Mazda5 built for small families

For on-the-go families who don’t require massive minivan space, the compact Mazda5 presents a reasonable alternative to a regular-size minivan or even a junior sport utility vehicle.

Steadily increasing fuel prices are on many new-car-buyers’ minds these days, along with finding ways to reduce overall operating expenses while maintaining or increasing the level of versatility that their vehicles can deliver. A modicum of driving enjoyment would definitely add some frosting to the cake.

The original and somewhat anonymous Mazda5 that was introduced for the 2006 model year managed to deliver on all counts and the updated 2012 edition promises more of the same, except the anonymity part.

The Mazda5 platform is somewhat shared with the Mazda3 sedan/hatchback, but for the Mazda5 it has been stretched by 5 inches between the front and rear wheels to squeeze in a third-row seat. That means six riders in a three-by-two arrangement.

This mini minivan is actually a hair shorter than the Mazda3 sedan, which will restrict the amount of gear you can cram into the back when chairs are occupied. However the highly versatile interior allows you to fold flat either or both of the sliding and reclining second-row buckets, or the 50/50 split folding rear bench, to create the exact mix of people and cargo. If it wasn’t for the nonfolding front-row passenger seat back, the maximum cargo capacity could be considered exceptional.

For storing smaller items, the Mazda5 offers a generously sized glove box, plus a couple of handy compartments beneath the second-row seat cushions.

To complement its practical nature, there’s a little more pizzazz for the new model. The front features Mazda’s signature happy-faced grille flanked by optional fog lights set into faux air intakes. At the opposite end, the vertical taillamps have been replaced by horizontal side-markers that blend into the liftgate.

Additional design drama can be seen in the more prominent hood, bolder front fenders and the scrolling accent lines that extend along the sliding side doors and rear quarter panels. Mazda’s "Nagare" concept car was the inspiration for the 5’s newly creased sheetmetal that will begin to show up in the next round of vehicle updates.

The theme also shows up in the redesigned dash layout (that’s covered with soft-touch material, replacing hard plastic) as well as on the seat-cover pattern.

Gone is the 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine, replaced with a standard 2.5-liter four-cylinder powerplant that’s also found in the Mazda3 and Mazda6 passenger cars, as well as the base CX-7 tall wagon. For its role in the Mazda5, the 2.5 produces 157 horsepower and 163 pound-feet of torque, which is a slight improvement over the 2.3.

The Mazda5 continues to be the only such people mover available with a manual gearbox. A new six-speed unit is standard in base models, while a five-speed automatic is optional. Fuel economy is estimated at 21 mpg in the city and 28 on the highway with either transmission, which is about the same as on the previous powertrain.

Unchanged are the three available Mazda5 trim levels. Along with the six-speed manual trans, the $20,000 Sport features the usual air conditioning and power-operated accessories, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, six-speaker audio system and 16-inch alloy wheels.

The midgrade $22,000 Touring adds the automatic transmission plus fog lights, rear liftgate spoiler, Bluetooth short-range wireless connectivity and 17-inch wheels.

At $24,700, the premium Grand Touring is laden with a power moonroof, leather-covered seats (heated in front), premium audio package, bright high-intensity-discharge (HID) headlights, rain-sensing wipers and a premium audio package.

In essence, the Mazda5 is the complete minivan package, minus the size and capacity of its much bigger competitors, of course, but also without their much higher list prices and their bigger appetites at the gas pumps. For stylish, eco-minded families, it doesn’t really get much better than this.

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