Dan Frio, Automotive Editor
You have to hand it to Mazda. The 2012 Mazda 5 extends the gamble that the automaker took more than five years ago when it introduced this model in the U.S. Back then American buyers still worshipped at the altar of the SUV and had little predisposition to something that was half van, half wagon. But Mazda has history on its side.
It turns out that the Mazda 5 shares similar measurements with the 1984 Dodge Caravan, the minivan that launched an industry. Indeed, the Mazda 5's wheelbase is less than 5 inches shorter than that of the original Caravan, and its roof is just slightly closer to the ground. By comparison, a current Toyota Sienna is nearly a foot wider, 6 inches taller and 2 feet longer.
When the Mazda 5 first came to the U.S. in 2006, the idea of a spacious wagon-style vehicle had come and gone many times, yet remained so unfashionable that Mazda was careful not to describe the Mazda 5 as a "van." But now that gasoline prices are zooming upward, the newly revised Mazda 5 seems like a more compelling proposition. In fact, the Mazda 5 shares space with the forthcoming Ford Grand C-Max, a seven-seater built on the same global platform as the Mazda 5. Toyota will also dance around the segment with the Prius V, a taller, longer version of its stalwart hybrid, although limited to two rows of seats and five passengers.
With the revised and improved 2012 Mazda 5, more engine displacement unlocks more torque from the 5's inline-4 engine, although horsepower remains unchanged. Generating 157 horsepower and 163 pound-feet of torque, the 2.5-liter four-cylinder delivers enough power to make the 5 feel alert. Still, this 3,487-pound, front-wheel-drive wagonette gets under way without much urgency. In Edmunds performance testing, a Mazda 5 Grand Touring with an automatic transmission dashes from a standstill to 60 mph in 9.5 seconds, an average result for vehicles like this.
You can't help but want more power, especially when you have a full load of passengers. Choosing your own shift points with the six-speed manual transmission available in the Sport trim level addresses the acceleration issue, but it's more likely that you'll choose the five-speed automatic. You'll rarely find power inadequate, but in moments like these the 5 reminds you that it's a true minivan — a simple hauler of people and things and not the V6-powered luxury express vehicle that passes for a minivan these days. One benefit of this difference? Impressive fuel economy for the Mazda 5, rated at 21 city/28 highway mpg whether you pick the manual or the automatic.
The new Mazda 5 also shares a change of attitude from its predecessor. Mazda engineers noted that kids and moms didn't always share dad's affinity for hot cornering speeds. While they can't stop Dad from racing around Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in his mind, they did revisit spring and damping rates, sway bar settings and other gravitational voodoo and dialed in a little more civility for the passengers. The Mazda 5 still responds quickly enough for those open-road, empty-nest moments after you've dropped off the kids at soccer practice/piano lessons. But if you like your minivan a little raw (who doesn't?), the previous Mazda 5 is a better fit.
While there's nothing amiss in the Mazda 5's braking ability on the road or in traffic, it's only an average stopper when full force is applied. In Edmunds brake testing, a Mazda 5 Grand Touring stops from 60 mph in 130 feet, a few feet longer than average.
Sitting in the driver seat, the first preconception the 2012 Mazda 5 lays to rest is that it's small. Legroom is generous, and only the tallest drivers will wish for a little more rear-seat travel. The 5 simply feels like a roomy sedan with an open floor plan.
We tested a Sport model with cloth upholstery and a Grand Touring with leather, and both offer a high standard of materials quality and craftsmanship in stitching, trim and firm bolstering. These are not your average minivan seats with wide, undefined boundaries, but rather sport seats that encourage you to saw at the small-diameter steering wheel.
For a "van" of its size, the Mazda 5's third row is, surprisingly, not for emergency use only. Kids will fit just fine, and all but the tallest adult friends can manage short trips.
What the 2012 Mazda 5 sacrifices in passenger capacity to its portlier competitors, it gains in versatility. Two captain's chairs in the second row recline for tired adults, and also slide forward for loose-limbed parents in the front seats to draw their progeny close. The lack of a second-row middle seat might bother some, but its absence creates a convenient walk-through channel to the third row. A center table and storage net also pop out from under the second-row passenger seat, the perfect thing for when your weary backseat travelers need to rest their juice boxes (or lattes).
The Mazda 5 doesn't offer power sliding doors like conventional minivans, but its lightweight panels open and track with a light-effort fluidity that even growing children will be able to manage. Once inside, the 5 offers impressive cargo space. Leaving all three rows upright creates 5.6 cubic feet of luggage space behind the rearmost row. When the second- and third-row seats are folded down (no need to remove the headrests), you'll have 55.4 cubic feet to practice your packing. For a family of four, a folded third row allows 27 cubes — room enough for pets, umbrellas and beach chairs.
Design/Fit and Finish
Even more than its predecessor, the 2012 Mazda 5 seamlessly blends function and form. All manner of waves, dips and drops in the sheet metal accent what would otherwise be a bland wagon/van profile.
Mazda designers say they drew inspiration from the movement of water, most clearly illustrated by the scalloped channels that flow from the front doors to the taillights. It's such a handsome design element that you can almost hear the Mazda 5 shout: "I am not like the others!" The smiling Nemo-style grille, however, is an acquired taste. Darkened headlamp centers creepily resemble pupils, and you'd like a little more mischief in its wide-mouth grin.
The fluid design language carries over into the interior, which but for some minor tucks remains largely unchanged. Dial-type controls handle most primary functions, and the clean center stack looks very carlike and keeps its controls within easy arm's reach.
Who should consider this vehicle
Not quite a wagon, not quite a van — and yet both of these things — the 2012 Mazda 5 really suits a small family that can be honest about its needs. For most, the Mazda 5 offers plenty: room, features, storage and comfort. About the only thing it lacks is power to close the gap between the superb handling and tepid acceleration, although fuel economy might be more important here. For families hesitant to commit to a full-size van and its equally full-size sticker price, the Mazda 5 is a great call — the right car to drop off the kids at soccer and then take a winding path to attend other matters of the day.
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