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Mini minivan long on practicality, short on power

Overall Rating
Out-dated, but still the best of the bunch. You’ll like this vehicle if: you need the versatility and practicality of a minivan, but like to keep things manageable.
Looks Rating
Functional, with good aerodynamics.
Interior Rating
High marks here; nice sense of driveability.
Ride Rating
For this market, just about right; predictable handling and stable on the highway.
Safety Rating
Six airbags, traction control and ABS but no electronic aids.
Green Rating
Middling fuel economy.

If you're in the market for a new vehicle, need something wagon-ish and practical, but don't fancy an SUV or minivan, there isn't much to choose from.

There's no shortage of thrifty econoboxes, but if elbow room and carrying capacity coupled with economy of operation is on your list of must-haves, I count three models to choose from: Chevrolet Orlando, Kia Rondo, and Mazda5, and possibly the Ford Transit, although it won't carry as many passengers.

Might I direct you toward the Mazda5? In many ways, this could be the perfect urban vehicle. It has decent cargo capacity – 857 litres with all the seats folded flat – will seat six, comes with sliding side doors, delivers acceptable (but not the best) fuel economy – 9.5 litres/100 km in town and 6.7 on the highway – and has a nice built-in sense of driveability about it. Think of it as a downsized minivan.

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Power is delivered by a 2.5-litre four-cylinder that develops 157 horsepower and 163 lb-ft of torque. This is one of the 5's drawbacks, which I'll get to in a moment. There are two transmission choices: six-speed manual or five-speed automatic. Overall length of the 5 is 4,585 millimetres and it has a wheelbase of 2,750 mm. To put these last numbers into context, a Honda Odyssey is 5,153 mm in length, while a Fit is 4,105 mm long. The Mazda5 is somewhere in the middle.

But it has elbow room in abundance. It's easy to get in and out of, and the sliding side doors make rear-seat access a snap. Folding all the seats down for cargo isn't the easiest process I've ever encountered, but once that's done, you can carry, oh, a small couch, big-screen TV, a load of 2x4s, or a couple of large dogs, no problem.

It also has a couple of small but invaluable pieces of equipment that I found I couldn't do without: a folding armres on the driver's seat and a gearshift lever mounted smack-dab in the middle of the front console. These two add immeasurably to the Mazda5's overall driving appeal, but just for the sake of argument, the Orlando has them as well.

I took my tester on a 1,000-kilometre overnighter, on everything from secluded mountain highways, to busy city streets, to placid countryside secondary road cruising. Aside from a frustrating lack of power, I couldn't have asked for a better touring vehicle. It carried all our stuff, with room to spare, delivered 8.0 litres/100 km average overall fuel economy – give or take – and offered up a level of comfort and ease that surprised me. It's quiet during highway operation, responsive and manageable around town, and stable and predictable through the corners. No complaints here.

But about that power – or more precisely, the lack of it. While I loved the smoothness and refinement of the 5's four-banger, to put it bluntly, this is a gutless wonder. More than once, when I really needed some grunt to get around a logging truck or eighteen-wheeler – with little room to spare – reserve power just wasn't there. Our car had the automatic ($1,200), which kicks down readily enough and is perfectly suitable around town, but, on the highway, it runs out of beans when you need it most. A turbocharger would be a nice fit, or even a small V-6, but then, you could argue, that would change the character of the 5 completely.

2013 Mazda5 Mazda Mazda

Standard equipment level is decent, with the six-speed manual coming with the base GS version, as well as air conditioning, tilt/telescoping steering, a traction control system and a full roster of six airbags. The 5's closest competitor, the Orlando, lists a/c and heated seats as options, but does have a lower base price tag (not to mention a more powerful engine).

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Our tester was also the GT model, with the Luxury package. This included a full leather interior, driver's seat lumbar support, heated front seats, a nifty centre-row fold-out table and a full-size power sunroof, all of which will set you back an additional $1,800. Aside from the heated seats, I can do without these.

The Mazda5 got a bit of a re-do in 2010, but isn't exactly on the cutting edge of automotive technology. It's less powerful than its rivals, has less interior cargo room, and starts at around $2,000 more than either an Orlando or a Kia Rondo (although the base GS comes with a higher level of standard equipment).

But what it does have is a level of driveability that helps you overlook its other shortcomings. With some drivers, that goes a long way.

Tech specs

2013 Mazda5 GT

Base Price: $21,995; as tested: $27,795

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Engine: 2.5-litre four-cylinder

Horsepower/torque: 157 hp/163 lb-ft

Transmission: Five-speed automatic

Drive: Front wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 9.5 city/6.7 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Chevrolet Orlando, Kia Rondo, Ford Transit, Toyota Matrix, Honda Fit

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