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