We often speak of the ability of an exotic car to transport your imagination somewhere equally special — a Ferrari 458 Italia to Monza or a Rolls-Royce Phantom to Downing Street, for instance. For me, however, few vehicles do this better than small vans. Climbing behind the wheel of the tidy Mazda 5, I instantly picture myself flying along the autobahn, sitting in traffic outside Tokyo, or careening down an ancient back alley in Jerusalem – probably because I’ve ridden in small vans in all those places, usually on my way to or from the airport.
This time, however, I was driving around southeast Michigan, but the 5 hardly felt out of place. By folding down the back row, I was easily able to slide in my bicycle without removing its front wheel. And unlike most of the utilitarian and downright ratty vans I’ve ridden in abroad, the 5 is well equipped and attractive. Mazda 3 owners will instantly feel at home behind the sporty, tastefully grained dash, although they might notice that it’s constructed of harder, cheaper materials.
Those who drive these vans in other countries always seem to dodge through traffic with recklessness bordering on suicidal abandon, and although I didn’t cut anyone off while shouting foreign curse words, I did indeed find myself driving aggressively. There’s something about tidy dimensions, unassuming looks, a small engine, and a clutch pedal that injects a sense of urgency into normal errands. “Outta my way, I’ve got five passengers flying out of Berlin-Tegel/Narita/Ben Gurion in an hour!” As we’ve come to expect from Mazdas, the steering is quick and well weighted, and the suspension is game if you want to blitz an off-ramp. The gearbox is likewise quite precise, if understandably not in the same league as that in a Mazda 3 or a Miata. I remember a van driver in Germany who rev-matched his downshifts (in a diesel!), so of course I had to do that as well. Doing so keeps the 2.5-liter four-cylinder on a boil, which would probably be necessary if you were loaded with passengers and/or lots of gear. Ferrying only myself, however, the 5’s 157 hp never feels insufficient, even when I merge with 75-mph traffic on M-14.
Small vans would probably seem less novel and foreign if Americans actually started buying them. I think young families who try out a Mazda5 will soon realize — especially after a few weekly fuel fill-ups and monthly loan payments — why these vehicles are so popular “Over There.”
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor
I’ve been considering buying a Mazda5 for quite some time — not because I feel the need to add a minivan in my life, or because my wife and I are expecting offspring in the months to come. No, I’ve wanted a Mazda5 because it’s actually one of the cheapest ways to get a Mazda C-segment hatchback.
Want a five-door, manual-transmission Mazda3? You’ll have to pony up $20,840 for a Mazda3S Sport. A base 5, in comparison, can be purchased for about $19,990, including destination.
Granted, that isn’t exactly an apples-to-apples comparison. The 3 has a little more power under the hood (167 hp versus 157), a little less weight, and in 3S form, a bit more content, including Bluetooth, fog lamps, 17-inch wheels, and a nicer audio system. The 5 is missing those items (though it does include dual-zone automatic climate control), which forces you to shell out for stand-alone options or move into higher trim levels.
Still, the 5 offers the ability to seat six and has considerably more flexibility than the 3. Best of all, it also doesn’t force you to forgo the dynamic pleasure long associated with the 3 nameplate.
Beauty is always in the eye of the beholder, but I prefer the original 5’s exterior to the 2012 model’s swoopy character lines and grinning front fascia. There’s no denying, however, that the interior fabrics and plastics are far better here than in the previous version. Much as I’m tempted to shop for a used model, that last factor alone is enough to steer me towards a new 5.
Evan McCausland, Associate Web Editor
The Mazda 5 has no direct competitor here in the States, not since the bland and slow-selling Kia Rondo departed at the end of the 2010 model year. Americans have never taken to these small mono-volumes (as they’re called in Europe), but instead flocked toward maxi-size minivans. The 5 splits the difference between compact not-quite crossover and the two-dozen-cupholder mommy-van. Because it’s based on of the Mazda 3, the 5 has plenty of flexibility and interior space without ungainly dimensions. Best of all, the 5 also inherits the 3’s spunky and fun driving dynamics. The 5 almost never feels underpowered and is surprisingly nimble given its high seating position and high center of gravity. Being behind the wheel of this mini-minivan will make you smile just as much as the car’s front fascia (and that’s a lot). The 5 should be on every young family’s shopping list, especially if they are looking at hatchbacks and wagons.
Donny Nordlicht, Associate Web Editor
What a delightfully perplexing car. Having a lot of similarities to its sibling, the Mazda 3, means that this “multi-activity vehicle” has a lot to offer. Immediately you notice that you have an abundance of power. The 2.5-liter engine that’s used in the Mazda 3, Mazda 6, and CX-7 appears in the 5 as well, and it has enough grunt to make the front tires squeal during heavy-throttle starts. But then, when you go to shift into second, you notice the silly gearbox. The shift action is fine, but the quality of the hardware is appalling. The knob twists and turns when you grab it and you can’t tighten it down because it’s fused to the boot. And when you try to use a little muscle to keep it from dancing around, the shifter jumps down a level and is ready to go into reverse.
There are other contradictions as well. The 5 has plenty of seating, unless you need some cargo space. The handling is phenomenal, until you have to brake hard for a corner. And the van looks good, provided you’re into big, happy faces. Don’t think about any of it too much, though, and you’ll have a great time. The Mazda 5 is quite a fun, little/big multi-activity vehicle.
Chris Nelson, Road Test Editor
If I were buying a minivan tomorrow, I would probably pick the Mazda 5. While other vans have become enormous vehicles loaded with unnecessary features, the Mazda 5 recognizes that the only requisites for a minivan are six seats and sliding doors. The 5 provides enough seating, space, and comfort to satisfy any minivan buyer. The only slight concern is that there isn’t much cargo space behind the third row of seats. Like most Mazda products, direct steering and well-damped suspension mean the 5 actually feels somewhat fun on winding back roads. Just remember not to drive too aggressively after a shopping trip lest your groceries end up scattered around the cargo area.
The big news with this Mazda 5 is that it’s the only minivan on sale in American with a manual gearbox. I love that this six-speed is available in a van, and I hope Mazda never loses the chutzpah and Zoom-Zoom spirit to offer such a transmission choice. However, I would probably buy my 5 with an automatic transmission for one simple reason: minivans are generally used in busy stop-and-go traffic, and often with screaming kids in the back, making the ease of an automatic very appealing. That said, it’s undeniably awesome to heel-and-toe downshift in a minivan.
Jake Holmes, Associate Web Editor
The Mazda 5 is an incredibly nice package. Our test example was a completely basic model with only $50 in options, but it would still make a fantastic family car. My wife and I are looking to replace her old Cadillac Deville, and the Mazda 5 is high on our list. We like that you can buy one for barely $20,000, it’s available with a stick shift, and it has plenty of cargo and kid space. We’re still leaning toward a Hyundai Elantra Touring, however, because Mazda 5, in manual transmission form, isn’t available with niceties such as heated leather seats and a sunroof.
The Mazda’s gearbox feels very slick and nice, but the gear lever likes to twist in place, as Chris mentioned, and the clutch engages higher than I prefer (the clutch isn’t as finicky as that of our departed Four Seasons Mazda 3 hatchback, but it’s close). The 5 is surprisingly quick for a little box and handles quite well, too, especially when you consider how tall it is. The 5 has been revised for 2012, but I actually prefer its predecessor’s styling, particularly in the taillights, which used to be vertical and distinctive and are now lower, horizontal, and make the car look wider. Automobile Magazine conducted a Four Seasons test of one of the first 5s to reach the States and for the most part we loved the offbeat family hauler. It’s too bad — for my family at least — that the stick shift isn’t available on higher trim levels of the 2012 Mazda 5.
Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor
In this era of extra-large, entertainment-packed minivans, the comparatively tiny, bare-bones Mazda 5 is a breath of fresh air. It’s simple to operate and unlike its larger competitors, a hoot to drive. The suspension and communicative steering took lessons at the Mazda 3 school — unfortunately so did the clutch pedal, as Rusty mentioned. The fact that this car is fitted with a manual transmission adds a lot to the fun factor, as does the surprising peppiness of the 4-cylinder engine. It’s far more eager than its humble specs suggest, with only 157 hp and 163 lb-ft of torque.
My colleagues with kids may disagree, but I was happy to see that the 5’s sliding side doors are manually operated. I tend to think that the powered doors on minivans move too slowly. And if you choose not to use the buttons on the key fob or dash to activate them, the “pull-the-door-handle-to-start-them-moving” method is really awkward. The 5 doesn’t really call for them anyway, as the side doors are fairly light; plus, by forcing you to use your muscle instead of motors, Mazda was probably able to save some weight, too.
Jennifer Misaros, Managing Editor, Digital Platforms
It’s nice to see the Mazda 5 back on the market after it skipped the 2010 model year getting rejuventated with changes that include new styling both inside and out and a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that replaces the old 2.3-liter unit. The new engine is up only incrementally in power (from 153 to 157 hp) and torque (from 148 to 163 lb-ft), but in truth, that’s plenty for a small people-mover, and the six-speed manual with which it’s paired is easy to use, with decent throws and a nicely weighted clutch. I am impressed with the quality of the interior materials, and the instrument panel and other controls are nicely arranged and easy to decipher.
There a lot of vehicles on the market these days with three rows of seats, but none package them nearly as efficiently as this Mazda 5. If I were in the market for a car with 3 rows, I’d immediately discount most of today’s SUV/crossovers, which require rear passengers to be gymnasts so that they can vault themselves into the third row. Like larger minivans, the Mazda 5 makes access to the third row easy both because it has sliding rear doors and because it has an aisle down the middle between the second-row captain’s chairs.
Amy Skogstrom, Managing Editor
I’ve owned a minivan for the entire time I’ve had children, and there is simply no substitute for the utility, flexibility, and ease of use offered by a box with big doors that slide out of the way. Loading cargo, or babies in carriers, even buckling in older kids in — all of it is immeasurably easier when you don’t have to cram yourself into a narrow opening and contend with a hinged door.
We’ve had a whole host of minivans come through the office in the last few months, and all of them meet these basic needs. They are offered in a variety of different styles, features and price ranges, but none of them are nearly as fun to drive as this Mazda5 — and it should be noted the other vans cost 70 to 220 percent more than this Mazda!
Yeah, the Mazda’s fun factor is due mostly the novelty of its six-speed stick, but the quick, lively steering, the sporty suspension and even the low-slung seating position all add up to a more sporty driving experience than a minivan has any business providing. While the competitors all feature an extra 100 or so horsepower from two more cylinders, the little Mazda’s 2.5-liter four is more than capable of launching the van and chirping the tires as you shift into second gear.
I wish Mazda allowed buyers to choose this powertrain in something beyond the base model, as it means doing without many minivan niceties, but the fact that it’s offered at all is a good thing.
True, you won’t confuse the dashboard or seats here with those in a Honda Odyssey or Chrysler Town & Country, and the Mazda’s interior volume is more like that of big hatchback than a van, but for $20K this is a fantastic little starter van for young families on a budget. The fact that it puts a smile on your face almost as big as the one adorning the Mazda5 itself is an even bigger bonus.
Matt Tierney, Art Director
2012 Mazda5 Sport
Base price (with destination): $ 19,990
Price as tested: $ 20,040
2.5-liter four-cylinder engine
16-inch alloy wheels
6-passenger seating capacity
2nd row captain chairs
2nd row underseat storage
2nd row foldout table w/storage
50/50 fold-down rear bench
Front and rear 12V outlets
Front and rear disc brakes
Independent front and rear suspension
Tilt & telescopic steering column
ABS w/brake assist
Dynamic stability control
Traction control system
Tire pressure monitoring system
Options on this vehicle:
Rear bumper guard – $50
Key options not on vehicle:
In-dash 6-disc CD changer – $525
Fog lights – $300
Auto-dim mirror w/compass & Homelink – $295
Interior cargo cover – $185
All-weather floor mats – $80
Wheel locks – $50
Cargo net – $40
Horsepower: 157 hp @ 6000 rpm
Torque: 163 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm
Curb weight: 3417 lb
Wheels/tires: 16-inch alloy wheels