Chris Walton, Chief Road Test Editor
People who drive Mazda 5s love them. They feel like they're keeping a secret nobody else knows because they've cracked the code on utility, economy and value. Whether they use a Mazda 5 as a grocery-getter, carpool tool, mountain bike hauler or all of the above, they saw through the slick marketing and eschewed the me-too CUVs that pretend to be one thing but are actually another.
They didn't need a 4,500-pound V6-powered eight-passenger maxivan that could swallow an entire pallet of Cheezy Snax from the local Bulk Buy store. No, they chose a 3,500-pound four-cylinder six-passenger Mazda 5 because it was the right vehicle for their needs — nothing more and nothing less. In this era of frugality, downsizing (or right-sizing) makes a lot of sense.
Mazda says that the quirky, hard-to-classify Mazda 5 has found a happy home in nearly 100,000 garages in the past five years. Meanwhile, Honda sold twice that number of CR-Vs in 2010 alone, but we credit the Mazda 5's measured success to its unique combination of clever packaging, competitive fuel economy, surprisingly sporty dynamics — and for being the unlikely poster child for prudence and moderation. The all-new 2012 Mazda 5 Grand Touring is still the versatile definition-resistant vehicle it always has been: only better.
What It Is
The three-row 2012 Mazda 5 is a multifaceted vehicle that actually does what it looks like it should do. It's part compact minivan (yes, it has rear sliding doors), part large wagon and part economical commuter with an unexpected penchant for taming twisting roads with the confidence and composure of a sedan. For 2012, the front-wheel-drive Mazda 5 comes in three flavors: Sport, Touring and Grand Touring. All three are powered by the same 2.5-liter 157-horsepower four-cylinder engine with variable induction and variable intake-valve timing, but only the Sport can be had with a new six-speed manual transmission. Both Touring and Grand Touring models get down the road with a well-programmed five-speed automatic with a manual shift gate — as they did before.
Our top-of-the-pyramid Grand Touring model arrived with new "Clear Water Blue" metallic paint, 17-inch aluminum wheels and just one option: a $50 rear bumper guard. Yet the as-tested price was still under $25,000. If that's still too rich for your blood, a well-equipped Sport starts at just $19,990.
What It Is Not and Has Not
The 2012 Mazda 5 is not a slab-sided marshmallow-riding minivan with 12 often-underutilized reconfigurable seating options and 150 cubic feet of total cargo capacity. The Mazda 5 is not offered with powered doors/hatch, back-up camera, all-wheel drive or even a navigation system. (A Garmin 1260T or 1490T portable navigation system and DVD player for the kids will be late-availability dealer-installed options, however.)
For 2012 (there is no 2011 model), Mazda has tossed out the previous 2.3-liter engine in favor of a 2.5-liter MZR-Series engine while improving output (+4 hp, +15 pound-feet of torque) and fuel economy (+1 mpg highway).
Electroluminescent gauges were fancy on the previous Mazda 5, but the new, simpler white-on-black gauges are actually easier to read. The LED taillamps looked cool, but we appreciate more the practicality of xenon headlamps that come standard on this one.
A glovebox lock and illumination wouldn't stop a thief anyway, so those go away. Finally, if Mazda simply included better front seats (as it certainly did), then you won't miss the lumbar seat adjusters that also disappeared. Think of these equipment deletions as you would austerity measures for balancing a budget, because there is a payoff.
The upshot is standard equipment on the Grand Touring that includes: metallic paint, four-wheel disc brakes (with ABS/EBD/brake assist), stability and traction control (both defeatable), tire-pressure monitoring, auto climate control (with second-row vents), a six-speaker audio system (with an aux jack and six months free Sirius Satellite Radio), Bluetooth phone and music streaming, trip computer, leather-wrapped tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel (with audio/cruise controls), leather shift knob, leather-trimmed seats (all six: heated up front), power moonroof, auto xenon headlamps (with manual leveling), foglamps, rain-sensing wipers, heated outside mirrors and six airbags.
Seriously, that's a boatload of standard equipment you'd have a hard time finding on many full-size minivans or compact crossovers, optional or not.
Versatility Is Standard
When we started using the 2012 Mazda 5 for shopping errands, school drop-off/pick-up duty, outings to the nearest trailhead and commuting, we grew to truly appreciate its small-on-the-outside/clever-on-the-inside qualities.
Tight parking stalls were not a problem for the rear passengers, who simply slid either side door open — no door dings or squeezing through narrow door openings. The doors glide and latch so easily that children can operate them. Also, we found the space on the floor behind the driver seat an easy and convenient place to stash a briefcase and computer bag.
Because the second row consists of two sliding and reclining captain's chairs, accessing the third row (best for kids to use) was a simple walk-between affair, or a quick pull on a single lever makes a footpath beside. Both of those chairs are equipped with LATCH anchors for child seat attachment. There are also storage bins beneath the seats, one of which stores a sturdy, second-row mini-table that flips between the seats and offers cupholders and a handy net underneath.
For our grocery runs, we could load about six paper bags side by side behind the third-row seat. Folding the 50/50-split seatbacks to expand the volume to 27.5 cubic feet was as simple as pulling seat-top levers. If we needed still more room (for a couple mountain bikes, for instance), the retained second-row headrests pivot and fold with the seatbacks for maximum cargo space with a flat floor.
The forward-folding second row seats do, however, limit aft travel of the first-row seats. It's only a problem for longer-legged drivers who require substantial seat travel.
Mazda 2 Performance in a Mazda 5 Package
OK, so it works as a cargo and family hauler, but what about performance? On the drag strip, we had to resort to a brake-torquing launch and manual-shifting the automatic to get to 60 mph in 9.5 seconds (9.2 seconds with a 1-foot rollout). The quarter-mile passed in 17.1 seconds at 81.2 mph, so the 2012 Mazda 5 is not exactly what we'd call exhilarating in a straight line. It is, however, quicker/faster than a recent 2011 Mazda 2 we tested. We found the Mazda 5's brakes "average" because they stopped the vehicle in 130 feet from 60 mph, resisted fade adequately and retained good pedal feel across five runs. Again, about the same as the Mazda 2.
When we calculated the limit-handling figures, however, we were duly impressed. Around the skid pad, the 2012 Mazda 5 posted 0.80g in lateral acceleration and its best stability-control-off 600-foot slalom pass was 63.7 mph. Those results are just 0.2 mph and 0.02g shy of matching that same Mazda 2. Pretty impressive for a six-passenger family hauler.
Stability Control Doesn't Have To Be Awful
It seems almost every new car review now includes a sentence or two about how unresponsive the automatic transmission programming is and/or how dreadful the electric-assist power steering (EPS) feels, but you'll not read that here. Mazda seems to have a handful of excellent algorithms that make the electrified steering not only precise and quick to react, but also well-weighted and natural-feeling. There's very little on-center deadness (or nervousness) and it never feels like a video game console. Most people would never suspect the steering is not assisted by hydraulics.
The five-speed automatic doesn't race to top gear by 35 mph so it's never caught on its heels when you squeeze the accelerator. It even downshifts quickly and decisively at freeway speeds with gradual throttle application. Finally, it's also clever enough to downshift a couple gears if you get hard on the brakes for an approaching corner — like a good sport sedan does.
Others should learn from Mazda — especially in these regards. Even the driver of a family hauler doesn't have to suffer with poor dynamics and lowest-common-denominator systems programming. Good for you, Mazda.
We were happily impressed with the 2012 Mazda 5's enviable roster of standard content, none of which was window dressing either — it's all useful stuff. We thought it was still a little lacking in power, but we did earn 24 mpg over a 722-mile mixed-use driving cycle. We were absolutely smitten with the Mazda 5's handling dynamics and overall driving "feel" that shames any extant minivan. Finally, the Mazda 5's clever packaging, simple and comfortable six-passenger seating, flat cargo floor and easy-slide side doors endow it with genuine practicality.
Maybe the times are now right for the overlooked Mazda 5, which is on sale now. This hard-to-define vehicle has enjoyed a loyal following from within the Mazda fold (mostly from satisfied Mazda 3 owners who are now in a "family way"), but it has yet to make a dent in the overall market with those who are considering CUVs or larger minivans.
If you can live without the enormous scale (that is usually underutilized) of a full-size minivan; if you would like the cargo-loading convenience of a wagon or hatchback but still need three rows of seating; if you just can't stomach the thought of (or justify the price of) a three-row CUV because "that's what everybody is buying these days"; then you might want to consider a 2012 Mazda 5 Grand Touring.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of this evaluation, which originally appeared on insideline.com.
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