Sometimes a vehicle really does define a segment. The Mazda5 is one of those vehicles. The segment is "compact minivan," and the size of the segment is exactly one. The 2012 Mazda5 carries base prices from $19,195 to $23,875 with a 3-year/36,000 mile basic warranty, a 5-year/60,000 mile powertrain warranty and EPA fuel economy estimates of 21 mpg city/28 mpg highway. Let's drive.
Over the past several years, Mazda's designers have been refining a design language that they call "Nagare," which means "flow" in Japanese. You can see the embodiment of Nagare most specifically in the new Mazda5's body side panels. High tech new stamping processes have enabled Mazda's designers to create flow patterns in the metal, a subtle, yet eye-catching design element that is pure Nagare. The flow effect breaks up the broad swaths of sheet metal, turning the body side into a point of visual interest instead of a big blank. The sliding doors on each side of a minivan demand tracks for operation, and Mazda hasn't tried to hide the operating parts, just made them as clean and integrated as possible. Around back, the Mazda5 taillamps have been adjusted from vertical to horizontal, so that they now help to establish a grounded, rather than tall, feel to the greenhouse.
The 2012 Mazda5 isn't a reinvention of the vehicle's exterior; it is more of an evolution and sharpening. The overall effect of the revisions results in a much more stylish, assertive vehicle -- one that may deflect as many buyers as it attracts.
My concern with all that fancy metal stamping was that minivans are often driven in traffic and in tight parking lots, and tend to be subject to a lot of bumping and denting. Mazda assured me that they had compared potential repair bills on the old Mazda5's smooth sides to the new Mazda5's sculpted sheet metal, and that the new body would not be more expensive to fix. I remain skeptical, but I still like the way the panels look.
In the Driver’s Seat
Mazda always does a great job with interiors, especially from the driver's point of view. Mazda5 has the best driving position of any minivan, a perch that is more akin to driving a sedan than to driving a schoolbus (which is how I feel driving some minivans). Standard tilt and telescopic adjustable steering wheel helps fine-tune the fit for different drivers.
Mazda5 gets an all-new dash for 2012. Curiously, there's no factory-installed navigation system offered as there was in the previous model. Mazda believes that GPS functions will continue to migrate to cellphones and portable devices, so they've made Bluetooth standard (on Touring and Grand Touring models). It makes sense from a strict dollars-and-cents point of view, but somewhat less from a luxury and convenience perspective.
Mazda5's big selling point isn't luxury, after all. It's the amazing use of interior space. I can sit comfortably in any one of the six seating positions in Mazda5, and I'm 6'2" tall and on the big side.
On the Road
Mazda5 really is a Mazda3 in sheep's clothing. The all-new 2.5-liter inline four-cylinder engine under the hood puts out 157 hp and 163 lb-ft of torque. That turns out to be a good match to the minivan's 3,457 lb curb weight (3,417 with manual transmission), delivering crisp acceleration and adequate power for freeway merges and steep hill climbs. I drove the Mazda5 with a five-speed automatic transmission, but I didn't get a chance to try out the six-speed manual. Mazda says that fewer than 1% of buyers choose the manual -- understandable in a minivan. Bravo to the company for offering the manual in the face of such daunting odds.
Mazda's reputation for performance is not based on big horsepower and broad torque curves. It is based on handling. Mazda5 is worthy of wearing the Mazda name. It handles effortlessly, with electro-hydraulic power-assist rack-and-pinion steering allowing for precise inputs. Four-wheel independent suspension and a low-feeling center of gravity lets you forget that you're driving a people-hauler, at least for a little while. Mazda5 is actually fun to drive, which is saying a lot.
What do you say about a vehicle that is in a class of one? It makes you wonder if the class is real, or if the manufacturer is kidding itself. I happen to believe that Mazda5 is at the tip of the spear. The more expensive gasoline becomes, the more buyers are going to prize efficiency over spaciousness. Mazda5 kicks butt in the fuel economy battle over every other minivan on the market right now, and without significant sacrifices in terms of comfort or performance. Sure, you can load up a Toyota Sienna, Honda Odyssey or Dodge Grand Caravan with a ton of convenience and luxury options; but you'll have to spend $10,000 or $20,000 more to get them, and then you'll have to pump a lot more gas into them to keep them on the road. Mazda5 makes more sense in tough economic times, and I don't think that's going to change.
What is going to change is the competition. The other manufacturers aren't going to cede the ground to Mazda5 -- they're just trying to squeeze every drop out of their expensive big minivan investment before they give their buyers another alternative. Ford will be bringing the C-Max to market soon; GM has product in the pipeline; and other manufacturers have competitive products on the road overseas already.
For now, though, Mazda5 is in a class of its own. It is the most fuel-efficient minivan; the least expensive minivan; and the most fun to drive minivan on the market right now. Some might say that it's the best minivan on the market -- and I might be among them.