ANN ARBOR - Here in XXL America, bigger might not always be better, but it's certainly more popular. Whether you're talking garish new houses, containers of french fries, plasma-screen TVs, or CEO compensation, the notion of "enough" is largely alien. So Mazda is surely facing into a headwind by bringing to our vast land a minivan that is truly mini.
The Mazda 5 is significantly smaller than standard minivans, smaller even than Mazda's already smallish MPV, a vehicle that hasn't exactly set the category on fire. The 5 seats six where others seat seven, though that difference is largely academic if you've ever really tried to fit three people in a minivan's third-row seat. Mazda uses a 2-2-2 seating configuration, and all rear seats fold, if not into the floor, at least pretty flat, leaving enough space to stuff an adult's bike inside without removing a wheel. But with all seats in place, there's little more than a Miata's worth of cargo room. The third-row seat is very tight, although the second-row seats slide forward and back and also recline.
This diminutive people hauler grew out of the Mazda 3 platform and shares that car's 2.3-liter four as its only engine. While that engine's 157 horses are plenty for the Mazda 3, they've got their hooves full with the larger, heavier 5. Fortunately, Mazda offers a five-speed manual transmission to make the most of the engine's power. With it, acceleration is adequate but little more. A four-speed automatic is the other choice.
In the past, minivans were often nodding prairie schooners, but the wee Mazda 5 is much more tied down and tossable, though perhaps not as much so as its small size would suggest. The power steering is electrically assisted-not our favorite setup, but it works well here, without the "Is it live, or is it Nintendo?" disconnection that sometimes plagues these systems. And, of course, the smaller dimensions make the Mazda 5 very easy to park, with no need for beeping aids.
But Americans have shown a Teflon resistance to virtues such as nimbleness, ease of parking, and fuel economy (the stick-shift Mazda 5 gets an EPA-rated 22 mpg city and 27 highway). The biggest argument in favor of the 5 is its low price. There are only two trim levels, and even the base car (Sport) comes with everything you need: three rows of seats, six air bags, a CD player, antilock brakes, remote entry, and seventeen-inch alloys. The fancy version (Touring) adds sporty-look body trim, a six-disc CD changer, and a sunroof. Navigation is optional for either. Both models are less than $20,000. Sure, the interior decor is econocar, but so is that price, which is not much more than a decent small sedan's. If you're peddling a shrunken van in the land of the large, you'd better at least be offering a big bargain. That's something we Americans can appreciate.