Thumbs Up: Cavernous and comfortable interior is great for carting kids and their gear. Responsive handling and breaking make it more fun that other minivans. Many standard features.
Thumbs Down: Could use more power.
By This Car If: You have a small family to haul and want a lot of bang for your buck.
At first, the Mazda 5 filled me with dread. I had plunged into the world of numb people movers, of screaming children and weekly trips to big-box retailers. But the dread quickly receded. I realized the 5 is an anomaly, a vehicle of supreme utility that doesn’t deaden the soul. In fact, it can be fun. And, in the right light, even sexy. If you’re going to settle down, the 5 is one of your best options. Hit the jump to find out why.
Mazda bills the 5 as a “six-passenger vehicle,” but it’s a minivan. A small minivan by today’s standards, but a minivan. And if you’ve ever spent time with a minivan, you know they’re the penultimate in practicality. I had the 5 for two weeks and drove it more than 1,500 miles, shuttling my family between California and Oregon. We crammed the van with luggage, duffels, toys, snacks, boxes, a stroller. To illustrate:
The 5 has two captain’s chairs in the middle and a bench for three over the rear wheels. With the seats up, there’s only room for four bags of groceries behind the bench. But the bench folds down to create a gear-swallowing cargo hold. And the captain’s chairs fold flat, too, giving you enough room for everything from a half-sheet of plywood to a motorcycle. The arrangement’s extremely flexible.
Loading and unloading is easy, thanks to two big sliding doors and a rear hatch that lifts high enough for a six-foot-one-inch guy or gal to stand under.
The ‘5 is one of the best road trip vehicles I’ve ever driven. It’s build on the Mazda 3’s solid chassis, so there’s no flexing or rattles over bumps. It also shares the 3’s fully independent suspension, but on a five-inch-longer wheelbase. That gives the 5 a smooth, controlled ride. It slurps up the miles, giving just enough road feel and feedback to keep you engaged without pummeling you dizzy. We’ve made the 10-hour SF Bay Area to Bend, OR trip in our ’03 Protege 5 and it’s exhausting. In the 5, it’s relaxing.
There are also tons of cup holders, cubby holes and arm rests to make extended trips comfortable. A stereo with a six-disk CD changer and auxiliary audi in jack is standard. So are automatic climate controls, rear air vents and cruise control. Available options include leather seats, moonroof, and a navigation system.
A Dash of Zoom Zoom
The typical minivan drives like a tortoise. The ‘5 has some of Mazda’s “zoom zoom.” Its steering is responsive, its brakes strong and progressive. The standard five-speed automatic is snappy and smooth, quick to drop a gear when you put your foot in it. It exhibits little body roll and can dart over twisty mountain roads like a champ.
The 153-horsepower 2.3-liter inline four, however, is wheezy and anemic. Don’t get me wrong, the 5 isn’t slow. It’s just not fast. Capable is a better way to describe it. You have to rev the engine into the stratosphere to keep up with traffic around town and pass slow-moving trucks on the highway.
But the 5 has a trick up its sleeve that no other minivan has. The Sport model comes standard with a slick-shifting five-speed manual transmission. I tracked one down at a local dealership and took it for a spin. The manual transforms the 5. It’s more responsive and somehow less like a minivan. It’s fun. Still, the four-cylinder lacks grunt and sounds like a Dyson vacuum. A little exhaust growl would energize the 5.
I wish Mazda had a tad of the insanity it possessed in the late ’80s, when it produced the all-wheel-drive, turbocharged 323 GTX and the all-wheel-steering turbo 626. The 5 would be a real screamer with the 263-horsepower turbo Mazdaspeed engine and all wheel drive. Oh well, maybe next time.
The well-equipped 5 Sport lists for $19,260. It comes standard with ABS, snazzy alloy wheels, power windows and locks, cruise control, automatic climate controls, six-disk CD changer, auxiliary audio in, and rear seat vents. The Grand Touring model retails for $23,990 and adds leather, heated front seats, a moon roof, heated side mirrors, xenon headlights, and a GPS navigation system. Either way, the 5 is a bargain, especially considering dealer incentives.
And the 5 isn’t just cheap to buy, it’s cheap to own. We averaged 29 miles per gallon on our trip. Not bad, considering we were carrying 400 pounds of junk.
If you’re starting a family, the 5 is a great way to go. It has a ton of room, is flexible, relatively fun to drive, and it’s cheap. And really, what more could you ask for in an entry-level people mover?