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Mazda calls the Mazda5 a "multi-activity vehicle infused with sports car inspiration" that "efficiently transports people and equipment like a large SUV."
We'll leave alone the question of whether the words "efficiently" and "large SUV" belong in the same sentence. It is a fact, however, that buyers who are attracted to the passenger and/or cargo capacity of an SUV may be put off by SUV bulk and SUV fuel consumption. A minivan does the same job more efficiently, but seems to carry a social stigma. Station wagons used to do the job, but have now all but disappeared.
So how does the style-conscious consumer transport spouse, children, parents and pets? Urban architects have known the answer for at least a century: Go vertical.
The skyscraper principle applies equally to motor vehicles. Start with a small-sedan chassis for handling, ride comfort, and fuel efficiency. Build the body tall to pack more people and things inside the same footprint. Then give it a clunky-funky look that says "SUV," or at least "SUV crossover," more than "minivan."
Europeans, who have lived with high fuel prices for decades, have been building and buying tall people movers since the 1950s. The Japanese, also, embraced the concept long ago. The idea is still novel in America, but vehicles as good as the Mazda5 just might help it catch on.
The Mazda5 is built on the same mechanical platform as the compact Mazda3 sedan. So it weighs less, and even covers a smaller patch of road than, say, Mazda's own mid-size sedan, the Mazda6. But the tall Mazda5 seats six, where even the Mazda6 sedan seats five at best. See how the game is played? And with the back two rows of seats folded, the Mazda5 will hold far more than your average station wagon. And it drives better than either a minivan or an SUV.
Introduced as a 2006 model, the Mazda5 gets styling and equipment updates for 2008. On the outside, the grille, front fascia, headlights and taillights are new. On the inside, Mazda has added a new shift panel and center console, electroluminescent gauges, second-row cool air vents with fan-speed controls, front and second-row seat armrests, an audio auxiliary input jack, and a tire-pressure monitor. An available five-speed automatic transmission also replaces the last year's four-speed automatic, and the top-of-the-line Grand Touring model now has more standard equipment.
The base Mazda5 Sport starts at $17,995, the mid-level Touring at $20,610. A totally tricked-out Grand Touring, with DVD entertainment, navigation, and Sirius satellite radio would still list for less than $27,000. Looked at this way, there's no competition, making the Mazda5 a good starter minivan for small families with small kids.
The Mazda5 Sport ($17,995) comes with air conditioning; cruise control; tilt/telescoping steering wheel with speed and sound controls; power windows, door locks and mirrors; remote keyless entry; four-speaker AM/FM/CD stereo with auxiliary input jack; front bucket seats with fold-down inboard armrests; driver-seat height and lumbar adjustment; folding second-row bucket seats with inboard and outboard armrests; third-row split-folding seat; interior air filter; four passenger assist grips; roof rack, and carpeted floor mats, An attractive and durable-looking fabric covers the seats and door panels with seat side bolsters and insets wearing contrasting textures. The standard wheel-and-tire package consists of 205/50VR17 all-season radials on 17-inch alloy rims.
A power moonroof ($700) is optional, as is a Popular Equipment package, comprising an in-dash six-disc CD changer, a rear liftgate spoiler, and side sill extensions ($490).
The Mazda5 Touring ($20,610) makes the Sport's Popular Equipment package standard, and adds a rear spoiler, fog lamps, automatic climate control, two more speakers for the stereo, a 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 turn body-color (instead of black).
The top-line Grand Touring ($22,365) adds leather seats with matching cloth door inserts, heated front seats, automatic xenon high-intensity discharge (HID) headlamps, heated power mirrors, rain-sensing wipers, and a wireless cell phone link. Sharp-eyed observers might spot the GT's exclusive black light bezels, front and rear.
Options for all models include an auto-dimming rearview mirror with a compass and a universal garage door opener ($275); Sirius satellite radio with a six-month subscription ($430); a rear-seat DVD player ($1,200); a retractable rear cargo cover ($150); and remote engine starting ($350). Additionally, the Grand Touring model is offered with a navigation system ($2,000).
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). A tire-pressure monitor, antilock brakes (ABS) with Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD) and Brake Assist also come standard. Traction control and electronic stability control are not available, which is odd for such a family-oriented vehicle.
The Mazda5's hood is expansive and flows gracefully into the windshield and A-pillars. The entire front end is reworked for 2008. A single, horizontal bar still divides the Mazda5's grille opening and supports the Mazda trademark logo, but the opening itself is more angular and stylized. The same goes for the broad lower air intake and the large fog light recesses. Headlight housings slash into the fenders and reach around the sides to touch the front wheel well arches, which are mostly filled by the tires.
From the side, the vista is much busier, although geometrically consistent. A strong wedge influence flares character lines and surface planes from the pinched-down front end rearward to a tall, chopped off, stubby tail rendered even more awkward by a pouting, bulbous rear bumper. Matte black B-pillars and C-pillars play down the height of the glasshouse. Side mirrors attach to the lower half of small, wind-wing-shaped quarter windows. Body-color, full-round handles bridge concave circles in the doors. A gentle bulge crossing the doors' lower extremities ties together the blistered fenders. The slots for the sliding side doors scar the flanks. The optional side sill extensions create a ground-effect look that somehow works, giving the perspective a more complete, more finished touch.
At the rear, the clear-lens taillight housings maintain their basic shape, but the lights themselves are now LEDs. The liftgate extends well into the rear bumper, removing some visual mass from the back end, as well as easing loading with a low cargo floor. The rear window is fixed. We would prefer an opening rear window to ease loading of items such as groceries. The optional spoiler drags the roofline back and out above the rear window, adding a bit of edginess to the Mazda5's mostly egg-shaped rear outline.
Other than the packaging, there's nothing special, or unique, about the interior of the Mazda5. This isn't to discount the packaging. Making room for six in a vehicle casting a smaller shadow than the company's five-passenger, Mazda6 sedan is no small achievement. But beyond this, the interior is in line with what's to be expected of a vehicle in the Mazda5's price range.
The dashboard looks like something you'd see in a minivan, with broad reaches of quality plastic spreading far forward beneath the sharply raked windshield. Symmetrical right and left panels belie the Mazda5's international character, as it's easily re-cobbled for right-hand drive countries. The look is sleek and high tech, but with an odd-looking indentation splitting the upper and lower halves of the dash. Air vents shutter like window blinds if the cool or warm air gets to be too much. Metallic-look plastic trims the center stack, shift console and front door handles. The instrument cluster is pleasantly basic, with eye-catching contrasts between the speedometer and supporting gauges. Equally pleasant surprises for a car in this class are the steering wheel-mounted controls for audio and cruise settings.
The optional navigation system's screen has been moved for 2008. It used to rise out of the dash top above the center stack and had a control panel tacked onto the console on the driver's side of the shift gate. It is now integrated in the spot normally reserved for the radio. Menu buttons for the navigation system and radio are now placed above and below the screen, and some of the functions are controlled by touching the screen. The system will take some time to learn, but it should become natural after a few weeks. (The GPS was in the navigation system in our test vehicle wasn't working correctly. Though we were driving around Chicago, it thought we were in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.) The climate controls are sublime, with large, round knobs and widely spaced, clearly marked buttons.
The seats are, well, adequate: they are best in the front row, and they lose both comfort and support as you move farther back. The seat bottoms could be deeper, and the side bolsters could be more substantive. The driver's seat height adjustment is manual and pivots on the front of the seat bottom. Thus, the higher it's ratcheted, the less leg room it leaves. And be aware that opting for a moonroof shaves nearly two inches of headroom in the first row and about a quarter inch in the second.
Head restraints are adjustable in all three rows, but they, too, diminish in comfort in the second and third rows, especially the rearmost, which are functional, yes, but add nothing to an already minimally accommodating seat. On the other hand, in their lowered position in those two rows they cut so sharply into the upper back that anybody sitting there will be sure to adjust them to an effective height just to avoid the pain. And this is a good thing because headrests add a measure of safety.
Not many adults will want to park for very long in the third row. There's decent head room, measuring only 1.5 inches less than in the Ford Taurus X, another tall station wagon with three rows of seats. It's in leg room and hip room that the Mazda5 cramps third-row occupants. It gives up 2.6 inches of leg room to the Taurus X. Access to that third row is achieved one of two ways. You can climb in and snake through the open area between the second-row seats. Or you can yank on a loop located between the second-row seat bottom and back, fold the seat bottom forward, then release a lever on the side and fold the seat back forward. The second choice is also the way to fold the second-row seats down to open up maximum cargo room.
Rear cargo area is limited with the third row of seats in place. When they are folded, the rear compartment opens up to about 44 cubic feet of space, which is still about three cubic feet less than
The Mazda5 is more utilitarian than fun, but it's more fun to drive than any other minivan.
Using the Mazda5 to run errands 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. Everyday errands are run with a reasonably clear conscience, and without requiring a home equity loan, thanks to respectable fuel mileage.
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. The brakes are solid, with communicative pedal feedback.
Throttle tip-in can be a bit more abrupt than expected, especially when accelerating from a stop around a corner. So it won't win NCTD's Best Commuter Car award. 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 acceleration 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 onto a freeway or for passing on a two-lane road. All that mass also explores the brakes' limits and shifts the car's balance around, converting 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 for 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 selection. Clutch engagement is smooth, and pedal take up is neither too light nor too heavy. The five-speed automatic transmission increases fuel economy versus last year's four-speed automatic. It also works seamlessly through the gears. With the automatic, the Mazda5 is EPA-rated at 21 mpg city and 27 mpg highway. With the manual, those numbers are 22/28.
Road noise is not especially intrusive, no more so, certainly, than in the Ford Taurus X. 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 Taurus X's two tons.
The Mazda5 is an impressive package in this price range. It seats six yet takes up less space than a minivan and costs less to buy and operate. The Grand Touring version adds a touch of luxury to this otherwise utilitarian package. We'd recommend it to small families with kids under five or six years old, with the caveat that we'd like it better if traction control and electronic stability control were available.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from Huntington Beach, California, with correspondent Kirk Bell reporting from Chicago.