Although in North America popular conscious the term ‘minivan’ has come to denote a class of lumbering, box-liked cargo containers featuring the same level of driver engagement as a humpback whale, the same cannot be said for people movers found overseas. In both Europe and Japan, where high capacity passenger vehicles or ‘MPVs’ are well-accepted alongside wagons as a practical part of a family’s lifestyle, van-like automobiles can be purchased at a range of performance levels and carry none of the stigma of their U.S. brethren.
Very few car companies, however, have seen fit to import any of their more dynamically interesting vans to America. The 2012 Mazda MAZDA5 is one such exception to the rule that minivans have to be boring, and it is no surprise that this capacious compact hauler wears the badge of the same brand that brought us outside-the-box thinking like rotary engines. Mazda is an automaker that has consistently refused to budge on its stance that even the most affordable, purpose-built vehicle can be fun to drive, and in a market where a compact six-seater like the MAZDA5 finds itself facing larger, bulkier contenders such as the Dodge Journey and proper, much more expensive minivans like the Nissan Quest, the vehicle stands out even more starkly as proof positive that affordable utility doesn’t have to come in a boring package.
The base model 2012 Mazda MAZDA5 Sport starts at a very reasonable MSRP of $19,940, a price point that provides buyers with niceties such as automatic climate control, power windows and door locks, and a USB audio input. Stepping into the Touring trim (MSRP $22,070) adds features like Bluetooth connectivity for mobile phones and audio devices, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, fog lights, and a trip computer.
Our week-long tester came in Grand Touring trim, which is the best-equipped version of the 2012 Mazda MAZDA5 and at an MSRP of $24,470, also the most expensive. Luxuries included with the Grand Touring model: heated leather seats, the moonroof and satellite radio package (optional with the MAZDA5 Touring), rain-sensing windshield wipers (more on those later), and the same 17-inch rims and roof-mounted spoiler found on the Touring. Our test vehicle was not outfitted with any optional equipment.
Although the Nagare design language may now have been left by the wayside at Mazda, the 2012 Mazda MAZDA5's looks are heavily influenced by the concept's windswept tenets. The rear tail lights are horizontally mounted as on the MAZDA3 hatchback, and the front end also has much in common with its wide-mouth compact sibling. Along the MAZDA5’s sides its designers have done their best to introduce light and shade to what are typically unadorned slabs on many modern vans and crossovers, and the grooves carved into its sheet metal as well as the way its greenhouse shrinks towards the rear of the vehicle give it a far sportier personality than one might expect.
The passenger compartment of the 2012 Mazda MAZDA5 doesn’t feature quite as modern a personality. If one seeks them out there are hard plastics to be found, especially the rocker switches for the heated seats which are mounted nearly on the floor and which do a disservice to the rest of the cabin (as do the dash toggles found to the lower left of the steering wheel). The leather seats look easy to clean but not necessarily ‘high class,’ and the overall presentation of the MAZDA5’s interior is one where function takes center stage. This all makes perfect sense when considering the budget-conscious family demographic that Mazda is targeting with the van.
The 2012 Mazda MAZDA5 distributes its six passenger seating across three rows of two, which when combined with the narrowness of the automobile can make for an awkward time transitioning from the second to the third set of accommodations using the center aisle. Fortunately, entering from either side of the MAZDA5 by way of its dual sliding doors is much simpler thanks to the slide and fold feature of the second row buckets. Once back there, it’s clear that no one over the age of 12 would be able to cram their frame into such a tight space for any appreciable length of time, but it’s definitely a child-friendly space, and we appreciated the integrated, over-sized headrests and neck supports the easily slid out of sight when the row was unoccupied. Some buyers will perhaps be put off by the fact that the MAZDA5 can’t be ordered with power assist for the sliding doors or rear hatch, but given the light weight of these access points we don’t count ourselves amongst that crowd.
Those riding up front won’t have any particular difficulty with the vehicle’s seating space, although it wasn’t always easy to find a comfortable compromise between the steering wheel position and the distance from the pedals. The second row was more of a mixed bag, roomy enough when the third row was empty but somewhat cramped when the vehicle was fully loaded with passengers or when the back row was folded forward to make more room for cargo.
That last point is an important one, because while the MAZDA5 does offer an impressive amount of total interior hauling space, it’s only really accessible when four or fewer people are along for the ride. The space between the rear seatback and the inside of the cargo hatch was not particularly deep, and even a trip to the grocery store to replenish household stocks for the coming week had us folding positions five and six in order to accommodate all of our bags.
Anyone familiar with the layout of the previous-generation Mazda MAZDA5 will notice that for
2012 the trip computer has been moved to a new spot on top of the dash where it is housed under a small cowl. The basic LCD screen displays single-line Bluetooth and fuel economy information and it represents the only such display in the van, as the MAZDA5 is not available with the option of a navigation system. For nervous reversers, that also means that no rearview camera can be had with the van. Aside from the previously-discussed, poorly-placed switches we found the majority of the Mazda’s control layout to be logical and easy to use, and rear passengers enjoyed their own heating controls at the back of the center console.
One problem that we did have with the 2012 Mazda MAZDA5 had to do with the Grand Touring trim’s most advanced technological feature: its rain-sensitive windshield wipers. Piloting the MAZDA5 on a long highway trip that doused us in precipitation ranging from ice pellets, to big wet snowflakes, to the salt-spray from the vehicles in front of us revealed that even with the lowest sensitivity selected the wipers were determined to activate at almost the same speed as they would on their regular setting. This lead to the windshield being smeared even during the rare moments when it was dry, causing us to use up an inordinate amount of washer fluid and eventually pressuring drivers to revert back to manually activating the wipers over the course of the entire trip. A traditional intermittent feature for the wipers would have been infinitely preferable, but if you go for the Grand Touring trim, the rain-sensitive algorithm is the only one you get.
The 2012 Mazda MAZDA5 comes with side curtain airbags that cover both the front and the rear of the vehicle, side impact airbags up front, and dual forward airbags. Electronic stability control and traction control is also standard with the minivan.
2012 Mazda MAZDA5 Crash-Test Ratings: The 2012 Mazda MAZDA5 has yet to be crash tested by either the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The 2012 Mazda MAZDA5 sees the displacement of its sole engine option bumped up from 2.3-liters to 2.5-liters, an increase in size that also brings with it a modest 4 horsepower and 15 lb-ft of torque surge in output. Total production from the four-cylinder mill is now listed at 157 horses and 163 lb-ft of twist, and perhaps more importantly the MAZDA5 returns fuel mileage of 22-mpg city and 28-mpg highway, with the latter figure one mile per gallon better than the 2.3-liter motor could manage. Winter conditions lowered our observed fuel mileage to 20-mpg in a mix of mostly long-distance driving.
Of greatest interest to family-oriented driving enthusiasts is the fact that the entry-level Mazda MAZDA5 Sport can be had with a six-speed manual transmission. This shift-it-yourself edition of the minivan features one more forward cog than was available in 2011, and it’s the only manual available in its class. Our test vehicle was outfitted with a five-speed automatic which could be manually shifted without significant lag.
It is a testament to Mazda’s engineering staff that the 2012 Mazda MAZDA5 is strongly reminiscent of the much smaller MAZDA3 hatchback from behind the wheel. This is no faint praise, as the compact Mazda is one of the best-handling options at its price point. The MAZDA5’s 22 lb weight loss versus the older platform helps to improve fuel mileage, but it also keeps the minivan’s overall mass below the 3,500 lb mark which contributes significantly to its impressive handling.
Rare is the minivan review that will devote more than a sentence or two about the vehicle in question’s cornering capabilities, but the MAZDA5 is deserving of much more attention. Simply put, the Mazda is the clear cone-dodging king when compared against any other six-passenger vehicle under $30,000. Indeed, it may even be the most agile people mover outside of the luxury segment altogether, helped by its fully-independent rear multi-link suspension system and the refusal by Mazda to dial back steering and road feel in favor of comfort. This is not to suggest that the MAZDA5 rides rough – it does a good job of absorbing rough roads – but it doesn’t abandon ship when a sharp bend in the road presents itself. Diving the minivan hard through twistier sections of pavement rewards drivers with commendable grip and even a bit of a smile tugging on one’s lips, which is completely the antithesis of vans costing twice as much.
Power is also more than adequate in the Mazda MAZDA5, although longer passes will have to be planned out with care given the relatively modest acceleration capabilities of the 2.5-liter motor at highway speeds. Around town the MAZDA5 feels like a better match for its engine, but as with so many Mazda products the van’s excellent chassis tuning proves that it’s not necessary to overdose on horsepower to enjoy driving a vehicle.
The 2012 Mazda MAZDA5 is the sportiest minivan that money can buy but more importantly it’s also the least expensive people mover available that features six-passenger seating. Essentially in a class of one, the Mazda MAZDA5 takes standard preconceptions about how a minivan should drive and elegantly refutes them at the first available curve. It also delivers a substantial amount of utility in the form of a wide-open interior, once its rear passenger accommodations are out of the picture.
Are there compromises to be made due to the 2012 Mazda MAZDA5’s compact size and market position? Of course, and this is particularly noticeable when judging rear passenger room, ‘trunk’ space, and the materials used throughout the cabin. Are these deal-breakers for those seeking an inexpensive people mover? Definitely not, especially when considering the enormous price gap between even the high-spec Grand Touring edition of the MAZDA5 and its comparably-equipped full-size competitors. Throw in solid fuel mileage figures, and Mazda’s small van makes a compelling argument for entry-level dollars.
Mazda Canada supplied the vehicle for this review