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2012 Mazda 5: 'Mini-minivan' stays the lonely course

Posted by Keith Griffin  November 10, 2011 01:35 PM

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Count me among the few automotive journalists who are truly excited to hear about the new 2012 Mazda 5.

While crossovers of all shapes and sizes flood American roads, compact minivans like the Mazda 5 don't exist here. In June, Ford canceled plans to import its European C-Max van, the only would-be competitor to the low-slung Mazda with the sliding doors.

From the moment I first set eyes on it six years ago, I have been a Mazda 5 fanboy, probably one of the few in existence. I looked at this mini-minivan (what Mazda prefers to call it) and instantly thought, "This is the right-size vehicle for a family of four."

So, when faced with becoming a family of four, my wife and I bought one in December 2007. The 2008 Mazda 5 with the five-speed manual transmission has sat in my driveway for four years and I have loved it for its flexibility (it seats six in a pinch and offers lots of cargo space) and for being fun to drive thanks to good handling and that rare beast, the manual transmission.

When the 2012 model arrived in my driveway, thoughts of buying the new model danced in my head (but my practical side kicked in because our car has less than 16,000 miles). Heck, our 2008 is almost paid off.

Then the inevitable comparisons were made. Let's see. The 2012 and 2008 models both weigh in at 3,417 pounds. Wheelbase? Both check in at 108.3 inches. The 2012's overall length is one inch less than the 2008 model. (They made a mini-minivan an inch shorter?) About the only significant difference came in the second row where the legroom jumped from 35.2 to 39.4 inches, thus increasing passenger comfort.

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Unfortunately, that increase in legroom came at a price. Third row cargo space (with the third row seats folded flat) plummeted from 44.4 cubic feet down to 27.5 cubic feet. Its ability to carry four passengers and their stuff has been compromised in the newest model and that diminishes its appeal somewhat. Weekend getaways will require packing more judiciously.

Obviously, it's a conscious decision on Mazda's part to sacrifice cargo space. Carmakers do incredible amounts of market research. The Japanese automaker must have discovered that less cargo space was more important to gain more second row legroom. After all, Mazda was boxed in by the fact that it couldn't really stretch the 5 because then it would become just a minivan — and lose some of its appeal.

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There's a big mistake Mazda continues to make — the lack of a power sliding rear door. A Mazda PR rep said the doors can be opened with one finger, but it's a lot easier to push a key fob button when your hands are full of little ones and backpacks. It would be nice to be able to open the doors as you walk out your back door.

Mechanically, the new 5 is a little different. The 2012 model comes with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that produces 157 horsepower versus. the outgoing 2.3-liter that produced 153 horsepower. Fuel economy is almost negligible at 21 mpg city for both models and 28 mpg in the 2012 car (up 1 from the 2008 model).

Lackluster fuel economy, especially in a car this small, is the 5's biggest problem. Two full-size minivans, the 2011 Nissan Quest and 2011 Toyota Sienna (with the four-cylinder), each get 19 mpg city and 24 mpg highway. For a lot more room, you get annual average fuel costs of only $306 more – or less than $6 a week. It's a decision families will need to strongly consider. (The Quest has a starting MSRP about $7,000 higher than the Mazda 5 while the Sienna starts at about $5,000 more.)

One huge improvement — and it's going to appeal to a very small segment of the Mazda 5 buyers — is the return of a manual transmission that had been deleted. The model Mazda loaned me for a week was the five-speed automatic, but I've driven the six-speed manual in Spain. It's a delight and I'm glad to see it come to the US.

So, how else is the Mazda 5 improved for 2012? Some might say the “Nagare” design philosophy Mazda is incorporating across its vehicle line — a lot of swooping edges and strakes across the body — is an improvement but I can't embrace it on the 5. It seems too much like window dressing to attempt to give this vehicle a sportier appearance.

Ride comfort continues to be good. Handling is always superb. You'll never have a problem negotiating the grocery store parking lots with the 5. Visibility is also excellent. The 5 also comes packed with all the standard safety features one would want in a family hauler.

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The 2012 Mazda 5 is nicely priced in the sport trim level with six-speed manual transmission at $19,195. Opt for the five-speed automatic sport trim model and you pay a reasonable $20,195. Most manufacturers are going to charge a lot more for an automatic. Move up to the tourer for $21,195 and you get standard features like 17-inch alloy wheels, rear spoiler, leather wrapped steering wheel, and Bluetooth hands-free phone and audio system. The Grand Tourer for $23,875 has automatic high intensity discharge Xenon headlights, heated front seats and door mirrors, and leather-trimmed upholstery among other features.

Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and can be reached at keith.griffin@nempa.org.



2012 Mazda 5

THE BASICS
Price, base/as tested (with destination): $19,990 / $24,670
Fuel economy, EPA estimated: 21 city / 28 highway
Fuel economy, Globe observed: 25 mpg.
Drivetrain: 2.5-liter I-4, front-engine, front-wheel-drive.
Body: Six-passenger, five-door van.

THE SPECIFICS
Horsepower: 157 @ 6,000 rpm.
Torque: 163 lb.-ft. @ 4,000 rpm.
Overall length: 180.5 in.
Wheelbase: 108.3 in.
Height: 63.6 in.
Width: 68.9 in.
Curb weight: 3,417 lbs.

THE GOOD: Available six-speed manual transmission, flexibility for a family of four

THE BAD: Lackluster fuel economy for its size, reduced cargo area behind third row

THE BOTTOM LINE: A right-size vehicle that can haul six in a pinch, the Mazda 5 is fun to drive for a people hauler but needs better fuel efficiency

ALSO CONSIDER: No direct competition; Consider a Hyundai Elantra Wagon, Ford Transit Connect Wagon, Subaru Impreza wagon

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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