Way back in 1983, Chrysler shocked the world with the introduction of the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager. The upstart family haulers took the auto industry by storm, driving a stake through the heart of station wagon sales while setting the table for Chrysler to own the minivan segment for decades to come. But that segment has evolved in the last several years, leading to a redefinition of family transportation.
First and foremost, the minivan has gone through an HGH-fueled growth spurt, adding a host of whiz-bang features like a second sliding door and ridiculously handy storage options along the way. The other big development has been a rising tide of SUVs and crossovers, which focused consumers' attention away from minivans to the point where many automakers don't even offer one anymore. But as America's suddenly all-new or heavily refreshed batch of minivans illustrate (see: Nissan Quest, Toyota Sienna and Honda Odyssey), many automakers have responded by evolving the mundane van into the automotive equivalent of a family spa day. These new vans contain near-luxury levels of comfort and convenience, and it's not at all uncommon for them to crest $40,000 or more.
If you can afford their monthly payments, the latest minivans to hit the market will likely suit your needs just fine. But what if you want something small, efficient and, perhaps most important, inexpensive? Something more like the original Caravan? Right now, there is only one choice on the market: the 2012 Mazda5. While the rest of the auto industry zigged with larger and more opulent choices, the Zoom-Zoom automaker zagged with a minivan that's nearly the size of the original Caravan, and with a price tag starting under $20,000. We took the reins of a nicely equipped 2012 Mazda5 Touring to see if Mazda's nifty little van has the chops to take on the big boys.
Photos copyright ©2011 Chris Shunk / AOL
When you compare the Mazda5 to the behemoths that rule the minivan segment, it's easy to understand why we'd classify this as a microvan. But in reality, the 5 is five inches longer (and one inch narrower) than the original Dodge Caravan. What a difference 28 years makes.
The Mazda5 has soldiered through its existence in America with very little fanfare and a workmanlike attitude. When the model was introduced in 2005 as a 2006 model, Mazda wasn't interested in providing volume forecasts and marketing dollars were scarce. And who can argue that logic? At the time, all evidence pointed to the fact that Americans weren't looking to downsize. But the Mazda5 gradually gained momentum because of its unique packaging, fun-to-drive demeanor and attainable price tag. Mazda hopes to increase that momentum, slow as it may be, with a freshly reworked 5, complete with a thoroughly redesigned exterior inspired by Mazda's recently-nixed Nagare design language.
Mazda says the Mazda5 was penned "as a single bead of water with ripples intentionally left on the surface, such that the body's lines express the flow of motion." Sounds fanciful, and it looks good to our eyes, though we expect the changes to be controversial among longtime Mazda5 fans. The most recognizable execution of the Nagare theme starts with the sweeping front wheel well sheetmetal that twists and swirls beyond the minivan's sliding doors. Mazda has queued up more Nagare up front, with an expressive and elegantly stamped hood that flows nicely into Mazda's Prozac-infused happy face grille. Headlamps have been given a tweak as well, though the outgoing 5's peepers were already fairly modern-looking. Out back, Mazda has decided to move away from the D-pillar-mounted vertical taillamps in favor of the more traditional horizontal units below the rear glass.
The Mazda5's cabin has also been spruced up with some of the flowing design that now adorns the MPV's exterior, though the shock and awe is relegated to the dashboard area. Gone are the cold and lifeless straight lines of the outgoing model in favor of a curvier cockpit that wraps around the driver. The last Mazda5 featured an information center at the top of the center stack. The glorified trip computer remains for 2012, but Mazda designers have managed to incorporate the unit into the dash with a twin-cowl look à la the Honda Civic. The change better integrates the display with the center stack, but we'd add that the information center now appears to be even farther away from the driver. That makes reading the text more challenging, particularly as it's rendered in red. The steering wheel has also been given a cosmetic makeover, though the easy-to-navigate redundant buttons remain unchanged.
But while the redesign of the 5's dash looks like a step in the right direction, hard plastics remain. Sure, we would have loved soft-touch materials, but with a starting price under $20,000, we weren't expecting plush expanses.
Mazda's 2+2+2 arrangement is a largely carryover affair. This is a clear example of the 'If it ain't broke' mantra. We managed to fit four adults and two growing children in the cabin without much fuss, though sufficient leg room for adults can be a challenge, especially in the second row. The leather seats in the front row of our $24,670 Grand Touring tester were comfortable and reasonably well-bolstered, though we would have preferred heated seats with more options than 'off' and 'burn your bum in 30 seconds or less.' And if you're looking to purchase a 2012 Mazda5 and want a navigation system, you're going to have to go aftermarket. In an odd move, Mazda has scratched satellite navigation off the options list for 2012, presumably because of a low take-rate.
Filling the 5 with people does severely limit storage space, a problem Mazda has attempted to remedy with a shallow and mostly ineffective storage beneath the second row seats. We can't help but scratch our heads and wonder why Mazda has spent its engineering dollars on creating a storage space that can only stow a couple of action figures and a travel pack of trail mix. Fortunately, if you stow the third row seats, you're rewarded with 44.4 cubic feet of cargo-swallowing space. Further, with both second- and third-row seats flattened, there's enough storage capacity to haul as much cargo as the Mazda 5's independent rear multi-link suspension can handle. Our tester didn't have any power sliding doors or auto liftgates, but that was just fine with us. Mazda decided to instead focus on openings that are light and effortless to operate – a smart cost and weight-saving move.
Check out the Short Cut tour of the Mazda 5's interior for a closer look.
The Mazda5's function-over-form approach to interior design makes sense given the minivan's thrifty price tag, but the real challenge comes when engineering "Zoom-Zoom" into a taller driving experience. Mazda has started with a new engine, replacing the 2.3-liter four-cylinder with a larger 2.5-liter mill. The new 2.5 manages 157 horsepower at 6,000 RPM and 163 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 RPM. That's only four more horsepower than the outgoing 2.3-liter engine, but torque increases by a more significant 15 lb-ft, and the engine is cleaner to boot. And you can get the Mazda5 with a new-for-2012 six-speed manual transmission, though our tester came equipped with a ho-hum five-speed slushbox. Drat.
The Mazda5's additional output wasn't included to mask additional weight. Commendably, the Mazda5 has actually shed 22 pounds for 2012, with its base weight now measuring a reasonable 3,457 pounds. That's lighter than many mid-size sedans, and lowered weight and added torque is felt when starting from a stop. The 2012 Mazda5 feels a bit peppier than its predecessor, with a (still modest) 0-60 time of about nine seconds.
We like off-the-line grunt, but the newly upsized motor doesn't give much love at highway speeds. Once in overdrive, the 5 has trouble getting out of its own way, and we're thinking most buyers will rarely engage the manual shift option to head into fourth gear while passing, no matter how well it functions. On the efficiency front, the EPA rates the Mazda5 at 21 miles per gallon around town and 28 mpg on the highway. If you're thinking 28 mpg is exactly what the Honda Odyssey can manage with a much more powerful V6, you're exactly right. But to hit 28 mpg, you'd have to step up to the six-speed auto-equipped Touring model, which STARTS at $40,755. That's roughly the cost of two base Mazda5 models plus around six months worth of gas. And since we're talking dino juice, we managed 24.3 mpg during a week of mixed driving, a number that would be tough to match with the macrovans on the market.
More power is nice, but we are, after all, talking about a Mazda. That means Zoom-Zoom engineering should grace all aspects of the ride and handling, even in a tightly packaged minivan. While we aren't willing to tag the Mazda5 as an MX-5 Miata with seating for six, we can say that it's entertaining to toss around. Mazda could have saved money with a low-tech suspension setup, but instead the automaker has sprung (*rimshot*) for an independent rear multi-link setup with a stabilizer bar and coil springs. The suspension has increased spring rates for 2012 and does a great job of keeping its composure, even when pushing the tall wagon hard on bendy roads. And it helps that the electronic steering is tight and on-center. Braking is improved as well, aided by transmission tech that downshifts to allow some engine braking.
It's hard not to like the Mazda5. But the big question is whether the upcoming Ford C-Max, which boasts an impressive interior and clever 5+2 seating, will limit the Mazda5's appeal. That's possible, but then again, adding more entries into the mini-minivan space may actually attract more attention to the segment. And besides, with a redesign for 2012, the Mazda5 is flat-out better inside and out than it's ever been. Add a more powerful engine, improved driving dynamics and a price that's hard to ignore, and the Mazda5 is not only the reigning king of this minor segment, but the best family hauler for under 20-large.
Photos copyright ©2011 Chris Shunk / AOL
New Car Test Drive
All-new, redesigned, new engines, low price.
The 2012 Mazda 5 is an all-new model. For 2012, Mazda 5 has been redesigned inside and especially outside, where it uses Mazda's Nagare, or flow in nature, design, the first Mazda to be designed using this philosophy.
The Mazda 5, a small, six-seat, front-wheel-drive minivan, currently resides in a class of one, since no other manufacturer offers a minivan in this size class (although the Ford C-Max will be coming along later in the 2012 model year). For comparison purposes, Mazda uses the Honda CR-V and the Toyota RAV4, which are not true minivans, since they don't use sliding doors as the Mazda 5 does, and are generally $2400-$2800 more expensive.
Using the patented Mazda upside-down pentagon grille up front and the Nagare or flowing design up over the front fenders and down the sides, the 2012 Mazda 5 has been made to look much, much bolder and sportier than its predecessor, without the slab-sided approach usually reserved for minivan bodies. The body has been reshaped with sculpted sheetmetal, a severely laid-back windshield, with a rear roof spoiler on the Grand Touring version. The body has a remarkably low coefficient of drag for a minivan, 0.30, which helps with wind noise.
The new grille, hood, fenders, lamps, bumper and air intakes up front complement new body-colored door handles and mirrors, new taillamps, a mechanically operated liftgate, and new 16- and 17-inch wheels. Underneath, there's a redone suspension that takes a lot of the body roll of the previous model out, and an improved disc/drum braking system.
Under the hood, there is a single engine choice, the same 2.5-liter double-overhead-cam 16-valve four-cylinder engine that powers the Mazda 3, with variable valve timing to give it low-rpm torque and high-rpm horsepower. The engine is rated at a modest 157 horsepower and 163 foot-pounds of torque, five horsepower and 15 foot-pounds more than the previous 2.3-liter engine provided, and one more mile per gallon on the highway than the 2.3.
The interior layout of the new Mazda 5 is unusual in that it provides three rows of two seats each, with bucket seats in front, so-called captain's chairs in the second row, and a split folding bench seat in the third row, where the smaller kids and dogs will reside. All the seats have been redesigned to offer more long-trip comfort and durability.
But this is an economy minivan with a starting price under $20,000, so there is no blind-spot warning system, adaptive cruise control, or any of the other higher-priced safety gear. Nor is a built-in navigation system available, since Mazda believes most young family buyers will opt for a portable Garmin, Magellan or other stick-on system.
The Mazda 5 was last offered as a 2010 model. There was no 2011 model, in preparation for this all-new 2012 second-generation Mazda 5.
The 2012 Mazda 5 comes in Sport ($19,195), Touring ($21,195), and Grand Touring ($23,875) versions. Mazda 5 Sport comes with a 6-speed manual transmission, which Mazda expects to be only about five percent of sales, with an optional automatic transmission ($1000). The other two models are automatic only.
The Touring version adds 17-inch alloy wheels and tires, body rocker panels, some leather appointments, fog lamps, seat coverings with contrasting piping, a rear roof spoiler, a multi-functional leather steering wheel, trip computer, a six-speaker sound system with Bluetooth, a CD changer, MP3 capability and an AUX plug. Unfortunately, the Mazda 5 is not iPod-friendly.
The Grand Touring version adds leather heated seats, xenon HID lamps, rain-sensing wipers, a 6CD changer, Sirius satellite radio, automatic lamps, heated mirrors, driver lumbar support, and a theft alarm system.
Options include a moonroof and audio package ($1140); white pearl paint ($200); 6CD changer for Sport and Touring models ($525); cargo net ($40); auto-dimming rearview mirror with compass and Homelink ($295).
Safety equipment on the Mazda 5 includes front, side and three-row roof curtain air bags, and ABS disc brakes with both EBD and Brake Assist, traction control, tire pressure monitoring system and dynamic stability control.
For 2012, Mazda 5 has been given a substantial cosmetic makeover, with every panel on the car replaced by newer and flashier sheetmetal, with almost no chrome plating on the exterior other than the badges. There's a new upper and lower grille design, new hood, new fenders, new lamps, new bumpers and air intakes up front, with body-colored door handles all around, new taillamps, liftgate, and wheels.
The new Mazda 5 has integrated halogen headlamps at the front corners, creating a line that goes up over the front fenders like other Mazdas and then all the way to the rear of the car through the centerline of the body. The lower body is sculpted with an upswept line starting just behind the front tires and extending up and over the rear wheel wells. With the five-point lower grille and the five-point rear window glass, this couldn't be anything but a Mazda, mimicking as it does the Mazda 3, Mazda 6, RX-8, CX-7, and CX-9 in its front and rear layouts. This car looks like it's smiling at you. The Mazda 5 Touring version adds front fog lamps and a rear roof spoiler.
The Mazda 5's interior decor has been redesigned for more comfort, more storage, and much greater and easier utility inside. The instrument panel, center stack, switches and controls have all been redone for the 2012 models.
As for storage, the rated cargo capacity of the Mazda 5 is 5.6 cubic feet behind the flipping and folding third-row bench seat, with 27.5 cubic feet with the second seat folded flat and 55.4 cubic feet with both rows of seats folded flat.
The interior can be configured for two, three, four, five, or six occupants in some 16 different configurations. The second-row captain's chairs flop forward and slide for access to the 50/50 folding third-row bench seat, and there is hidden storage under each chair, not to mention a standard fold-out tray table and cupholder setup that fits between the two captain's chairs when needed.
The instrument package contains the usual two round gauges with lights and indicators in between the deeply tunneled clusters and is designed together with a second large, horizontal binnacle in the center of the instrument panel to house the time, temperature, fuel economy, sound system and climate control readouts, with the CD slot below, a very pleasingly laid-out sound system control center, and a three-dial HVAC control panel at the bottom (automatic climate control front and rear air-conditioning with pollen filtration is standard equipment). The shifter, whether manual or automatic, resides in the bottom center of the instrument panel.
The three-spoke steering wheel has a thick rim and a thickly padded hub with convenient switches for the sound system on the left, cruise control system on the right, and telephone on the lower left. Taken together, the Mazda 5's interior components add up to a very livable, easy-to-use whole with good quality plastics, a minimum of brightwork, plenty of storage, and high functionality.
The new 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine in the Mazda 5 provides just enough power and torque to get the job of family transporter done, with not much more available.
A 6-speed manual transmission is offered on Sport versions for the few who want it, but the more popular automatic, with 95 percent of sales, is a 5-speed, not a 6-speed, which means the highway fuel economy suffers and the cruising noise level goes up accordingly. The engine performed smoothly and quietly.
The new front seats are comfortable, cosseting and supportive, with cool contrasting stitching on upper models. The second-row captain's chairs slide, recline and fold flat, opening up all kinds of passenger comfort and storage possibilities. The thick steering wheel is pleasant to hold onto, and the Mazda 5 is made more comfortable with a combination of a tilt/telescope steering column and adjustable seat height. Interior function was excellent, but lacking a USB port and an iPod hookup, although wireless Bluetooth telephoning and Bluetooth audio streaming are standard on Touring and Grand Touring models, respectively (Mazda says up to seven phones can be paired with the system). The six-speaker sound system sounded very good when the volume was cranked up.
The suspension underneath is conventional, with MacPherson struts in front and a multi-link rear suspension, and in the redesign, the engineers have created quicker steering response, a much flatter ride through corners with quicker-acting shock absorbers, and faster-reacting, more progressive brake and throttle action that makes the Mazda 5 more fun and more comfortable to drive quickly. The steering uses a combination of electric and hydraulic assist, and it feels connected to the tires and the road. Although the chassis is carried over from the 2010 model, the body has a larger D-pillar, more welds, wider metal overlaps and reinforcements in it for increased crash safety, which also aids in good handling.
We think the Mazda 5 is interestingly slick and good-looking for a minivan with the new Nagare design theme. Even with its relatively low power, it is fun to drive, gets decent but not class-leading fuel mileage, and it maneuvers well on its tight turning radius. In terms of size, it's actually five inches longer overall than the first minivans introduced by Chrysler in 1984, so American families will find room for their stuff. For $24,000 loaded, the Grand Touring version has just about everything the average American family would need to get around in.
Jim McCraw filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com from Coronado, California.
Mazda 5 Sport ($19,195), Touring ($21,195), Grand Touring ($23,875).
Options As Tested
Moonroof and audio package ($1140).
Mazda 5 Grand Touring ($23,875).
*The data and content on this web site is subject to change without notice. Neither AOL nor any of its data or content providers shall be liable for errors in the content, or for any actions taken in reliance thereon.