2012 Mazda5 Sport

Matt Tierney

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

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