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