Take a hatchback and stretch it a bit. No, wait. Take a minivan and shrink it a little. No, wait. Take a wagon and put sliding doors on it. Hmm. Not quite. Take a small SUV and lower it? If your vehicular needs and/or desires make you wish you had car-morphing superpowers, you may just be in the market for the car Mazda calls a multi-activity vehicle and most everyone else calls a mini-minivan: the 2008 Mazda Mazda5.
When Mazda brought the Mazda5 to American shores in late 2005, there were no other compact minivan-type vehicles on the market here, though they'd long been popular in Europe and Japan, where much higher fuel costs and often narrower roads mean smaller is better. The idea behind the vehicle type (which is sometimes called a space wagon) is to offer the functionality of a minivan but without the minivan stigma, plus better fuel economy in a cooler package.
We first tested the Mazda5 back in 2005, and though we were impressed by many aspects of the vehicle, we did have some suggestions for improvements. Turns out, so did a lot of consumers, so Mazda went back to the drawing board. The result is the 2008 Mazda Mazda5. We took this vehicle refresh as an opportunity to see if the changes Mazda made to the compact minivan with the compact price were, in fact, improvements.
Our test car had the 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine (the only engine that's ever been available in a Mazda5) and the new smooth-shifting five-speed automatic transmission with manual mode (the answer to a common complaint about the previous 5's lackluster four-speed auto).
The good news is that the new tranny improves fuel economy versus that of the previous Mazda5 by 2 mpg city and 3 mpg highway, for an EPA estimate of 21 city, 27 highway and 23 combined (we averaged about 22 mpg during our test). The bad news is that the extra gear still doesn't quite make up for the fact that the four-cylinder engine doesn't have enough oomph to handle heavier loads or passing at highway speeds. At the track, we noticed slightly better acceleration using the manual mode.
When it comes to handling, the 5 is a snap to park and feels agile during low-speed driving. Brakes get the job done but won't make you say "Wow!" Unfortunately, stability control is not an option, an omission that became glaring to us during track testing, where our test driver was surprised by the 5's proclivity to get sideways in the slalom when he lifted his foot off the accelerator even a little. This could be worrisome in a non-test situation when multiple avoidance maneuvers in a row are necessary (say at highway speeds when you're trying to steer your way around a sudden obstruction in the road), unless the driver is well-trained for this type of driving.
(For 2010, traction and stability control became standard on the Mazda 5, hence negating our concerns about the car's handling during avoidance maneuvers).
Sound deadening has been improved by additional insulation in the roof, making what had already been a moderately quiet ride slightly better, though far from tomblike.
More fixes that made it into this redesign thanks to consumer feedback are inboard armrests for the front passenger and outboard armrests for the second-row seats. Though the armrests themselves aren't particularly comfy, nor very comely. Also from the consumer fix-me list: Second-row passengers benefit from two air-conditioning vents (where there used to be none), but there are still no vents for third-row seats.
Driver seat comfort and steering wheel adjustability are appreciated, but 6-plus-footers will likely feel pinched. The sliding second-row seats are also short on legroom, but they can definitely accommodate small-to-average-height teens and adults. The third row is really just the domain of children, but can work for smaller adults during short trips. The underlying theme here is "Mazda5: Not for tall folk."
Mazda bills the 2008 Mazda Mazda5 as a multi-activity vehicle that can carry six passengers and all of their active-life equipment, but the truth is that the 5 fits people pretty well or stuff pretty well, but can't really do both at the same time. Unlike with a true minivan or full-size SUV, you're not going to be taking the twins and Grandma Bess to IKEA unless it's just to window-shop. Both the second- and third-row seats easily fold flat to reveal a commodious maximum cargo area of 71 cubic feet, which is plenty of space for that IKEA run as long as you can find a sitter.
Families with a child who still requires a car seat will find it easy to install in the second-row captain's chairs, but Mazda loses points for not offering a bench seat with the center seating position for maximum safety. Kids who are tall and heavy enough to use a booster seat (and can get themselves in place on their own) but haven't had a massive growth spurt yet are the perfect passengers for this compact minivan.
Visibility is excellent, thanks to large windows and skinny roof pillars all around. New electroluminescent gauges look good and are easy enough to read. A few trick storage compartments -- like the underseat storage in the second-row seats that also hides a fold-out tray with cupholders, mesh bag and console tray cover -- go into the "ooh, neat" category, but we probably would have been just as happy without them if the door pockets, center console and the rest of the cupholders were larger and more useful. Climate control knobs and buttons are large, simple and easy to use once you're accustomed to the setup.
The new touchscreen navigation system is much more user-friendly, with its screen integrated into the center console instead of the pop-up screen/joystick-based unit of the previous 5. An auxiliary jack and 12-volt power outlet come standard and are easy to access at the base of the center console. Satellite radio is available, as is a six-CD changer hidden behind the nav's touchscreen.
Design/Fit and Finish
The 2008 Mazda Mazda5's all-new front end (including fascia, grille, headlights and foglights) gives it a more aggressive yet still pleasant anime-character grin. The noticeable green cast to our test car's Golden Sand Metallic paint job -- while surprising, given the lack of any hint of green in the paint's name -- is attractive and just different enough to make it stand out in a sea of beige and silver family cars wherever we took it. New LED taillights give the 5 a cool high-tech look, in addition to being more energy efficient and long-lasting.
Mazda's goal for the 5 Touring's design was to offer features you might not normally find in a vehicle with a $21,000 base price, both to appeal to shoppers upgrading from economy cars or those downsizing from traditional minivans or SUVs. They succeed at this by adding leather trim, an available navigation system, power sunroof and the like, but the interior is filled with too many competing materials and surfaces, which gives it a disjointed and busy feel.
Who should consider this vehicle
The 5 is for smaller-statured urban families with young children who have outgrown compact cars, that still want a bit of style and fun but aren't willing to step into more car than they need in a midsize SUV or full-size minivan. Also, sport-utility-owning empty-nesters who are ready to get realistic about their vehicle needs as gas prices continue to rise.
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