRV, a funky Japanese miniwagon that found few friends? Over twelve months, we would seek an answer to the classic question: “Will it play in Peoria?”
Like all good people movers, the 5 relies on its packaging for its appeal. With three rows of seats; a low step-in height (lower than that of the old Mazda MPV); and lightweight, manually sliding, wide-opening rear doors, it’s more convenient to load six people into this Mazda than most of the compact and mid-size crossovers that lately have sprouted obligatory third-row seating. Yet the agile 5 is far easier to maneuver in urban traffic than a typical full-size minivan, even while, as copy editor Rusty Blackwell pointed out, “it offers a bit of that command seating position that SUV owners prefer.” The driver and front passenger also enjoy excellent outward visibility, aided by the little triangular windows at the A-pillars.
As is the case with any vehicle that has three rows of seats, the quality of accommodations diminishes as you move rearward. A week into our test, Blackwell loaded up three passengers and headed to a Chicago wedding in 98-degree July heat. His second-row occupants appreciated the easy ingress/egress of the comfortable buckets but “moaned incessantly about the lack of armrests and dedicated rear-seat ventilation,” complaints that were echoed by many others. At least they could lower the second-row windows, and their seats reclined, slid fore and aft, and folded quickly and easily for access to the elevated third row. The two rearmost seats are best for kids or wedding presents.
Most of us appreciated the clean lines of the 5’s cabin and its efficient use of space, but notations about several ergonomic miscues popped up repeatedly in the logbook. The controls for the $2000 navigation system–the only option on our Touring model and a bit of an anomaly in this thrifty ride–were located left of the gearshifter, making them difficult for the passenger to reach. The joystick controller was overly sensitive and “a fiddly pain to use,” added assistant editor Sam Smith. It required a very deliberate downward push to “OK” a command. If it was inadvertently pushed sideways, it would lead to a different submenu, requiring the driver to take his or her eyes off the road. As for the gearshifter itself, many drivers found themselves hitting the HVAC buttons when sliding it into first, third, and fifth gears.
Other annoyances? Placing heavy items on the front passenger seat caused the seatbelt warning to sound, which is common to most cars, but the tone of this particular alarm was unusually loud and obnoxious. “If this were my car,” said senior online editor Jason Cammisa, “I would find the seatbelt dinger thing and bludgeon it with a large screwdriver. Repeatedly.”
None of these foibles detracted from the 5’s two fundamental verities: it’s surprisingly good to drive, and it’s really cheap. Since it’s based on the Mazda 3, one of our favorite small cars, the 5 is more athletic than you’d expect. “It has the most interactive, communicative steering I’ve found in anything that holds this much crap,” offered Smith after a 1600-mile weekend trip to Atlanta to pick up a load of bulky parts for his BMW 2000.
“I love the fact that Mazda offers a stick shift,” added senior editor Joe Lorio. “It’s critical to maintaining one’s self-esteem while shuttling a carload of kids around town.”
And even though that shift lever “took too much effort to drop into gear,” as Smith noted, it was also critical for wringing the most out of the 157-hp, 2.3-liter four. Many drivers yearned for just “a bit more power,” or “a shade more torque.” “A nicely integrated turbo, like VW’s 2.0 FSI, would be ideal,” offered Lorio. But, really, the stock powertrain did the job just fine most of the time, and at least two drivers received speeding tickets while hustling along in the 5.
As for value, well, Lorio stated it best when he described the 5 as “a screaming deal.” Our top-of-the-line Touring model included seventeen-inch aluminum wheels, a sunroof, ABS, a six-disc CD changer, and three-row side curtain air bags, all for only $21,510. We’d happily pay extra for stability control, but it’s not offered.
Early on in our test, all Mazda 5s were recalled. It seems that the owner of an early production 5 with the optional four-speed automatic nudged the shift lever into manual mode and proceeded to drive in second gear, engine on the rev limiter, for an extended period at high speeds. This abuse overheated the catalyst and ignited some of the undercoating around the muffler. It took Mazda about a month to figure out the problem, during which time all owners were treated to free loaner cars, $500 debit cards, and warranty extensions. The fix included a heat-shield kit and a reprogrammed ECU to force a 2-3 upshift for automatic-equipped 5s and to more closely monitor exhaust temperatures.
Apart from that inconvenience, our reliability complaints centered on a recalcitrant passenger-side sliding-door latch that required two service visits and a recurring noise from the front suspension that resurfaced even after the antiroll bar bushings were replaced. A few interior trim pieces also came loose.
My regard for the Mazda 5 remains intact, two years after seeing it for the first time in Japan. And even the most speed-addled of my colleagues, people like Cammisa, have had to admit that “this Mazda is a lot of car for $21K! It’s fantastically well-equipped, fun to drive, and, when it’s fully loaded, the ride quality is still great.” This from a man who owns four German performance cars. As Smith stated, the 5 is “more fun, more attractive, and less stupid than the average minivan.” Maybe I’m not such a nerd after all.