2012 Mazda5

SAN DIEGO — Arguably the first sport utility vehicles were actually minivans, a new segment ushered in by Chrysler in 1984. These vehicles were versatile and family-oriented and somewhat diminished the onus that began to surround the description “station wagon.”

However, as their popularity and numbers grew, they far-exceeded what the usual description of “mini” was and evolved into midsize and full-size dimensions. Mazda, however, has put the “mini” back in minivan with the release of the 2012 Mazda5. It’s only 5” longer than the originals.

As the 5 shares many of its parts with Mazda’s sporty Mazda3 you should find it fun to drive. The Mazda5 is solid as a rock going around corners, even at higher-than-normal speeds. It is also deceptively quiet and if not careful you lose the sense of speed and you’ll find yourself cruising at a higher rate than expected before you glance at the speedo

Mazda5 comes in three trim levels (Sport, Touring and Grand Touring, but only offers one engine – a 2.5L DOHC 16-valve I-4 that replaces the 2.3L engine in the previous 2010 model. (There wasn’t a 2011 model.)  It produces 157 horsepower and 163 pound-feet of torque. It’s mated to either a six-speed manual transmission (only available on the Sport trim level) or a five-speed automatic available or standard throughout the line. Mazda officials estimate that 95% of the sales will be equipped with an automatic.

The 5 is spacious and easy to access. Second and third row passengers have the benefit of sliding doors. The second row has reclining Captain’s chairs and the third row has a 50/50 split seat.

About the only things that will fit in the third row – as easy as Mazda made it to access – are kids or packages. When lowered the cargo area is flat. There are also unique storage areas under the second row seats. The Grand Touring interior includes leather-trimmed seat upholstery, heated front seats and driver’s seat lumbar support adjustments.

The all-new instrument panel with white illumination has the familial CX-7/CX-9 appearance. HVAC is well-laid out and intuitive. There is no navigation system available but there are enough aftermarket types if one has a need for them.

Thus far the Mazda5 is the only vehicle in this segment. However, Ford will soon enter it with its C-Max and if it becomes as successful as the Mazda5 has been, look for others to develop their own vehicles of this class. Pricing is certainly right. MSRP for the entry level Mazda5 Sport is $19,990 and a maxed-out Grand Touring only costs $23,875 (Destination of $875 is extra).

— Al Vinikour