Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Mazda 5: A Gift from Japan to New Parents Everywhere

You might be interested in this article if...
-         You've just had some kids and you need a car to move them around in but are reluctant to drive a minivan
-         You need a versatile vehicle because you often accommodate guests or transport lots of cargo
-         You’re environmentally conscious and want an MPV that has best in class fuel efficiency

Once in a while an automaker does something right, so right that it’s almost undeniable, and although it isn’t the first time that Mazda has done something like this, the Mazda 5 deserves some love in particular especially since it's moving into a second generation. It’s a game changer for the North American market, and up until the very recent release of the Chevrolet Orlando and the soon to be released to North America Ford C-Max the Mazda 5 had gone completely unchallenged in its unique “small” minivan class.

First thing’s first though, we need a little historical context. Minivans weren’t always as large as they are now. They have only ballooned in size because the market wanted larger vehicles, not because everyone actually needed more space or seating, they just wanted it, and smaller minivans died off. However, because Japan wasn’t affected by this market trend small but remarkably space efficient vehicles are common. In addition to its usual small vehicles, Japan also has teensy tiny vehicles called Kei cars that really are the pinnacle of space management, efficiency, and affordability. The Japanese get all the cool stuff!

It's easy to see how the Mazda 5 feels like a compact hatch than a minivan

Still, in the 2005 model year Mazda needed to unify its entire line up under the zoom-zoom slogan, and took the chance to tap the dormant “small” minivan demographic by replacing its poky MPV with the compact and sporty 5.  Mazda classifies the 5 as a station wagon and sometimes as a Multi Activity Vehicle, and it actually sits on the same platform as the 3, but the public took one look at its three rows of seats and shouted “MINIVAN!” Whatever you call it, the 5 is remarkable. Offering the utility of a minivan with the sporty efficiency of a compact hatchback, the 5 offered new families the option to drive a minivan that was fun, stylish, and surprisingly affordable.

When it comes to the minivan, everyone agrees that they can be a little too boring, but the Mazda 5 is far from it. Because it’s based on the Mazda 3, the 5 is amazingly manoeuvrable compared to other minivans, and could actually be described as fun. On the road, the 5 drives like a sport compact more than a minivan, and the standard manual transmission (5MT ‘05-’11 and 6MT ’12) is wicked fun to shift through on acceleration or through some curves. The shifter is integrated into the center console which almost makes the driver feel like he’s in rally car. Although some have complained that the 2.3L Inline 4 needs more the 153hp and 148lb ft to satisfy, the new generation’s 2.5L Inline 4 with 157hp and 163lb ft provides the power at low rpms for passing and max hp at 6500rpm for an exhilarating ride. But what’s power without control? The 5 grips the road like a pro thanks to a fully independent suspension, and can also pull a 10.6m turning circle. Steering is electric/hydraulic R&P which is responsive at any speed and provides good feedback. Though the 5 is tall for its size it feels planted and stable, and it only gets better in the second generation with standard stability control and traction control. Still, the 5 isn’t a sports car and its zoom-zoom DNA is just a bonus.

At its core the Mazda 5 is an MPV (Multi-Purpose Vehicle) and this is where it really shines above the rest. Like many of the cars popular in Japan the 5 was engineered to be small on the outside and as large as possible on the inside without sacrificing structural integrity. And compared to other North American vehicles, the 5 is a breakthrough in space management. Being only 125mm longer than the Mazda 3, the 5 holds an impressive three rows of seating and up to 857L of cargo space, including a spare tire, with the seats folded nice and flat. Since Mazda only measures capacity up to the bottoms of their windows, you can imagine how much space is available. Still, the 5 can only seat 6 passengers using its Karakuri seating system; two in the front buckets, 2 in the second row captain’s chairs, and 2 in the third row’s 50/50 folding bench. In Japan, a seventh seat is included in the form of a jump seat that is inserted between the two captain’s chairs. See what I mean about the Japanese getting all the good stuff?

Another area where the 5 dominates is efficiency. Certainly less than the optimistic 29/41 city/hwy current 2.5L travels about 29 miles on a gallon in mixed driving conditions, which makes it class leader in efficiency. Still, because the 5 is offered with a manual transmission that number can change based on driving style and the optional trip computer can display both average economy and instant economy to help improve mileage.

One of the most tempting points of the Mazda5 is its price tag. With the base 2012 model costing only $21,795 and GT model costing $24,395 the 5 undercuts most every minivan excluding the Dodge Caravan. The base trim comes with good standard equipment for its price and in ’12 included, 16” alloys, keyless entry, AM/FM/CD/MP3 with four speakers, power windows, power locks, power mirrors, and A/C with automatic climate controls. The GT model adds 17” alloys, fog lights, sporty exterior styling, heated power mirrors, LED taillights, Side marker lights, 6 speaker audio system, Bluetooth, leather wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, cruise, and has a luxury package that consists of a power moon roof and leather seats.

On the outside the 5 has a unique shape, and looks something like a long hatchback, a tall wagon, or a short minivan. Rear sliding doors set it apart from anything that even comes close its shape and size, and also add huge practicality for loading passengers, or cargo. These doors are great for tight parking too, and you’ll never have to worry about your children opening their doors into adjacent cars. For those that opt for the GT trim the sliding doors have an easy close feature that pulls the door closed at the last few inches so that you’ll never need to slam your doors shut. The styling for the new ’12 model clearly uses Mazda’s flowing Nagare design which gives the illusion of motion inspired by natural flowing lines. Nevertheless, some enthusiast feel that the effect is over the top and that one day those smooth lines will remind drivers more of wrinkles than anything else. Furthermore, many casual drivers would have preferred the first generation’s vertical taillights to the conventional ones on the second generation.

Vertical tail lights are easier to spot by other drivers than horizontal ones

Once you’re inside the 5 the first thing you notice is that the dash and center console look more refined than one would expect in a $21 vehicle. The driver will be especially happy with the attractive three spoke tilt/telescoping steering wheel with integrated audio controls, and the shifter sprouting from the center console that’s WRC chic. Moreover, with adjustable height and lumbar support the driver can get very comfortable behind the wheel. Granted the interior materials are lower quality than others the interior design is very dynamic. The second row captain’s chairs have hidden storage compartments and a fold out tray with cup holders for rear occupants. It’s also surprising that power windows are standard in the small sliding doors of the 5, and will no doubt come in handy for those in the third row. Presently, the only real problems with the interior are the rough and noisy ride, and lack of room in the third row for adults, but the NVH (Noise Vibration Harshness) problems have been fixed for ’12.

When it comes to your family, safety is important, and although there are certainly safer alternatives to the 5, Mazda didn’t skimp on the features you need. All four wheels are ABS, and EBD equipped and come wrapped in 205/50R17 rubber to help grip the road. Next, stability control and traction control help keep the driver in control when the car would usually slide off the road. Mazda also pays attention to the basics, making sure all six seats have active head restraints, three point pretensioned seat belts, and ISOFIX child safety seat anchors for the second row. Lastly, Mazda tops it off with the usual 6 airbags (front, side, and curtain) with the curtain airbags protecting the second and third row occupants from side impacts.

On the whole, the Mazda 5 is a great choice for young families that are looking for a versatile car, and as a matter of fact, the 5 won AJAC’s best new family MPV in 2006. The interior is more versatile than the Ford C-Max and enough to accommodate most any situation. Exterior styling is top notch, the new engine is peppy and efficient, and although the ride can be a bit rough it is also the most fun you’ll ever have in a minivan, and certainly has more zoom-zoom than a Chevy Orlando. Most North American car manufacturers were willing to compromise in order to sell their minivans, only giving us what we wanted, yet Mazda had the guts to give us what needed. Honestly, it’s true, the Japanese get all the cool stuff, but I'm sincerely grateful that they chose to share some of it with us. 

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