One video that Mazda shows its employees depicts, among other things, a kid playing with a toy car. He's whisking it across a tabletop with obvious delight. "Zoom-zoom," he says with a giant grin. "Zoom-zoom."
Then it shows kids maturing into adults, assuming responsibilities, jobs, and kids of their own. But a fun-loving few never stop having fun. They take good care of their responsibilities but continue enjoying their hobbies and sports, making time to play as hard as they work.
Mazda has positioned itself as the car for those people, the zoom-zoom car. It's about spirit, attitude, thinking young. In marketing speak, that's the "brand DNA." It's a good position for smaller maker Mazda to occupy. If people understand and buy into it, it sets the brand and its products apart?provided they live up to that positioning.
What is it?
Now comes Mazda5. Looking like a car-based crossover (CUV) or tall small wagon, it's a crisp, sporty execution of the two-box shape that's fast becoming popular in various sizes - from Scion xA to Chevrolet Equinox to Cadillac SRX. But what it really is?shhh, keep this to yourself?a mini-minivan.
There, we've said it. Mazda calls it a "multi-activity vehicle," would never use the dreaded "M" word in referring to it and won't appreciate our doing it. But it's a small three-row vehicle with sliding rear doors. What would you call it?
"This segment doesn't exist in the U.S. market," says Mazda Dealer Affairs Manager Weldon Munsey, who was Mazda5's vehicle line manager in his previous job, "but it's huge elsewhere." In Europe, he says, it amounts to 800,000 units, on its way to more than a million.
The primary factor that sets Mazda5 apart from anything else in North America is its seating for six, in three rows of two, combined with its modest size. There are no other three-row vehicles this small (think Chrysler Pacifica, Ford Freestyle, Subaru's new B9 Tribeca) or small CUVs or wagons this flexible, with reasonable room for six, or two and a lot of stuff.
Since each individual second and third row seat folds down flat for cargo, it's can be a two-, three-, four, five- or six-seater, depending on the mix of people and stuff you want to haul. There are cargo bins under the second-row seats and a covered tray behind the rears, but precious little room behind those third-row seats with their backs up.
Because the second-row seats adjust fore and aft, occupants can trade off legroom sufficiently for full-size adults to ride reasonable comfortably in the far-back row, though we wouldn't recommend it for long rides. Each row is also about two inches higher than the one in front ("stadium" seating), so everyone can see out the front.
Sizing it up
Though built on the compact Mazda3 platform and powertrain, this versatile wagon/van it is a bit larger than you might expect. It's the same width but roughly five inches longer and six inches taller than the Mazda3 five-door (hatchback) on a four-inch longer, 108-inch wheelbase. Total seats-down cargo capacity is 13 cubic feet better at 44.4 cu ft.
The Mazda3-based suspension is MacPherson struts front and multi-link independent rear, the latter designed to help suppress cornering lean that might result from the vehicle's relatively tall height. Brakes are large four-wheel discs with vented front rotors, ABS and Electronic Brake Force Distribution (EBD), while steering is electronic power assisted rack and pinion. Given that one of Mazda's strong points in recent years has been well-tuned chassis dynamics (zoom-zoom), handling, braking, and steering are not at all surprisingly good.
The nicely turned out instrument panel has its center section raised for easy visibility and reach to HVAC, audio, and other frequently used controls. Fits and materials throughout are as good as anything in its price range and better than most. The large manual rear doors slide open and closed with remarkably low effort for easy access to the middle-row seats, which flip forward with a single motion for third-row ingress and egress. Mazda adds standard front, front side, and three-row side curtain airbags.
Priced to move
We've saved powertrain for last because it may be the only weak link in what is otherwise a very attractive, versatile and enjoyable vehicle. Calibrated to trade three of the Mazda3's 160 horses for a flatter torque curve, the same 2.3-liter 16-valve DOHC four that seems so lively in the 2800-pound Mazda3 seems a bit overwhelmed by the Mazda5's 500-plus additional pounds. We sampled it with both five-speed manual and optional four-speed automatic transaxles with two normal-sized adults and no cargo on board and found it, well, slow. Informal 0-60 runs with the automatic were 11 seconds plus.
Not that such a practical, utility-oriented vehicle needs to be fast. But we wondered if this powertrain's performance doesn't fall somewhat short of Mazda's "zoom-zoom" brand character even at light load. And it certainly will with multiple passengers and/or heavy cargo, especially uphill and at high altitudes. "Zoom-zoom isn't just about zero-to-60," Munsey reminds us, "it's the entire driving experience." Yes, but?.
Mazda5 prices start at $17,995 (including destination charges) for the base Sport model with 17-inch alloy wheels, AM/FM/CD stereo, cruise control, power windows and door locks. The $19,510 Touring model adds automatic climate control, fog lamps, a power moonroof, rear spoiler, side skirts, and uplevel audio with MP3 and in-dash six-disc CD changer. The four-speed automatic goes for $900, the moonroof (on the Sport) for $700 and a navigation system (on the Touring) for $2000.
Asked whether there might be a higher-performance version down the road - bigger tires, tighter suspenders and maybe 50 more horses - Mazda North America marketing V.P. Don Romano said probably not. Given the delightful zoom-zoom persona Mazda has worked so hard to cultivate of late, they may want to rethink that. And they probably are.
Base price: $17,435 (plus $560 destination)
Engines: 2.3-liter 16-valve DOHC four, 157 hp/148 lb-ft
Transmission: Four-speed automatic, front-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 108 in
Length x width x height: 181.5 x 69.1 x 63.6 in
Curb Weight: 3333 lb (five-speed manual Sport)
EPA (city/hwy): 22/27 mpg (five-speed manual); 21/26 mpg (four-speed auto)
Safety features: Front, front side and three-row side curtain airbags, seatbelt pretensioners
Major standard features: 17-inch alloy wheels, AM/FM/CD stereo, cruise control, power windows and door locks
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles