Thumbs Up: If you like to drive but need a minivan, here’s your ride.
Thumbs Down: Would benefit from more horsepower.
Buy This Car If: You want a sedan but need a minivan.
Life, it’s said, is what happens while we’re busy making other plans. The same philosophy would apply to the purchase of a minivan, at least if you consider yourself a driver. Coupes and roadster are fun, sedans and SUVs can be fun, but minivans and crossovers are generally purchased out of need, not desire. Mazda refuses to accept that convention, and that’s good news for anyone who likes to drive but finds themselves in need of practical transportation. The Mazda5 isn’t a sports car, but it is an entertaining-to-drive compact minivan that will accommodate four adults, two kids and the trappings of modern life. It may be a compromise, but it’s a compromise that most drivers won’t mind making.
The 2012 Mazda5 represents a redesign of Mazda’s popular people hauler, now updated to make the inside more comfortable while making the outside more stylish. It’s got more power, too, and thankfully retains the option of a shift-it-yourself gearbox, albeit on Sport models only. There’s a lot to like about the Mazda5, including the minivan’s price, which starts at under $20,000 and tops out at under $25,000. For families on a budget, that’s good news, indeed.
Inexpensive doesn’t mean cheap, and nowhere is that more evident than on the Mazda5’s exterior. Yes, it shares the same happy face worn by the Mazda3’s front fascia, but look past that and you begin to see how complex the styling on the Mazda5 is. The hood, for example, carries sculpted character lines from the grille to the A-pillars, and waves sweep from the front doors rearward to blend with the taillights. The effect is subtle, but it makes you realize how much effort Mazda put into the styling of the Mazda5. I can’t name another vehicle anywhere near this price range that has that much emphasis on design (or expensive tooling). Out back, the subtle roof spoiler and wing-shaped rear hatch carry over both Mazda’s design theme and the car’s sporting intentions. There are other subtle but noticeable touches on the Mazda5 as well, like the titanium-colored grille insert and blacked out pillars, which give the glass a “wraparound” effect. Take a serious look at the Mazda5, and it’s impossible not to be impressed with the effort their designers put into it.
Inside, Mazda’s attention to detail carries over. Grand Touring versions get leather-trimmed seats, which feature contrasting piping for an upscale feel. Front seats are wide and supportive, but lower seat cushions could be a bit longer for better leg support. Folding arm rests are a nice touch, as are front seat heaters for winter comfort.
Second row passengers get captain’s chair seats, which tumble forward for additional cargo capacity or for ease of third-row seat access. There’s plenty of second-row room for two adults, and long trips won’t cause any fist fights over who gets the front passenger seat.
As with most compact vans and crossovers, the third-row seats are best left to children. There’s plenty of head room and the seats are sufficiently wide, but their proximity to the floor makes them uncomfortable for adult-sized legs. Short trips are bearable, but you won’t get many adult volunteers to ride in the third row on cross-country trips.
One of the selling features of a minivan is cargo carrying capacity, and the Mazda5 doesn’t disappoint despite its compact size. No, you can’t haul as much as you can in a full-size minivan, but the Mazda5 compares favorably against small wagons, hatchbacks and crossovers.
The Mazda5 carries over the tiered dash design used on the Mazda3. The dash effectively blends shapes, colors and textures to create a driver-friendly environment, and storage spaces abound. Like the 3, the Mazda5 displays audio, temperature and trip data atop the dash, and the orange LCD display is clear even in direct sunlight. The steering wheel is well-shaped for driving (a Mazda hallmark), and both dash and steering wheel controls are intuitive and easy to operate.
Instruments sit in separate pods, under a shaded binnacle. You get a tachometer, a speedometer and a bar-graph fuel gauge combined with the odometer and trip odometer. There’s a gear indicator as well, handy if you want to manually shift the Mazda5’s five-speed automatic gearbox.
Under the hood, the 2012 Mazda5 gets a 2.5-liter inline four, good for 157 horsepower and 163 ft lb of torque. That’s up from last year, when the Mazda5 made 153 horsepower and 148 ft lb of torque, but it’s still not enough to make the Mazda5 accelerate with enthusiasm. Zero to sixty takes 9.5 seconds, which is an improvement over 2010, but still not quick enough to impress the enthusiast driver. Fuel economy is decent, with the EPA rating the Mazda5 at 21 mpg city and 28 mpg highway. In mostly-city driving, I was able to eke out 22.5 mpg, which confirms the EPA’s fuel economy estimate.
So how can the Mazda5 be a driver’s minivan if it isn’t particularly quick in a straight line? Like the Mazda MX-5, the Mazda5 is all about balance and preserving momentum. Steering feel is surprisingly good, and the Mazda5 exhibits a confidence in corners not often associated with minivans, thanks in part to four-wheel independent suspension. There’s decent feedback from the front tires, and a lot less body roll than you’d expect; you’re still not going to keep up with a Mazdaspeed3 (or even a well driven Mazda3) when the road gets twisty, but I can’t think of another production minivan I’d rather drive North Carolina’s “Tail of the Dragon” in. Even the brakes are surprisingly good, which is an important factor when shopping for a family vehicle.
Although the 2012 Mazda5 has not yet been safety rated by the NHTSA or IIHS, I’d expect it to fare well. The 5 comes equipped with ABS and electronic brakeforce distribution, dynamic stability control, traction control, advanced front and side-impact airbags and three-row side-impact air curtains. Mazda uses something they call “Triple-H” body construction, which adds strength to the Mazda 5’s unibody by using high-strength steel in the B-pillars and increasing the size of the side sills and B-pillars. Reinforcements are also added below the B and C pillars to strengthen the unibody; in other words, when the Mazda5 is finally rated, you can expect it to fare well against the competition.
My 2012 Mazda5 Grand Touring tester had a base price of $24,670, which includes a destination charge of $795. Grand Touring models come well equipped, so the sole option on my tester was the $50 Rear Bumper Guard, for a total sticker price of $24,720. It’s hard to compare the Mazda5 against other minivans, which have grown significantly larger and more expensive over the years. If you need their capacity, chances are that the Mazda5 won’t work for you. On the other hand, if a “conventional” minvan is more vehicle than you need or want, the Mazda 5 may be just the ride you’re looking for.