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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 Mazda3, 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.
Mazda's navigation system offers three routes to the chosen destination: the fastest, the shortest, and an alternate route.
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.
The next three upcoming turns, and the distances to them, are displayed on the right-hand side of the interface.
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.
The area around the shifter fares worst in the cheap-plastic thump test, feeling hollow and brittle to the touch.
In the center of this sea of hard-matte plastic is the touch-screen navigation system, which features a hard, glossy, plastic bezel and couldn't look more out of place. This is the same system that Mazda uses on all of its Grand Touring models; the same familiar problems persist in this incarnation, such as a limited points-of-interest database and a cryptic menu system for selecting destinations. The most annoying offense is the lack of integration with the voice-activated, Bluetooth, hands-free system, which makes for a steep learning curve and forces drivers to learn two separate systems in order to use all available cabin tech.
The GPS navigation dictates driving directions through Mazda's standard six-disc, six-speaker AM/FM/CD stereo system, which also handles MP3-encoded discs. There is no MP3 integration option, save a lone aux-in at the bottom of the center stack. Satellite radio is available through Sirius, although our model wasn't thusly equipped. The audio system sounds like it could use a few more speakers scattered around its huge interior space. Audio quality at moderate levels is very good, with crisply defined highs and tight lows. You'll only be able to enjoy those moderate volumes when the Mazda5 is stopped because at highway speeds there's quite a bit of road noise. At slightly louder volume levels, the balance shifts to midrange, slightly clipping detail from the high end; and near max volume, the bass distorts unpleasantly.
Way in the back, the third row of seating offers a decent amount of head and leg room for our 5-foot, 9-inch frame. Though we wouldn't dare call it spacious, we were fairly comfortable. Entrance and egress is easy, thanks to a sliding second row captain's chairs and wide dual-sliding doors. Rear storage is minimal, thanks to the third-row seating and the Mazda5's short length, but third- and second-row seats fold flat in less than a minute, opening up 44 and 97 cubic feet respectively. There are also neat storage bins beneath the bottom cushion of the second row seats.
Under the hood
The Mazda5's 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine is the same mill that powers the Mazda3. Though the engine feels zippy in the sporty little hatchback, underneath the hood of the 570-pound heavier Mazda5, it can best be described as merely adequate. There's enough power to make the van feel sporty, but not enough for it to actually be quick. Stomping on the accelerator causes the engine to downshift aggressively, the revs to jump, and the engine note to change to a high-pitched mechanical wail. There's a lot of drama, but then you realize that nothing is happening. There is no tire squeal, no push of acceleration. The little minivan that could just continues to shuffle forward at a moderate pace.
Mazda's suspension gurus made sure that most of the direct steering and nippy handling of the Mazda3 didn't get lost in the transformation into van. Around corners, the Mazda5 stays relatively flat, with body roll only becoming evident near the minivan's performance limits. Those limits are pretty high for a van, thanks to the Mazda5's very sedanlike wheelbase and lower center of gravity. Of course, with a full load of six passengers, the performance envelope shrinks quite a bit; but we don't think too many prospective owners plan on autocrossing their way to soccer practice. At moderate speeds, the vehicle is very easy to steer and, with well-defined corners, and is very easy to park.
The Mazda5 is shaped like a bullet train, with a wedge shape and a low ride height.
The Mazda5's much-defined wedge shape--combined with a thrifty engine--gets you an EPA-estimated miles-per-gallon rating of 21 city and 27 highway. Over the course of our testing, we estimate that we averaged around 25 mpg, thanks to a heavy skew toward highway driving.
We really like the Mazda5's tiny-van form factor. On the performance side, what the Mazda5 loses for its sluggish powertrain configuration, it gains back with brilliant suspension-tuning that makes the vehicle feel more like a tall wagon than an itsy-bitsy van.
As the top dog of the range, the Grand Touring model offers a few features above and beyond lesser trim levels, such as height adjustable Xenon HID headlamps, the aforementioned leather-trimmed heated seats, Bluetooth hands-free, and the option to add a DVD navigation system. Interestingly enough, in a vehicle that's aimed squarely at new families, there is no rear-seat entertainment option. The Mazda5 loses points for this glaring omission.
Finding a similar model to compare with the Mazda5 is a bit of a challenge. This is a vehicle that's about the size of a Honda CR-V or a Toyota RAV4, but its ease of entry and people-hauling ability approaches that of the Honda Odyssey or the Toyota Sienna, both much larger vehicles. Priced at $23,345, as tested with the DVD navigation option, the Mazda5 Grand Touring is less expensive than all four of these vehicles. The problem is that the Mazda5's cheap plastic interior makes it feel cheaper, too.
So, has Mazda been successful in replicating the crossover phenomenon with its itty-bitty van? We think so, but before Mazda engineers can pop the celebratory bottle of champagne, they should look into improving the cabin-tech interface and the quality of interior materials.