Mazda5 revives the mini-minivan

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

The original Honda Odyssey was one of our favorites as far as minivans of the era. It was small and agile, a compact minivan. It could be parked just about anywhere there was a sliver of a space. The third-row seat folded into the floor, an innovation at the time. It could haul six passengers in relative comfort — seven in a pinch — when the back seat was resurrected out of the floor.

In case you’ve forgotten, the original Odyssey was not the big minivan of today, but a mini-minivan, built from 1995 through 1998. It was also sold as the Isuzu Oasis.

Neither vehicle sold particularly well against the big boys such as the Dodge Caravan, Ford Windstar and Chevrolet Venture. So the little Odyssey — and the Oasis — went the way of the dinosaur and the Honda was replaced in 1999 by a full-sized minivan of the same name based on the Accord platform and with a V-6 engine. The bigger Odyssey has become the gold standard of minivans.

The minimal success of the original Odyssey has not deterred Mazda from introducing a small minivan to the U.S. market.

Its similarity to the small Odyssey is uncanny: both with 4-cylinder engines; weighing about the same; and both have about the same wheelbase. The biggest difference — and it’s a big one in our book — is that the Mazda5 has dual sliding doors, a minivan staple. The Honda had traditional swing-open doors. We like the sliding doors because they allow for easier entry and exit and easy loading, particularly in tight parking-lot situations. The regular doors made the old Odyssey more of a tall station wagon and not as user-friendly as the 2006 Mazda.

Realizing that gas mileage is more of a concern now than at any time in the 21st Century, we still wish Mazda had used a bigger engine. We wished for the same thing with the original Odyssey.

Honda raised the horsepower of its 2.3-liter engine in that old Odyssey to 150 in the last year of production. The Mazda5 makes do with a 2.3-liter 157-horsepower 4-cylinder. It’s adequate, but just barely.

Both vehicles weigh in at about 3,400 pounds and both use a 4-speed automatic transmission. (The Mazda can be purchased with a 5-speed manual). And both are rated at 21-miles per gallon city, 26-highway with the automatic.

It occurred to us after a few days behind the wheel that the new Mazda is simply the resurrection of the old, small Odyssey, which, remember, ceased production eight years ago.

Is this how the Odyssey would have evolved had it continued production as a downsized minivan? We don’t think so. For one thing, the Honda certainly would have gained horsepower over the years. And even eight years later, the Mazda does not have the tremendously convenient fold-in-the-floor rear seat that has become standard equipment on nearly all minivans in 2006.

The point here is that with the discontinuation of the Odyssey in 1998 and the Oasis a year later, the compact minivan was gone from America.

The smaller people haulers are good sellers in Europe, and Mazda says it’s time to bring it back to North America. And we think it’s a good idea, even if there are some shortcomings with the Mazda5.

Not everyone who needs room for six passengers — and who likes the sliding door feature — wants a big minivan with its less-than-stellar gas mileage. Some may like the smaller vehicle not only for the extra four or five miles to the gallon — a big deal, perhaps, with gas once again nearing $3 per — but also for its affordable purchase price, its ease of use and its agility in maneuvering mall parking lots.

To gain perspective on size, the Mazda5 is a whopping two feet shorter and eight inches narrower than the full-sized Odyssey. But the Mazda still has 44 cubic feet of storage space with the second and third rows folded. And unlike station wagons its size it can accommodate six people.

We found the little van fairly zippy with just the driver onboard, but even then it had to be pushed hard to quickly gain access to an opening while merging onto the freeway. With more than two adults inside, the Mazda5 can quickly run out of steam.

If most of your driving is done with just two adults, and you are not in the habit of carrying a full load except on special occasions, this mini-minivan will probably have sufficient grunt for most people. If you don’t mind shifting for yourself, the 5-speed manual will aid performance.

The Mazda5 uses the same suspension setup as the Mazda3 including MacPherson struts in front and a multilink suspension in the rear giving the vehicle a solid feel on the road. Unlike the larger minivans, the Mazda5 stays well planted in hard cornering.

The minivan is nicely set up for four passengers. The second-row seats not only recline, but slide fore and aft for excellent backseat comfort including 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.

To give everyone a sense of security, the Mazda5 comes with standard side curtain airbags protecting all three rows.

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.

The new minivan is available in two trim levels, Sport and Touring, starting at $17,995 and $19,570 respectively. The Sport is loaded with standard features including air conditioning, keyless entry, cruise control, ABS, stereo with CD player and power windows, mirrors and locks. Move up to the Touring edition and a sunroof, fog lights and automatic climate control are added.

Although leather seats are not on the options list, a DVD navigation system is available. And a rear DVD entertainment system will be available soon.

Our Touring test vehicle included an automatic transmission for $900 and the navigation system for $2,000 bringing the bottom line to $22,410.

For those who seek the benefits of a minivan, but want to save some cash and gain some gas mileage, the smaller Mazda5 may be the ticket.