2012 Mazda5 - An Antidote for the Schoolbus

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Not unlike the national debt, there has been a recent ballooning trend among family minivans sold in America. Longer than many full-size crossover-utes and taller than a Jeep Grand Cherokee, the "Mini" in the equation is only noticeable next to a Bluebird school bus painted safety yellow.

A more car-like alternative is the compact MPV (multi-purpose vehicles). The Europeans have been doing them for years now. However, to date, only one manufacturer is braving it out against the American  "lack of love" for anything remotely resembling a "station wagon." Thanks a lot, Olds Vista Cruiser and Ford Country Squire!

It makes perfect sense, then, that the newly refreshed 2012 Mazda5 compact family van was developed from a car that melds driver with the asphalt: the Mazda3.

Stretch Away:

First stretch that Mazda3 wheelbase by 4-inches. Yank out the second row bench seat for flat-folding captain's chairs. Add a third row split-back bench advertised to hold three persons for good measure. Swap swinging doors for easier-access sliding units. That's the Mazda5.

Drives Like a Car:

- Despite a 300-pound gain over the Mazda3, most of that mass is added aft. Weight distribution improves to 56/44% (F/R). Magically, some of the Mazda3's harshness over abrupt road impacts is lost in the Mazda5. An independent suspension with responsive damping is the source for good body control. The also-donated electric variable assist steering rack feels more relaxed.

We couldn't find fault with the grip served up by the Grand Touring package's 205/50 contact patch on 17-inch wheels, even if the rubber was Bridgestone Blizzak winters and weather was mild. Front 11.8-inch vented brake rotors survive intact from the Mazda3; at 11.9-inches, the solid rear discs gain an inch. What the friction lacks in initial bite it makes up for in ease of modulation.

- To date, the "Skyactiv" gas engine / transmission treatment hasn't "trickled up" to the Mazda5. True, 157 hp barely betters that of the Skyactiv 2.0L. Still the extra 15 lb-ft of torque spun by the smoother 2.5L inline-4 powerplant will come in handy with the extra occupants or cargo that the CX-5 crossover won't fit.

The reluctance of the 5-speed automatic transmission to downshift was noticeable as our right feet neared the floorboard. Let's just say that near-10 second launch times to 60 mph was not a revelation. No less surprising were the 24 miles per gallon returned by the Mazda5 in suburban cruising, off some 15% from an equally heavy AWD Mazda CX-5 Skyactiv.

No Kodo:

Without wings, tail, elevators, rudder or turbofans, no Mazda5 will ever take off  upward towards the sky, not that any CX-5 crossover-ute will. Built off a derivative of the Ford C1 platform, it hasn't received the Kodo aka "Reach for the Sky" design treatment [at least, yet.] Longer, taller and featuring Nagare ("flow") themed side-sculpting the blacked-out front chin is less scowling.

The cockpit arrives largely intact straight out of the Mazda3. There are the classic twin-pod analog driver's gauges trimmed in chrome. Precise-moving  rotary dials and large switch buttons simplify rather than overwhelm. In typical "van" style, the gated transmission shifter is moved up to the center stack.

Even if not all the materials are the stuff of premium legend, they emit a sensation of high durability. The steering wheel adjustments for height and reach coordinate well with those for the supportive, if not pillowy, driver's seat.

A Tidier Aft:

If you're spoiled for power sliding doors in your family-van, then the Mazda5 might disappoint. As a dietary measure the manually sliding units are hardly obtrusive. And let's be honest. Who can't stand a little extra upper body workout? Car-like road clearance with a higher roof slightly improves second row legroom over that in a compact sedan.

However, your aren't shopping a Mazda5 if you don't give a hoot about third row seating. Sliding and folding the second row seats makes it simple enough to reach in and fasten our little precious ones in there. Two average size adults can tolerate rear accommodations provided the second row occupants don't mind sacrificing some of theirs. The few times we ventured into the nether area of the Mazda5 we inadvertently (eyes rolling upwards) stepped onto the "Stepping Verboten" decal prominently affixed to the sliding door hinge.

Both the split third row seat backs and those of the second buckets fold flat with simple strap pulls, to create ample space for transporting the inanimate [or the non-bi-pedal animate].

Viability for the Urban Family:

Our 2012 Mazda5 came in Grand Touring trim. Listing at $24,870 it had loads of options: the larger wheels / tires, leather seats (heated in the front), bi-xenon headlamps, a DC power inverter, moonroof, Bluetooth communications with streaming audio, automatic climate control and cargo carrying roof rack. With GPS navigation endowed smart phone in tow and plenty of affordable portable aftermarket DVD players out there, we didn't miss either of those features.

If the Mazda5 lacks fancy factory integrated surround sound widescreen entertainment options and active driver's assistance from lane departure warning and intelligent cruise control it's missing the additional $15,000 those items would cost.  And at those prices "Maxi-vans" can only fantasize about handling  like a sporty compact family car.

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