Overview

Minivans are passe. Station wagons are so outdated. But families still exist, and couples young and old still enjoy getting out and about. And, of course, gas prices continue to climb, or show little or no sign of returning to levels U.S. drivers consider normal.

What to do? Why, buy a crossover, or what some used to call a hybrid: a car that's more than a car, but isn't really a minivan or a station wagon, either. Whatever they're called, they fit somewhere in between those two, socially dated vehicles, trying to blend the best of both without mixing in any of the downsides of either.

The newest iterations are about the size of a car, but slightly taller, and often share underpinnings with cars. They use the same powertrains, albeit tuned to motivate generally slightly heavier and bulkier packages. But they find room inside for a minimum of six people, sometimes seven. There's generally not much cargo space. But hey, something has to give.

Into this ballooning fray enters the 2006 Mazda5, a six-passenger vehicle built, believe it or not, on the foundation underlying the company's smaller sedan, the Mazda3. Granted, it has been stretched this way and that, and beefed up here and there, but the lion's share of the mechanicals source directly from that car. Equally telling, the Mazda5 weighs about the same as the Mazda6, but it's more compact than the largest of Mazda's five-passenger sedans. See how the game's played?

The result is one of those esoteric truisms, where the total is better than the sum of its parts. Not great, mind you, but better. Just like a minivan, the Mazda5 really will accommodate six adults, although a couple might have to make some less-than-comfortable adaptations, again, not unlike with some minivans. With the back two rows of seats folded, it'll hold as much or more than a station wagon. And it drives better than either a wagon or a minivan.

The base Mazda5 Sport starts at $17,435, the Touring at $18,350. Tricked out with every available factory option, the Touring lists at less than $22,500. Looked at this way, there's no competition.

Model Lineup

Mazda is building the 2006 Mazda5 in one body style, a four-door, six-passenger, small minivan-cum-station wagon. The only engine is a 157-horsepower, 2.3-liter inline four-cylinder. A five-speed manual transmission is standard, a four-speed automatic optional ($900).

The Mazda5 Sport ($17,435) comes with numerous creature comforts provided at no extra cost. Among them: air conditioning; power windows and central locking; four-speaker, multi-source stereo; steering wheel-mounted speed and sound controls; inboard armrests on the middle-row seats; four passenger assist grips; and carpeted floor mats. Cruise control, a tilt-and-telescope steering wheel, power outside mirrors and a six-way adjustable driver's seat with inboard armrest facilitate driver-to-car interfacing. An attractive and durable-looking fabric covers seats and door panels with seat side bolsters and insets wearing contrasting textures. Options include a power moonroof ($700), a moonroof wind deflector ($50), an MP3 player/CD changer ($500), and fog lamps ($250). One option package is offered, comprising an in-dash, six-disc CD changer, rear liftgate spoiler, and side sill extensions ($490).

Mazda5 Touring ($18,950) upgrades include automatic air conditioning; two more speakers and an in-dash, six-disc CD changer; power sliding moonroof; leather cover for the steering wheel; and a combination fold-out table and cargo net bin for the center row of seats. Externally, the mirrors get body-color paint, and the side sill extensions, liftgate spoiler and fog lamps are added. The moonroof wind deflector is still an option ($50). Exclusive to the Touring is an optional DVD-based navigation system ($2,000).

Options across the two-model line include a pearl paint finish ($200), cargo net ($40), heavy duty all-weather floor mats ($60), retractable cargo cover ($40) and wheel locks ($40).

Safety features that come standard on all models include the required dual-action frontal airbags, plus front seat-mounted side-impact airbags for torso protection, and head-protecting side air curtains for all three rows of seats. Also, every seating position gets a three-point seatbelt and an adjustable head restraint. Be sure your passengers use those seatbelts as they're your first line of defense in a crash. The middle and rear seats have child safety seat anchors (LATCH). Antilock brakes (ABS) with electronic brake-force distribution (EBD) come standard.

Walkaround

The Mazda5 looks very much like a shrink-to-fit version of the Mazda MPV, one that has had six grown people belted inside then run through a scalding hot car wash to snuggle up to its occupants' spatial zones. It didn't have to shrink much, as the MPV is one of the smallest minivans and not that much larger than the Mazda5. Only in overall length is the difference between the MPV and Mazda5 significant. The MPV measures eight inches longer, most of that being devoted to cargo, not people. But styling cues, general outlines and silhouettes of the two are very much in synch.

The hood, though expansive, is better proportioned and flows more gracefully into the windshield and A-pillars than the larger MPV's. A single, horizontal bar divides the Mazda5's grille opening and supports the Mazda trademark logo. Fog lamps, when fitted, peer out of oversized recesses outboard of a broad air intake fronted by a crosshatch mesh positioned in the lower half of the wrap-around bumper fascia. Headlight housings slashed into the fenders reach around the sides to touch the front wheel well arches, which are mostly filled by the tires.

From the side, the vista is much busier, although geometrically consistent. A strong wedge influence flares character lines and surface planes from the pinched-down front end rearward to a tall, chopped off, stubby back end rendered even more awkward by a pouting, bulbous rear bumper. Matte black B-pillars and C-pillars play down the height of the glasshouse. Side mirrors attach to the lower half of small, wind wing-shaped quarter windows. Body-color, full-round handles bridge concave circles in the doors. A gentle bulge crossing the doors' lower extremities ties together the blistered fenders. The slots for the sliding side doors' track scar the flanks. The optional side sill extensions create a ground-effect look that somehow works, giving the perspective a more complete, more finished touch.

The liftgate extends well into the rear bumper, removing some visual mass from the back end, as well as easing loading with a low cargo floor. Trendy, clear-lens taillight arrays are stacked on each side of the fixed rear window. The optional spoiler drags the roofline back and out above the rear window, adding a bit of edginess to the Mazda5's mostly egg-shaped rear outline.

Interior Features

Other than the packaging, there's nothing special, or unique, about the 2006 Mazda5's interior. This isn't to discount the packaging. Making room for six adults in a vehicle casting a smaller shadow than the company's five-passenger, Mazda6 sedan is no small achievement. But beyond this, the interior is in line with what's to be expected in a car in the Mazda5's price range.

The dashboard is very minivan-ish, with broad reaches of quality plastic spreading far forward beneath the sharply raked windshield. Symmetrical right and left panels belie the Mazda5's international character, as it's easily re-cobbled for right-hand drive countries. The look is sleek and high tech, but with an odd-looking gash splitting the upper and lower halves of the dash. Air vents shutter like window blinds if the cool or warm air gets too much. Metallic-look plastic trims the center stack, shift console and front door handles. The instrument cluster is pleasantly basic, with eye-catching contrasts between speedometer and supportive gauges. Equally pleasant surprises for a car in this class are the steering wheel-mounted controls for audio and cruise settings. The display screen for navigation system that's optional on the Touring rises out of the dash top above the center stack and offers four angle settings to fight glare. A panel with the system's controls is tacked onto the console on the driver's side of the shift gate.

Audio and climate controls are sublime, with large, round knobs and widely spaced, clearly marked buttons. The navigation system takes some acclimation, what with the controls located down on the shift console, but they're basic enough that the learning curve is relatively short.

Seats are, well, adequate, best in the front row, then losing both comfort and support as you move to the third row. Seat bottoms could be deeper, and bolsters could be more substantive. The driver's seat height adjustment is manual and pivots on the front of the seat bottom. Thus, the higher it's ratcheted, the less leg room it leaves.

Head restraints are adjustable in all three rows, but they, too, diminish in comfort in the second and third rows, especially the rearmost, which are functional, yes, but add nothing to an already minimally accommodating seat. On the other hand, in their lowered position in those two rows they cut so sharply into the upper back anybody sitting there will be sure to adjust them to an effective height just to avoid the pain. And this is a good thing.

Not many adults will want to park for very long in the third row. There's plenty of head room, measuring only 1.4 inches less than that of the Ford Freestyle, another small minivan-cum-station wagon with three rows of seats, and a mere 0.2 inches shy of the Dodge Caravan, a current descendant of the minivan family that created the segment. It's in leg room and hip room that the Mazda5 cramps third-row occupants. It gives up three inches of leg room to both the Freestyle and the Caravan, and a full five inches of hip room to the Freestyle and eight inches to the Caravan. Access to that third row is achieved by yanking on a loop sticking out from between the seat bottom and back and folding the seat bottom forward; then, release a lever on the side and the seat back folds forward. Suffice to say, climbing into the third row is best left to the truly limber and not very tall.

Visibility is good, as expected in a minivan-type transporter. The outside mirrors could be farther forward, as the reason for those faux wind wings is so the track for the front door windows can be far enough back that they'll roll all the way down. The view forward from the second and third row seats is surprisingly unobstructed, thanks to each row being two inches higher than the row in front, and to the positioning of the third row closer to the centerline than either of the front rows.

Climbing in and out is a breez

Driving Impressions

The 2006 Mazda5 is more utilitarian than fun. That said, it's a pleasant car that in some ways delivers more than expected, although coming up a bit short in a few.

Just using the Mazda5 is the best part. It tucks into tight parking spaces, thanks in no small part to a turning circle that bests all the competition by several feet, including the five-passenger Mazda6. Everyday errands are run with a reasonably clear conscience, and without requiring a home equity loan, thanks to miles-per-gallon ratings ranging from the low to mid-20s.

From behind the wheel, the Mazda5 is an OK driver. Steering isn't especially precise, but it has good on-center feel and directional stability. For such a relatively tall car, there's little buffeting from crosswinds or passing trucks. Brakes are solid, with communicative pedal feedback. Throttle tip in can be a bit quicker than expected, especially when accelerating from a stop around a corner. But for the most part, engine response is easily managed.

Speaking of engine response, while the Mazda5 is reasonably peppy with a couple people belted in, load it up with a weekend's worth of yard stuff or with another couple for a night on the town, and movement gets a little sluggish. There's still enough torque to get everything underway with relative ease, but beyond that, evidence of strain emerges. Planning ahead is required for merging on to a freeway or for passing on a two-lane road. All that mass not only explores the brakes' limits, but also shifts the car's balance around, too, converting abrupt evasive moves into exciting moments. Even unloaded, quick left-right-left transitions are best taken no faster than socially responsible rates of travel.

The shift lever on the automatic transmission glides confidently through its gate. The automatic's manual shift mode is faithful to the concept, holding the selected gear regardless of engine speed. Push up to shift down, push down to shift up. The five-speed manual is definitely not a sporty gearbox, requiring careful aiming for gear selections. Clutch engagement is smooth, and pedal take up is neither too light nor too heavy.

Road noise is not especially intrusive, no more so, certainly, than in the Ford Freestyle. Suspension activity is more noticeable, with sharp pavement breaks resonating directly into the cabin, in part due to weight savings that bring the Mazda5 in well under the Freestyle's two tons.

One major complaint must be noted. Failing to fasten the seat belt around grocery bags, or anything of similar mass, placed in the front passenger seat activates the most irritating sequence of reminder beeps that repeat for several minutes before shutting up.

Summary

The 2006 Mazda5 is an impressive package for this price point. It seats six yet takes up less space than a minivan and costs less to buy and operate.

 

NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from Huntington Beach, California.

Model Line Overview
Base Price (MSRP)
$NaN
Model lineup:
2006 Mazda5 Sport ($17,435); Mazda5 Touring ($18,950)
Engines:
2.3-liter double overhead cam 16-valve inline-4
Transmissions:
five-speed manual; four speed automatic with manual mode
Safety equipment (Standard):
dual-action frontal airbags; front seat-mounted side airbags; three-row coverage, side-curtain, head-protecting airbags; middle- and rear-seat child safety seat anchors (LATCH); antilock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution
Safety equipment (Optional):
N/A
Basic warranty:
4 years/50,000 miles
Assembled in:
Hiroshima, Japan
Specifications As Tested
Model tested (MSRP):
2006 Mazda Touring ($18,950)
Standard equipment:
automatic air conditioning with pollen filter; cruise control; power door locks, windows and outside mirrors; AM/FM/CD/Sirius satellite radio-ready stereo with six-disc, in-dash changer and six speakers; leather-wrapped, tilt-and-telescope steering wheel; manual driver-seat height and lumbar adjustments; power moonroof; steering wheel-mounted cruise and redundant audio controls; carpeted floor mats
Options as tested:
automatic transmission ($900)
Destination charge:
560
Gas Guzzler Tax:
N/A
Price as tested (MSRP)
$NaN
Layout:
front-wheel drive
Engine:
2.3-liter double overhead cam 16-valve inline-4
Horsepower (hp @ rpm):
157 @ 6500
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm):
148 @ 3500
Transmission:
four-speed automatic
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy:
21/26 mpg.
Wheelbase:
108.3 in.
Length/width/height:
181.5/69.1/64.2 in.
Track, f/r:
60.2/59.6 in.
Turning circle:
34.8 ft.
Seating capacity:
6
Head/hip/leg room, f:
40.7/52.8/40.7 in.
Head/hip/leg room, m:
39.4/58.3/35.2 in.
Head/hip/leg room, r:
37.1/40.9/30.7 in.
Cargo volume:
90 cu. ft.
Payload:
N/A
Towing capacity:
not recommended lbs.
Suspension F:
independent, MacPherson strut, coil springs, gas-pressure shocks, stabilizer bar
Suspension R:
independent, multi-link, coil springs, gas-pressure shocks, stabilizer bar
Ground clearance:
5.5 in.
Curb weight:
3389 lbs.
Tires:
P205/50R17
Brakes, f/r:
vented disc/solid disc with ABS and EBD in.
Fuel capacity:
15.9 gal.
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