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Minivans are passe. Station wagons are so outdated. But families still exist, and couples young and old still enjoy getting out and about. And, of course, gas prices continue to climb, or show little or no sign of returning to levels U.S. drivers consider normal.
What to do? Why, buy a crossover, or what some used to call a hybrid: a car that's more than a car, but isn't really a minivan or a station wagon, either. Whatever they're called, they fit somewhere in between those two, socially dated vehicles, trying to blend the best of both without mixing in any of the downsides of either.
The newest iterations are about the size of a car, but slightly taller, and often share underpinnings with cars. They use the same powertrains, albeit tuned to motivate generally slightly heavier and bulkier packages. But they find room inside for a minimum of six people, sometimes seven. There's generally not much cargo space. But hey, something has to give.
Into this ballooning fray enters the 2006 Mazda5, a six-passenger vehicle built, believe it or not, on the foundation underlying the company's smaller sedan, the Mazda3. Granted, it has been stretched this way and that, and beefed up here and there, but the lion's share of the mechanicals source directly from that car. Equally telling, the Mazda5 weighs about the same as the Mazda6, but it's more compact than the largest of Mazda's five-passenger sedans. See how the game's played?
The result is one of those esoteric truisms, where the total is better than the sum of its parts. Not great, mind you, but better. Just like a minivan, the Mazda5 really will accommodate six adults, although a couple might have to make some less-than-comfortable adaptations, again, not unlike with some minivans. With the back two rows of seats folded, it'll hold as much or more than a station wagon. And it drives better than either a wagon or a minivan.
The base Mazda5 Sport starts at $17,435, the Touring at $18,350. Tricked out with every available factory option, the Touring lists at less than $22,500. Looked at this way, there's no competition.
The Mazda5 Sport ($17,435) comes with numerous creature comforts provided at no extra cost. Among them: air conditioning; power windows and central locking; four-speaker, multi-source stereo; steering wheel-mounted speed and sound controls; inboard armrests on the middle-row seats; four passenger assist grips; and carpeted floor mats. Cruise control, a tilt-and-telescope steering wheel, power outside mirrors and a six-way adjustable driver's seat with inboard armrest facilitate driver-to-car interfacing. An attractive and durable-looking fabric covers seats and door panels with seat side bolsters and insets wearing contrasting textures. Options include a power moonroof ($700), a moonroof wind deflector ($50), an MP3 player/CD changer ($500), and fog lamps ($250). One option package is offered, comprising an in-dash, six-disc CD changer, rear liftgate spoiler, and side sill extensions ($490).
Mazda5 Touring ($18,950) upgrades include automatic air conditioning; two more speakers and an in-dash, six-disc CD changer; power sliding moonroof; leather cover for the steering wheel; and a combination fold-out table and cargo net bin for the center row of seats. Externally, the mirrors get body-color paint, and the side sill extensions, liftgate spoiler and fog lamps are added. The moonroof wind deflector is still an option ($50). Exclusive to the Touring is an optional DVD-based navigation system ($2,000).
Options across the two-model line include a pearl paint finish ($200), cargo net ($40), heavy duty all-weather floor mats ($60), retractable cargo cover ($40) and wheel locks ($40).
Safety features that come standard on all models include the required dual-action frontal airbags, plus front seat-mounted side-impact airbags for torso protection, and head-protecting side air curtains for all three rows of seats. Also, every seating position gets a three-point seatbelt and an adjustable head restraint. Be sure your passengers use those seatbelts as they're your first line of defense in a crash. The middle and rear seats have child safety seat anchors (LATCH). Antilock brakes (ABS) with electronic brake-force distribution (EBD) come standard.
The 2006 Mazda5 is more utilitarian than fun. That said, it's a pleasant car that in some ways delivers more than expected, although coming up a bit short in a few.
Just using the Mazda5 is the best part. It tucks into tight parking spaces, thanks in no small part to a turning circle that bests all the competition by several feet, including the five-passenger Mazda6. Everyday errands are run with a reasonably clear conscience, and without requiring a home equity loan, thanks to miles-per-gallon ratings ranging from the low to mid-20s.
From behind the wheel, the Mazda5 is an OK driver. Steering isn't especially precise, but it has good on-center feel and directional stability. For such a relatively tall car, there's little buffeting from crosswinds or passing trucks. Brakes are solid, with communicative pedal feedback. Throttle tip in can be a bit quicker than expected, especially when accelerating from a stop around a corner. But for the most part, engine response is easily managed.
Speaking of engine response, while the Mazda5 is reasonably peppy with a couple people belted in, load it up with a weekend's worth of yard stuff or with another couple for a night on the town, and movement gets a little sluggish. There's still enough torque to get everything underway with relative ease, but beyond that, evidence of strain emerges. Planning ahead is required for merging on to a freeway or for passing on a two-lane road. All that mass not only explores the brakes' limits, but also shifts the car's balance around, too, converting abrupt evasive moves into exciting moments. Even unloaded, quick left-right-left transitions are best taken no faster than socially responsible rates of travel.
The shift lever on the automatic transmission glides confidently through its gate. The automatic's manual shift mode is faithful to the concept, holding the selected gear regardless of engine speed. Push up to shift down, push down to shift up. The five-speed manual is definitely not a sporty gearbox, requiring careful aiming for gear selections. Clutch engagement is smooth, and pedal take up is neither too light nor too heavy.
Road noise is not especially intrusive, no more so, certainly, than in the Ford Freestyle. Suspension activity is more noticeable, with sharp pavement breaks resonating directly into the cabin, in part due to weight savings that bring the Mazda5 in well under the Freestyle's two tons.
One major complaint must be noted. Failing to fasten the seat belt around grocery bags, or anything of similar mass, placed in the front passenger seat activates the most irritating sequence of reminder beeps that repeat for several minutes before shutting up.
The 2006 Mazda5 is an impressive package for this price point. It seats six yet takes up less space than a minivan and costs less to buy and operate.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from Huntington Beach, California.