Stranger in a Strange Land
FADE IN: A Beverly Hills shopping center. Our heroine is driving a 2006 Mazda 5. She easily maneuvers into a parking spot, enters the mall and shops till she drops. Upbeat music plays in the background.
CUT TO: A Beverly Hills shopping mall parking lot. Our protagonist exits the mall carrying multitudes of purchases but finds her minivan to be the meat in an SUV sandwich. The giant rectangle on the left is parked so close she can't believe she still has a side mirror. The big box on the right is practically in her passenger seat.
DISSOLVE TO: Our protagonist opens the convenient sliding side door of her sensibly sized Mazda 5, enters the second row and climbs into the front seat without scratching her rude neighbors' paint. A triumphant arrangement plays in the background.
Did we mention she was in the section labeled "compact?"
Small van, small price
Mazda calls the little Mazda 5 a sport hatch, but it's really a compact minivan with sliding doors and seating for six. Beloved in Europe, where these little vans are called "space wagons," the concept is new to the U.S. market, and creates a new class of vehicle — one that's comparable in size and price to the Chrysler PT Cruiser and Honda Element but similar in features to minivans like the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna.
At just 181.5 inches in length the Mazda is only half an inch longer than a Honda CR-V. The 5 is also less than half an inch broader than VW's Jetta wagon and barely a half inch taller than Scion's xB.
Two trim levels are available, Sport and Touring, both are front-wheel drive and well equipped. Standard stuff includes 17-inch alloy wheels, power windows and locks, cruise control, steering-wheel-mounted audio controls, front door storage pockets with bottle holders, four-wheel disc brakes with ABS and Electronic Brakeforce Distribution, and airbags galore.
Our test vehicle was a top-of-the-line Touring version, which carries a base price of just under $19K and adds a fully automated climate control system, front foglights, a rear spoiler, side sill extensions, an in-dash six-disc CD changer, and a power moonroof. As on our test car the price jumps past $22,000 if you add the four-speed Sport AT automatic transmission and navigation system.
But does it go zoom-zoom?
Although it's based on the Mazda 3 platform, the 5 is much larger and heavier than that vehicle with 4.4 inches more wheelbase and 570 more pounds. And that extra girth taxes the van's little 2.3-liter engine. It's the same smooth, quick-revving all-aluminum dual-overhead-cam 16-valve inline four-cylinder we've praised over and over again in our Mazda 3 road tests, but it's just not powerful enough to yank around this 3,900-pound van. Maximum output is just 157 horsepower at 6,500 rpm and 148 lb ft of torque at 4,500 rpm.
Our test car was equipped with the optional four-speed automatic transmission with manual mode. A five-speed manual transmission is standard if you want to save $900, but the automatic works well enough to justify the investment.
Easy to drive and perfectly adequate scooting around town, the 5 loses some of its flair on the highway, however. When traveling the speed limit, it has nothing left for passing. It offers a quiet, comfortable ride but is at a slight disadvantage in the raging L.A. freeway culture.
During acceleration tests, our best 0-60-mph time was 10.1 seconds and that's without a full load of passengers. We managed our fastest times in "D" rather than manually shifting. Compared to the much larger, much heavier 240-hp V6-powered Honda Odyssey, which managed 0-60 mph in 8.1 seconds during our 2004 Minivan Comparison Test, the Mazda 5 is underpowered in the minivan market.
Sports car of minivans
Power-assisted ventilated front and solid rear disc brakes bring the Mazda 5 from 60 mph-0 in a respectable 125 feet. When braking around town and during sudden stops on the freeway, we found the brakes to be more than adequate with a good steady feel to the pedal. The last Odyssey we tested needed 136.6 feet to stop from 60 mph.
We were also impressed by the Mazda 5's handling. For a tallish vehicle, it maintains its composure well during our slalom testing, maneuvering through the cones at 63.4 mph, which is more than 3 mph faster than the Odyssey. Our test car was equipped with sticky 17-inch Toyo Proxes A18 tires, which certainly helped performance.
Rack and pinion steering is enhanced by Mazda's Electro-Hydraulic Power Assist Steering (EHPAS) system. Steering was easy and made the ton-and-a-half vehicle feel light and sprightly, not like you're driving the Partridge Family bus. All in all, the Mazda 5 handles well but needs more power to live up to Mazda's sporty reputation.
Inside the box
For a compact vehicle, the Mazda 5 makes the most of its cabin space by adding clever storage units under the second-row seat cushions. The right passenger second-row seat cushion lifts up to reveal a fold-out center console with cupholders. When not needed, it tucks neatly away under your passenger's bum.
Brushed metal adds an upscale feel to the center console. However, the rest of the bus is a box of seats upholstered with durable fabric that collects dirt quickly but is easily brushed away.
First- and second-row passengers enjoy reclining bucket seats while the third row has a 50/50-split fold down. All six seats have height-adjustable head restraints. A stadium-style layout helps the back rows with visibility but rear legroom is cramped at 35.2 inches. In minivan segment-leader Honda Odyssey, rear passengers enjoy 40 inches of legroom.
Front headroom is a full 2 inches less than in an Odyssey and more than 3 inches less than a Toyota Sienna. The Mazda 5's compact size is more suited to compact-sized drivers. Although its front seats are fairly comfortable, they don't adjust back far enough for long-legged drivers. In order to cram six seats into this buggy, people room is somewhat compromised.
When you are not carrying a full passenger load, you can fold flat all four backseats and get 5 feet of cargo space, 44 cubic feet in volume. Although with all three rows upright, a rear cargo area is almost nonexistent. Compare that to the Odyssey which offers 147.4 cubic feet of maximum cargo capacity and 38.4 cubic feet with seats in place. Don't go grocery shopping in the Mazda when you have five passengers unless you want them to hold your bags on their laps.
Loading and unloading are made easy by a low floor and the van's twin sliding doors. Although they're not power-operated, the doors open with the touch of a finger and stay tight to the body as they slide back, which is great for tight parking spaces. Just ask our leading lady.
Safety is always paramount when hauling around the family. Driver and passenger front side-impact airbags are standard as are side curtains that span all three rows. Other safety features include collapsible brake and accelerator pedals, child safety rear door locks and LATCH system lower anchors and upper tethers.
Nice and slow
There are many practical reasons for wanting to drive a vehicle such as the petite 2006 Mazda 5. It has all the amenities of a minivan without the bulk. It fits neatly into compact parking spots without coveting thy neighbor's space. Over the past few years, the U.S. market has been glutted with oversized vehicles that drink gas, eat ozone, and generally take up too much breathing room.
Mazda thinks it is time for more practicality. And it may be onto something. It just needs to add a little more power to the package.
FADE TO BLACK. Roll credits.
Road Test Editor Brian Moody says:
While visiting Paris, I marveled at how efficiently European cars managed their interior space while, many times, using a compact-car platform. Most European families do just fine with vehicles like the Fiat Multipla and Renault Espace and now Mazda thinks some Americans might be willing to adopt a "less is more" attitude when shopping for a family car. Although the Espace is bigger than the 5, it's still less gargantuan than a Honda Odyssey or Toyota Sienna.
Mazda may be on to something. The Mazda 5 is very likable, the interior is exceptional given its price point and it's actually fun to drive. I'd much prefer this Mazda to the Suzuki Aerio or Kia Spectra5. Although it's smaller, the Mazda 5 feels more modern and better built than the MPV.
The sliding doors are easy to manage, so much so that I was rethinking the need for complicated and potentially dangerous power doors. But the really great part is the price — $22,000 for a small van with a six-disc CD changer, automatic transmission and a navigation system? Wow, that is a bargain.
While the interior is noticeably small compared to something like the Honda Odyssey, there's still plenty of headroom and second-row passengers have adequate space. However, I wanted the driver seat to slide back more. Because of the seat travel, I had to drive with the lower part of my leg at a much sharper than 90-degree angle. The result was that my foot had to point up when holding the gas down thereby making my ankle uncomfortable. There's a lot to like about this little van but tall people will probably be happier with a bigger minivan.
Senior Features Editor Joanne Helperin says:
The Mazda 5 fills an important product vacuum: the urban minivan. A good balance of wagon/van and soccer mom/sporty, the 5 can hold six yet squeeze into tight spaces and around sharp corners.
Mazda thought hard about its second-row design: the under-seat storage keeps clutter under control, the fold-away drink console allows for pass-through, the windows lower, and the foldable sliding seats make entry and exit pretty simple.
Don't let the great price fool you: The 5 has most of the important attributes of regular-sized vans — plus better handling. High-end features include the shiftable automatic (with gear display), pop-up key fob, tilt/telescoping steering wheel, and third-row head restraints that lower out of the rear sightline. Finally, the 48-month/50K-mile warranty will seal the deal for buyers who were considering much pricier minivans.
The 5's two biggest strikes are its somewhat underpowered engine and its lack of cargo space behind the third row. While it has enough zoom-zoom to make it entertaining for typical minivan driving, you miss those horses when passing or climbing. And a week's worth of groceries will only fit if you lower the third row. That's the price of having a microvan.
Still, a Japanese minivan that's easy to park, fun to drive, good-looking, and has high-end amenities at a reasonable price is worth a good look. Don't be surprised if the Mazda 5 lures some buyers away from SUVs and wagons as well as larger vans.
"This is an amazing vehicle that hopefully represents the future of car design! Fuel-efficiency, sportiness, family-friendliness, wise use of space all converge in the Mazda 5. As a small family with one child that loves to take road trips, this is our dream car. If you're committed to being a responsible driver (using less gas), but want comfort, performance, and room; rush to your Mazda dealer now!" — Louisville family, November 26, 2005
"We have 2,000 miles on our Mazda 5 and have carefully monitored the gas mileage. We consistently get over 30 mpg on the highway, and that's cruising at 75. City is about 26. These numbers are about 4 mpg better than the government rating. And despite being slightly underpowered we love our 5. Interior configuration is brilliant with no wasted space. Our only complaint is that Mazda decided not to offer Stability Control that is available in the Japanese & European version. We would have gladly paid extra for that important safety feature." — Ben, November 19, 2005
"If you have a young family, you're hip, you want economy, reliability, something with soul, and don't want to look 'tied down' then this is the car for you. My wife drives this thing, and I can't wait to drive around the corners on the weekend. Although this car has a ton of utility, I drive for sport, which speaks tons if you want to avoid the mediocrity out there. With respect to the recall, don't let that scare you. Everything is being recalled nowadays. I have a current-generation Honda CR-V that was also recalled with a similar fire hazard. It was recalled and fixed. No big deal. In fact Mazda's service topped Honda, because, not only did the give us a rental, but $500 on top! WOW!" — klepto, November 15, 2005
"I went and test-drove it, loved it and bought it the same evening. Because of Edmunds I was aware of the recall and played hardball
got an all-option Touring with Nav/5M/Red for $20,450. I overall love it." — Dan, November 7, 2005
System Score: 8.0
Components: The standard stereo is a six-disc CD changer with six speakers. Two tweeters are mounted on the front pillar one in each front door and two in the rear doors. A DVD entertainment system is available as an option as is Sirius Satellite Radio. Steering-wheel-mounted audio controls are part of the standard features list.
Performance: For no other reason than odd scheduling, we've been listening to the best audio systems from BMW, Bentley and Lexus for the past week. We fully expected to be disappointed by the modest stereo in the budget Mazda 5. We were wrong. The stereo is not only attractive and easy to use but the sound quality is very good.
Two of the main problems with low-end stereos are that they often have flat or muddy bass response and typically offer very little in the way of separation. The Mazda 5's stereo does both well and that's why we like it. The bass is precise enough and offers a little kick depending on what type of music you listen to. Highs are sharp and clear without being shrill or hissy and turning the treble up actually brings out nice details on pop, rock and country tracks. On the downside, the sound does begin to distort at higher volumes.
We like the attractive and clean display screen. The Mazda 5 loses the red-and-black display screen in favor of a green background with black text and symbols. The contrast gives the display a fresh and easy-to-read look. In a perfect world the audio controls could be accessed via the navigation system (when ordered). Also, the metallic trim on and around the head unit gives the feeling of a more expensive car.
Given our test car's $22,000 price, we were very pleased to find a six-disc CD changer and steering-wheel-mounted audio controls. The steering wheel controls work well and the buttons themselves impart a sense of quality.
Best Feature: Surprisingly good sound quality for the money.
Worst Feature: Optional nav system doesn't include audio functions on its screen.
Conclusion: With a six-disc changer, available satellite radio and surprisingly good sound, this stereo leaves little room for complaint. — Brian Moody