It seemed like everyone who we spoke to about Mazda's Mazda5 said the same thing: "It's a mini-minivan." As cheesy as that sounds, there isn't really a better way to describe what Mazda has created with the Mazda5. As fuel prices soar and its full-size MPV minivan continues to grow, Mazda hopes to do for the van market what crossovers have done for the SUV market. Based on the compact, the Mazda5 inherits performance that comes very close to Mazda's promise of "zoom-zoom." The Mazda5 isn't really a vehicle that should be judged on performance, however, but rather by its unique combination of sedanlike economy and vanlike utility.
Test the tech: All roads lead to Rome
While we're not what you'd call fans of Mazda's GPS navigation system, it does offer a very interesting feature pertaining to trip routing. When a destination is chosen, rather than immediately beginning to plan the trip, the system instead offers the driver the choice of three routes: the quickest, the shortest, and an alternate route. Many times, these three routes are one and the same, but we wanted to test how much time or distance could be saved in a best case scenario in which each option is different. So, we chose a destination of Berkeley, California's, Cesar E. Chavez Park, and ran all three routes recording time and distance. To minimize variances due to heavy traffic, the tests were all conducted at night.
The first route we selected was the quickest option. The Mazda5's navigation predicted that the trip would be about 4.8 miles and last 16 minutes. Setting our stopwatch, we disembarked from the fast food establishment that served as home base for the test. The Mazda5's voice guidance doesn't support text-to-speech and had a bad habit of announcing turns at the last possible moment, but we accomplished the trip exactly as Mazda had planned it. Coming to a stop, we realized that we'd completed the trip in almost exactly 12 minutes, four whole minutes faster than the Mazda5's prediction, possibly due to a lack of heavy traffic.
Returning to our starting point, we reselected Cesar Chavez Park, chose the shortest option, and repeated the trip. The shortest option turned out to be a variation of the fastest option that saved 0.1 mile (4.7 miles total trip), but curiously still lasted an estimated 16 minutes. Resetting our stopwatch, we set off. After an incident-free trip, we arrived at the park. Stopping the clock, we noticed that despite a slightly different route, we'd still made the trip in about 12 minutes. Intrigued, we headed back to home base to repeat the trip.
Upon choosing the alternate route for the next test, we were presented with an estimated trip time of 17 minutes over 5 miles. We're not sure what criteria Mazda uses to choose the alternate route; we know only that it's notably different from the other two routes. We set out once more, and upon arriving at the park we were shocked to see that we had, in fact, again made the trip in 12 minutes.
We were ready to concede that the relatively short distance of the trip and low level of traffic meant any route we took would take the same amount of time. It then occurred to us that none of the three routes we had traversed were the route we would have normally taken to the park without the assistance of GPS. Deciding to pit our local knowledge against the Mazda5's computer, we took one last trip. Our way was almost as long as the Mazda's alternate route--taking us about 4.9 miles from start to finish--but upon arrival, we stopped the clock at an impressive 8 minutes. For those of you who are counting, that's four minutes shorter than the Mazda's actual time and 8 minutes shorter than the estimated 16 minutes.
Perhaps, over a longer course and in unfamiliar territory, there may be a more discernable difference between the three routes we had to choose from, but for now, we'll just call this a win for local knowledge.
In the cabin
Our Mazda5 Grand Touring represented the top of the line for the tiny van. Heated leather seats and a good-looking two-tone dash mimic the dark-over-light color scheme that we've seen in many luxury sedans. The similarity is one of appearance only, though, as the dash is made mostly of hard, cheap-feeling plastic panels that sound hollow when tapped.