Mazda is gambling America will set aside its instinct for gluttony and embrace a more conservative approach to its favorite family vehicle, the minivan. Meet the all-new 2006 Mazda 5, a six-passenger mini minivan with a starting price of $17,435.
In Europe these little vans are as popular as the four-day work week. Although they're called space wagons over there, Mazda has labeled the 5 a multiactivity vehicle.
But there's something very familiar about the 5, which went on sale in the U.S. last month. Haven't we seen this before? Yes, 15 years ago with the Nissan Axxess, but it was a bigger flop than Cop Rock, so why does Mazda think America is now ready for such a vehicle?
"We think the time is right for the 5," said Weldon Munsey, Mazda 5 vehicle line manager for Mazda North American Operations. "With climbing gas prices, people are moving away from larger SUVs and minivans. Besides, unlike the Nissan Axxess which was basically an ugly, tall station wagon, the Mazda 5 has style on its side. It's a vehicle that people want to be seen in."
Although based on the subcompact Mazda 3, the 5 is longer, taller and wider than its platform mate. It also rides on a 5-inch-longer wheelbase. Still, the 5 is small for a minivan. At 181.5 inches long and 69.1 inches wide, it's 2 feet shorter and 8 inches narrower than a Honda Odyssey and exactly 8 inches shorter and 3 inches narrower than Mazda's already-small-for-the-class MPV.
Weighing in at 3,389 pounds with an automatic transmission, the 5 also cuts nearly 400 pounds off the MPV's curb weight and over 1,000 pounds off the brawny heft of an Odyssey.
The only engine available is the same all-aluminum 2.3-liter, double-overhead cam four-cylinder engine that powers the Mazda 3, but in the 5 it produces 3 less horsepower and 2 fewer pound-feet of torque, largely due to a different exhaust system. Its official rating is 157 hp at 6,500 rpm and 148 lb-ft of torque at 3,500 rpm.
A choice of a standard five-speed manual transmission or four-speed automatic with manual-shift mode is available, but the automatic will add $900 to the sticker price. Mazda expects the sales mix to be 75-percent automatic, and after driving both, the automatic shifts so smoothly, there's little need to work out your clutch leg.
Two trim levels are offered, Sport or Touring. Standard equipment on both includes the same 17-inch alloy wheels, AM/FM/CD stereo, power windows and locks, cruise control, side airbags, head curtain airbags that protects all three rows of seating and four-wheel antilock brakes with Electronic Brakeforce Distribution and stability control.
For an additional $1,527, the Touring model adds an automatic climate control system, front foglamps, a rear spoiler, side skirts, and an in-dash six-disc AM/FM/CD changer, plus a power moonroof. A CD changer, spoiler and side skirts can be added as a package to the Sport, as can the moonroof as a stand-alone option. A voice-activated DVD-based navigation system is the only option for the Touring. Also, a ceiling-mounted DVD entertainment system will be added as a late option this fall.
For the 5's twin sliding rear doors, Mazda developed a new door mechanism which can be operated with the force of one finger. Even better, the doors open approximately 4 inches wider than most sliders, which makes it easier to load people and cargo in tight parking spaces.
Its three rows of seating are theater-style with each seat raised 2 inches higher than the one in front of it. This allows even third-row passengers a clear view out of the windshield. Second-row passengers can get comfortable with 35.2 inches of legroom, but third-row riders will be cramped with just 30.7 inches. That's 10 inches less than you'll find in an Odyssey, and just enough room for really, really, really small children.
Second-row seats both slide and recline, and offer a double-fold mechanism to tumble the seat bottom forward and allow the seatback to fold flat. When combined with the fold-flat third-row seats, the 5 provides a load floor that measures just over 44 cubic feet, an area that can hold an item over 5 feet long.
A low-profile fuel tank made for a low cabin floor which makes loading cargo easier, and a manual rear hatch with a double detent allows it to stop at two different heights.
On the Road
Although most minivan buyers aren't concerned with performance, the Mazda 5's power-to-weight ratio is a real concern. While the 2.3-liter engine feels sprightly in the Mazda 3, even in the 2,826-pound wagon version, the 5's additional 500 pounds puts a strain on the little engine.
Around-town drivers won't have much to complain about, but snowboarders won't be making any time up mountainous roads where the 5 really slugs along.
The 5 uses the same suspension design as the Mazda 3, including MacPherson struts in the front and a multilink suspension in the rear. The result is little body roll, although the 5 did feel a bit top-heavy in tighter turns. Steering is as precise as in the sporty 3 sedan, and the 5 has a tricycle-tight turning radius, making it a snap to navigate crowded parking lots. Its brakes are also well engineered, feeling solid and linear.
Mazda claims the 5 has a sporting edge, and it does. The driving experience is more entertaining and athletic than what's offered by most six-passenger vehicles.
If the Shoe Fits
If a miniaturized minivan isn't appealing to you as a super-sizing American, chances are Mazda won't take offense. Initial sales projections are low, only 4,000-5,000 vehicles this first short year, with production climbing to 10,000-15,000 units for the first full year.
But, if you're looking for a new breed of family transportation, one that offers over 24 mpg, a solid list of fun features and is smaller than your living room, the 5 could be for you. With a price tag of just $22,410 for a fully loaded model and a sporty look that makes the Axxess sob in its grave, the 2006 Mazda 5 could be the wave of the future.