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What should you drive when a minivan seems too big?

Overall Rating
Very driveable with a nice useability. A pleasant surprise. You’ll like this car if: you need a people carrier but don’t want to manhandle a minivan every time you go to the mall.
Looks Rating
It looks like a Sonic on steroids.
Interior Rating
Roomy for its size. Love those armrests.
Ride Rating
Good sense of balance, reasonably competent on the highway.
Safety Rating
Comes with all the goodies, including six airbags, GM’s StabiliTrak and panic and cornering brake control systems.
Green Rating
Decent fuel economy, but slightly thirstier than the Mazda5.

Minivans are versatile and practical, on that most people can agree. But sometimes they're just too big.

In fact, these days, there's nothing "mini" about models like the Toyota Sienna, Honda Odyssey, Nissan Quest and so on. They're also, for the most part, expensive. Chrysler's Grand Caravan is the exception here, but you can easily drop $45,000 on an Odyssey and you may find that you don't really need all that room or all those extras.

What to do? An SUV is a different animal altogether, and station wagons, roomy and useful though they may be, are basically sedans with more storage space. In short, there isn't much in between minivans and four-door sedans.

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Mazda has known this for years, and the Mazda5, which is essentially a scaled-down minivan, has been one of the company's best-selling models since it was introduced, in 2006.

Up until now, it's pretty much had this market all to itself. About the only models that come close are the Mercedes-Benz B-Class and Kia Rondo. And maybe the Ford Flex, although it's considerably larger.

Enter the Chevrolet Orlando, a made-in-Korea "crossover" that has approximately the same dimensions as a Mazda5 and addresses the same market. It has seating for seven, offers a flat rear storage area and, although it lacks the sliding side doors of the Mazda, has the same kind of straightforward entry and exit. In virtually all respects, it's the embodiment of practicality.

Available in four trim levels, the Orlando is powered by GM's EcoTec 2.4-litre four-cylinder. In this configuration, it develops a purported 174 horsepower and is mated to a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission. My tester had the latter, but GM offering a manual gearbox is definitely a plus. For one thing, it costs $1,450 less than the autobox and it delivers better fuel economy, though not by much. It's also bound to be a little livelier, and, well, it's just a good idea to have a stick-shift alternative with this type of car. For what it's worth, Mazda also offers a six-speed manual, but the automatic in the 5 is a five-speed.

Were I in the market for this car, I'd probably choose the manual. I found the automatic to be a little on the unresponsive side, though that could be attributed to the somewhat-underpowered engine. A powerhouse, the Orlando ain't, and with a full whack of passengers and luggage, it won't set the roads on fire. Just for the sake of comparison, the Mazda5 delivers some 157 horsepower.

Storage-wise, the Orlando boasts 1,594 litres of space with all seats folded flat. By way of comparison, Mazda claims its 5 is good for a mere 857 litres, so the Orlando is roomier inside. The Mazda5 has room for six, but you can squeeze seven adults in the Orlando. That said, there won't be a lot of room for those at the very back.

One nice little feature here: front-seat armrests. As it happens, I took the Orlando on an extended road trip and the armrests were a godsend. This feature alone puts it in my good books. The Mazda5 has them as well.

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Where the Chevy differs substantially from its Japanese rivals in the side door arrangement. The Mazda5 has sliding side doors, compared to conventional hinged doors with the Orlando. For me, it's six of one, half a dozen of the other. I like the sliding doors, but they can be fussy and possibly prone to problems over the long haul. Hinged doors, on the other hand, are handy, but reduce back-seat access in a crowded parking lot.

On the highway, the Orlando is stable and quiet, with decent handling and balance, but this is a people-carrier, not a sports car and, in terms of reserve passing power, the well runs dry pretty quickly. A turbocharger would be a nice addition here, but that's not in the cards at this point. As far as Orlando versus Mazda5 goes, it's probably a dead heat in this department. Brakes are four-wheel disc all-round with ABS coming standard.

Starting price for the Orlando is just less than $20,000 for the LS version. The Mazda5 has a starting price of less than $22,000, but the base version has more standard equipment.

My Orlando tester, a middle of the pack LT, featured the six-speed automatic, plus larger 16-inch alloy wheels ($510) and an upgraded audio system with MP3 player ($2,060). With destination charges, that brings it to just less than $26,000 before taxes, which takes the fun out of it. I liked the Orlando more than I thought I would, but I see it as a $20,000 car. Interestingly, Chrysler also sells its full-size Grand Caravan for $19,995. Hmmmm.

Tech specs

2012 Chevrolet Orlando LT

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Type: Seven-passenger compact wagon

Price: $22,295-$25,850

Engine: 2.4-litre, four-cylinder

Horsepower/torque: 174 hp/171 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 10.6 city/6.9 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Mazda5, Kia Rondo, Mercedes B-Class, Ford Flex

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