From generation to generation, automakers tend to make their cars bigger, boasting of increased headroom and legroom in updated model years. But the Mazda5, the mini minivan, kept its dimensions unchanged for the 2012 model update. And this vehicle is still the size of a first-generation Dodge Grand Caravan, yet contains third-row seating.
Although a fairly typical cramped people carrier for the rest of the world, the Mazda5 is an odd fit in the U.S. Here, our minivans are the size of buses, with lots of room for the kids to play, camping gear, and robust rear-seat entertainment systems with wide screens and HD capability.
But the Mazda5 represents a choice not offered by other automakers, a city-sized vehicle with a small engine and room for six. And fitting its non-U.S. character, it can also be had with a manual transmission.
Tech-free people mover
In its base Sport trim, such as the one sent to CNET, the Mazda5 is mostly techless. Mazda's only bow to the 21st century with this car is satellite radio and an auxiliary input for the stereo. Bluetooth phone systems and streaming audio are only available in the higher Touring and Grand Touring trims. Navigation is not an option in any trim. In our Sport model, it almost came as a surprise that the stereo could read MP3 CDs.
Despite those limitations, Mazda fits the steering wheel with switches for stereo and cruise control. A display at the top edge of the dashboard shows audio information, with a button that lets you choose artist and channel display for satellite radio. But in line with other implementations of satellite radio we've seen in Mazda vehicles, the reception cuts out easily, probably due to an inferior antenna.
Middle-row passengers in the Mazda5 will be treated to small captain's seats, individual softly cushioned chairs with integrated armrests. The third row is a narrow bench, and more of a challenge to access. This seat is best for the narrow of hip and limited of girth, at least if you want to fit two back there.
That third row folds down easily in a 50/50 split, showing off the utility of this small minivan. With a flat rear cargo floor, the Mazda5 offers plenty of room for four people with luggage. It could be the perfect car for a golf foursome.
Manual in a minivan
Mazda bumped up the engine size for the 2012 model year, going from 2.3 liters to 2.5 liters. But this four-cylinder is no miracle of efficiency. It uses variable valve timing, but only squeaks out 157 horsepower and 163 pound-feet of torque. Throwing 1,000 pounds of human meat in the seats will likely have a performance impact. Fuel economy comes in at 21 mpg city and 28 mpg highway, under EPA testing.
We enjoyed the novel experience of using a six-speed manual transmission in a minivan. The gate has a pretty lackluster feeling, but nothing makes a drive more interesting than winding up the engine to 6,000rpm. That doesn't mean the Mazda5 would exactly rocket forward. Any inappropriate behavior with the gas pedal led to front tire slip and a leisurely crawl forward.
The engine is tuned for a low idle, which means the need to continually pop the gas to avoid stalling in slow traffic. And with no hill-hold feature, stalling on the steep inclines of San Francisco was an ever-present danger.
There is nothing particularly good about the Mazda5's handling. At a little over 5 feet high, it feels tippy in turns. Stability and traction control systems come standard, though, limiting the possibility of it actually rolling. And should that happen, passengers are protected by side curtain airbags.
The ride quality is about what you would expect from an economy car, reasonably damped but hardly insulating the cabin from the rough stuff. The spongy seats seem to serve as an essential part of Mazda's ride engineering.
The 2012 Mazda5 should be the last of the low-tech Mazdas. The model lineup is in for a sea change, using new direct-injection engines and lightweight chassis engineering, beginning with the all-new . When the Mazda5 comes due for an update in three or four years, it should benefit from substantial new technology in the drivetrain and in the cabin.
As it is, the Mazda5 mainly offers a certain usefulness, and is probably the only $20,000 car that can carry six people. Mazda actually backslid in technology between the previous and current generation of the Mazda5 by deleting the navigation option for the Grand Touring trim, and getting rid of LED taillights in both the Touring and Grand Touring trims in favor of cheaper incandescent lights.