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The Mazda 5 combines the best features of a wagon, a minivan, an SUV, and a car. It boasts six-passenger seating and generous cargo space. It's easy to park and run about and it rides and handles like a compact car, albeit a tall one.
It's inexpensive to buy and operate. Equipped with a 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine, it gets an EPA-rated 21/27 mpg City/Highway when equipped with the five-speed automatic.
The Mazda 5 gains practicality by going vertical. It's a tall car, a concept very popular in Europe, less so in America. It's built on the same mechanical platform as the Mazda 3 compact sedan. In fact, the Mazda 5 weighs less and covers a smaller patch of road than the Mazda 6 mid-size sedan.
Mazda5 was introduced as a 2006 model, then restyled and updated for 2008. Changes for 2009 are minor: There's more standard equipment than before, and there are more interior color choices.
The Mazda 5 is inexpensive, starting at $17,995. The mid-level Touring model retails for less than $21,000, while a loaded Grand Touring model with navigation and Sirius satellite radio lists for less than $27,000.
We think the Mazda5 is a good value for young families with small children.
Mazda 5 Sport ($17,995) comes with automatic climate control; cruise control; tilt/telescoping steering wheel with speed and sound controls; power windows, door locks and mirrors; remote keyless entry; six-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; a fold-out table with storage and cupholders for the second row; third-row split-folding seat; interior air filter; four passenger assist grips; 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 Popular Equipment package ($490) adds an in-dash 6CD changer, a rear liftgate spoiler, and side sill extensions. A sunroof is no longer available on Sport models.
Mazda 5 Touring ($20,920) makes the Sport's Popular Equipment package standard, and adds a power glass sunroof, leather covers for the steering wheel and shift knob, fog lamps, LED taillamps, and black headlamp and taillamp bezels.
Mazda 5 Grand Touring ($22,675) 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. An optional navigation system ($2,000) is exclusive to the Grand Touring.
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 retractable rear cargo cover ($150); remote engine starter ($350), and other minor accessories.
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.
Mazda 5 was introduced as a 2006 model, and significantly re-styled and updated for 2008, with a new grille, front fascia, headlights, and taillights.
The Mazda 5's hood is expansive and flows gracefully into the windshield and A-pillars. A single, horizontal bar divides the grille opening and supports the Mazda trademark logo, while the opening itself resembles an angular, stylized grin. The broad lower air intake and the large fog light recesses support the impression that the Mazda5 is chuckling to itself. 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, high-mounted, basically triangular taillights point upward; on Touring and Ground Touring models they have clear lenses and LED elements. 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; so you can't open the rear window to load groceries. The optional spoiler drags the roofline back and out above the rear window, adding edginess to the egg-shaped rear.
The interior of the Mazda 5 is all about packaging and space efficiency. Making room for six in a vehicle casting a smaller shadow than the five-passenger Mazda6 sedan is no small achievement. Beyond this, the Mazda 5 interior is in line with what's to be expected of a vehicle this 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 Mazda 5'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 navigation system screen, when ordered, is integrated into the spot normally reserved for the radio. Menu buttons for the navigation system and radio are placed above and below the screen, and some of the functions are controlled by touching the screen. The system takes time to learn but should become natural after a few weeks.
The climate controls are sublime, with large, round knobs and widely spaced, clearly marked buttons.
The seats are adequate, nothing more. 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 the standard moonroof in Touring and Grand Touring models shaves nearly two inches of headroom in the first row and about a quarter inch in the second. The best seats are in the front row. The back seats offer increasingly less comfort and support as you move to the second and third rows. This is no Mercedes R-Class, nor is it as comfortable as a Toyota Sienna.
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 but add nothing to a 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: 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 2.7 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 Taurus X and much less than any other minivan. With both the second and third-row seats collapsed, the Mazda5 offers 70.9 cubic feet of space, almost 15 cubic feet less than the Taurus X, and some 30 cubic feet less than the smallest minivan competitor. Also, the front-passenger seatback doesn't fold flat like the Taurus X's, so carrying an eight-foot ladder or surfboard is a bit problematic. Still, 70.9 cubic feet is plenty of room.
The Mazda5's rear liftgate has a snub point in the gas struts that stop it before it reaches its full open height. This is to keep it within reach of shorter people while ensuring it can be raised high enough so taller types needn't worry about cracking a forehead.
Visibility is good, as expected in a minivan-type transporter. However, the placement and thickness of the front pillars can block your view at stop signs. The outside mirrors could be farther forward, as the reason for those faux wind wings is so the track for the front door windows can be far enough back that they'll roll all the way down. The view forward from the second- and third-row seats is surprisingly unobstructed, thanks to each row being two inches higher than the row in front, and to the positioning of the third row closer to the centerline of the vehicle than either of the two front rows.
Climbing in and out is a breeze, even from the second row of seats, thanks to the sliding side doors. The rear side door windows roll down, an unexpected feature in a sliding door, leaving only about an inch of glass showing when fully retracted. The tradeoff for this comfort and convenience is no map pockets in those sliders. The pockets in the front doors are nicely configured, though, with a mold for water bottles along with space for maps and smallish notebooks.
The sliding rear side doors are also most welcome for loading groceries or passengers in close parking lots. Bags of yard stuff, like landscaping rock and smelly biodegradables, can be hefted into the back with little strain, thanks to the low lift-over. Waist-high potted shrubs stand upright in the second seat row, thanks to the seamless storage bins under the flip-up seats.
Both second-row seats have storage bins beneath the flip-up seat bottoms, but the right-hand seat has an extra-added attraction: a cool, foldout tray parked under the seat. Lift the seat bottom, fold the tray up and over into the space between the two seats, and voila, you've got a couple of cup holders and flat tray for sandwiches or whatever, with notches in the corners to restrain plastic shopping bags. Lift out the tray bottom, and there's a mesh net for, well, something small, and possibly damp, that'd roll around or otherwise get in the way. Only the driver's seatback gets a magazine pouch.
The bi-level storage area in the front center console is generous, with more than enough room in the top part for a cell phone and in the bottom part for a half-dozen CDs and a radar detector. Two cup holders wait for duty to call under a flip cover forward of the storage bin.
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 sign while turning a corner and in stop-and-go traffic. But for the most part, engine response is easily managed.
Speaking of engine response, while the Mazda 5 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 limits of the brakes and shifts the car's balance around, converting evasive moves into exciting moments. Quick left-right-left transitions are best taken no faster than socially responsible rates of travel, even more so when loaded with passengers.
The five-speed automatic works seamlessly through the gears, and its shift lever 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. With the automatic, the Mazda5 is EPA-rated at 21 mpg City and 27 mpg Highway. With the manual, those numbers are 22/28 mpg.
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 Mazda 5 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 Mazda5 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.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from Huntington Beach, California, with correspondent Kirk Bell reporting from Chicago.