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Mazda's mini minivan is just the right size

Overall Rating
8
Overall
This is the minivan for minivan owners who don't need a monster van. The Mazda5 is affordable, economical, practical and fun to drive. You'll like this vehicle if: you are a Mazda3 compact car owner who has kids and needs more space.
Looks Rating
7.5
Looks
Bold and swoopy, the Mazda5 is the first and last of Mazda vehicles based on the Nagare design language. For a van, this looks pretty slick.
Interior Rating
7
Interior
The cheap plastic is a downer. On the other hand, the simplicity of the controls is a gift. Mazda has included a decent array of storage spaces. The third row is hardly roomy, but at least the second-row bucket seats slide forward to create more leg room.
Ride Rating
8.5
Ride
Aside from being a bit noisy, the Mazda5 is great on the ride and handling side of things. Nimble and responsive. A tight turning circle means the 5 is handy in a parking lot.
Safety Rating
9
Safety
IIHS crash test scores haven't been earned in testing, but we're pretty sure the 5 will do fine. All the proper safety gear, from airbags to anti-skid control, is standard.
Green Rating
7
Green
The 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine is fuel-efficient and delivers best-in-minivan-class fuel economy.

The redesigned 2012 Mazda5 minivan is the first production vehicle to incorporate the Nagare design ideas Mazda has been touting for years. It will also be the last, says Derek Jenkins, design director for Mazda North American Operations.

Oops. What happened?

Mazda has changed its design course after four years of hyping the curvy, fluid Nagare styling philosophy. Now the Japanese car maker is moving to a simpler, more upscale style embodied in design language seen in the Shinari concept car. The Shinari has the look of Mazda's future and the name of this styling approach is Kodo.

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The Nagare language went out with global design director Laurens Van den Acker when he moved to Renault last year after a three-year stint with Mazda. Van den Acker's replacement, Ikuo Maeda, has his own ideas about Mazda's styling direction.

But the 2012 Mazda5, a true minivan, looks great and seats up to six in three rows of seating. And unlike vans such as Dodge Grand Caravan, Toyota Sienna and Honda Odyssey, the 5 is really and truly a minivan for a mini price.

How much? The '12 Mazda5 is sold in two trim grades: GS ($21,795) and top-of-the-line GT ($24,395). Let the record show that all versions come with a 2.5-litre, four-cylinder engine (157 horsepower and 163 lb-ft of torque). A new six-speed manual transmission is standard, with a five-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission optional ($1,200). Air conditioning, Dynamic Stability Control, Traction Control and dual front and side airbags for first-row passengers and side air curtains for all three rows are on every new Mazda5.

Aside from its nifty size (making it easy to park), the 5 most stands out for its handling. Based on the chassis of the Mazda3, a sporty compact car, the 5's steering, braking and cornering are surprisingly sharp. Yes, this minivan is engaging and responsive. I know, it's hard to believe those words. Believe them.

Now for the "buts." The hard plastic trim in the cabin is not great, not at all. Some potential buyers will walk away because Mazda doesn't offer the 5 with power sliding side doors or a power tailgate. Up-market types won't like that and that's their loss.

Truthfully, the manual doors and rear gate operate with a light and easy feel. Sure, the power option is useful when your hands are full, but the extra electric motors are also something destined to wear out and break down. Maybe you don't need power everything, after all.

For many Canadians, the Mazda5 might just prove right-sized. Large vans such as the Grand Caravan, Sienna and Odyssey are big and often a handful to park at a shopping mall or a hockey rink. The 5, on the other hand, is a snap to wheel around the urban jungle, yet it has room for kids and cargo.

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Yes, the 5 has three rows of seats and room for six. That's true. What is also true is the rear two seats are for kids or small adults taking a short hop. The middle buckets have an aisle between them (for access to the rear) and both slide forward to make leg room for third-rowers.

Mazda has thoughtfully included compartments beneath the second-row seat cushions for keeping valuables hidden and stores. Vans like this need bins to store family gear and they're welcome here. The new seats are solid, though not brilliant, the instruments are clear and uncomplicated and the controls are simple and sensible.

Which brings me to power. The new 2.5-litre four-banger (replacing the 2.3-litre four of old) is peppy, though it gets coarse when pushed too hard. It gets about the same fuel economy as the old 2.3. The five-speed automatic never stood out one way or the other. If it had, I'd probably be whining about jerky shifts or some such thing.

Sadly, the Mazda5 is an overlooked family hauler and it shouldn't be. A true minivan, the 5 is economical, affordable, practical and something close to a "zoom zoom" ride. The first and last of the Nagare designs deserves more respect and more interest from family buyers.

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Tech specs

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2012 Mazda5 GT

Type: Compact minivan

Price: $24,395 ($1,595 freight)

Engine: 2.5-litre, four-cylinder

Horsepower/torque: 157 hp/163 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed manual

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 9.7 city/6.8 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Toyota Sienna, Honda Odyssey, Dodge Grand Caravan

jcato@globeandmail.com

*****

Correction: The 2012 Mazda5 uses regular gas. Incorrect Information appeared in the tech specs of this story.



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About the Author
Senior writer, Globe Drive

In 25 years of covering the auto industry, Jeremy Cato has won more than two-dozen awards, including three times being named automotive journalist of the year. Jeremy was born in Montreal and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. More

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