Mazda5 – excellence in a small package

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

There are many attractive transportation alternatives for a small family. And with the advent of incredibly high gas prices the most attractive family feature may be good gas mileage.

That makes the Mazda5 perhaps one of the most desirable choices when it comes time to replace Old Betsy. And we think it is one heck of good vehicle.

The Mazda5 is a European-style mini minivan that can hold up to six people in a compact fuel-efficient package. It comes with the standard minivan sliding doors making entry and exit to the second row a snap. And mom will find securing baby into the car seat a breeze.

When not in use, the seats fold flat creating a useful 71-cubic-foot cargo capacity. 
Several things make the Mazda more attractive to a small family — or perhaps empty nesters — than the standard-sized minivan, which has grown into a full-sized vehicle making the long-standing “mini” van tag a misnomer.

First, the little Mazda gets about 20 percent better fuel economy than the standard van measured at 21 mpg city and 27 mpg highway on regular gas. The purchase price is considerably cheaper with the Mazda going out the door well equipped for less than 25-grand. And the Mazda, which is about two feet shorter than a Honda Odyssey, is extremely maneuverable in parking lot situations.

The Mazda5, based on the compact Mazda3 sedan platform, started life in 2006, but never really caught on. While Europeans seem to love these little guys, Americans — at least until the last several months of four-dollar-plus gas — had not warmed up to the small van.

Sales were a smallish, but respectable, 17,000 in its first model year, but slumped to 13,278 in 2007.

Based on sales during the first six months of 2008, more than 25,000 units will reach customers in the minivan's third year, a nearly 100 percent gain over ’07. It seems the high cost of gasoline is pushing customers in a positive direction. And buyers will not be disappointed.

The Mazda5 got a slight refreshening for 2008 with some minor changes in the front and rear styling and a revised center console panel. Electroluminescent gauges are now part of the package. Rear-seat air vents are now available as well as an auxiliary audio jack.

The Mazda5 continues to be powered by a 2.3-liter 4-cylinder engine making 153 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque. The transmission has been upgraded from a four-speed to a five-speed automatic, and we think it has helped overall acceleration.

We are not talking speed we are talking getting the job done in the most efficient manner. With light loads of two or three adults, the Mazda5 moves in a competent manner whether at slow stoplight-to-stoplight crawls or in higher-speed merging and passing situations. Loaded up with more people and cargo, the little engine can feel strained at times.

For comparison purposes, the Mazda5 has been measured from 0 to 60 in 9.4 seconds, not much slower than a full-sized minivan with a big V-6. And it feels even more responsive and quicker.

And almost unheard of in the minivan segment, the Mazda5 can be purchased with a five-speed manual for those who insist on shifting for themselves. We would stick with the automatic.

Not only has the new five-speed automatic improved performance, but perhaps more importantly it has improved gas mileage. The four-speed was rated at 21 mpg city and 26 mpg highway while the five-speed has been rated at 21/27 under the new, more stringent 2008 EPA standards.

The little people hauler uses the same suspension setup as the Mazda3 including MacPherson struts in front and a multilink suspension in the rear giving the vehicle an entertaining driving experience with quick, precise handling. It’s a hoot to blast through the twists and turns as the Mazda5 hugs the road with barely a hint of body roll.

And maybe more impressive is the way the Mazda5 performs in parking lot situations with its extraordinarily diminutive turning radius of 34.8 feet. Hitting a tight parking space on the first try or accomplishing a U-turn in a tight area has never been easier in a vehicle capable of hauling six people.

The minivan is comfortable in the four outboard seating positions. The second-row seats not only recline, but slide fore and aft for excellent backseat comfort creating as much as 35 inches of legroom. The seats are also raised theater style with each row about two inches higher than the row in front of it for better forward visibility. The third row should be reserved for children. It’s a tight fit for adults.

Mazda has developed a unique sliding door that is about four inches wider than most and can be opened with the force of just one finger. It feels like it’s gliding on ice.

While we think this is a wonderful vehicle, it is not for everyone. For instance, if you haul five and six passengers on a regular basis realize that the cargo area behind the third-row seats is extremely limited.

While a full compliment of airbags and ABS are part of the package, you should consider the fact that stability control is not offered on any trim level.

The base Sport trim-level is loaded with standard features including 17-inch alloy wheels, automatic climate control, keyless entry, cruise control, rear-seat air conditioning vents and controls, tilt and telescoping steering wheel with audio controls, a six-speaker stereo with CD player and power windows, mirrors and locks for a starting price of $19,580 with automatic transmission.

Those who like a manual transmission can save a few bucks at $18,530.

The Touring trim level adds sunroof, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob and a six-CD in-dash changer for $21,395. The Grand Touring adds xenon headlights, rain-sensing windshield wipers, leather upholstery and heated front seats.

Our well-equipped Grand Touring edition came with the very useable navigation system for $2,000 and Sirius satellite radio for $430 bringing the bottom line to $25,480.

A couple of other desirable options are a DVD rear entertainment system for $1,200 and a remote engine start program for $350.

With the gas price fiasco, the Mazda5 looks very much like a winner for the small family.

The Mazda5 at the very least offers decent passenger and cargo capability in a very useable package with an affordable price tag and decent gas mileage ratings.


Base price: $18,530; as driven, $25,480
Engine: 2.3-liter 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 153 @ 6,500 rpm
Torque: 148 foot-pounds @ 4,500 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
Seating: 2/2/2
Wheelbase: 108.3 inches
Length: 181.5 inches
Curb weight: 3,475 pounds
Turning circle: 34.8 feet
Cargo capacity: 71 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 15.9 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 27 mpg highway, 21 city
0-60: 9.4 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Kia Rondo, Suzuki SX4, Dodge Journey

The Good
• Long standard features list at affordable price
• Nimble handling with extraordinarily tight turning radius
• Good gas mileage

The Bad
• No stability control available

The Ugly
• Tight third-row seat useable only by children