2006 Mazda5 GT
2006 Mazda5 GT. Click image to enlarge

Review and photos by Peter Bleakney

Photo Gallery: 2006 Mazda5 GT
Being in the car testing business, we auto journalists generally have a steady and varied stream of vehicles flowing in and out of our driveways. This can be bad and good. Bad, in that our neighbours think we’re drug lords. Good, in that sometimes we get to drive Porsches. Bad, in that most of the time we have to give them back.

But really good in that when it comes time to buy a vehicle, we can usually make a well-informed decision based on lots of seat time in press cars.

Last year, while our now-departed 1998 Plymouth Voyageur minivan was slowly self-destructing, I brought home a charcoal-grey Mazda 5 GT for a week of testing. This sensibly sized, four-cylinder, five-speed manual crossover/mini-minivan thingy immediately struck a chord with our family.

My kids liked the back seats and thought it looked cool. My wife enjoyed driving it, and being a closet Fangio, especially liked the manual transmission and the zippy handling.

2006 Mazda5 GT
Peter Bleakney’s loved the Mazda5 press vehicle he brought home last year. Click image to enlarge

I liked the idea of an economical, Euro-sized six-seater that sported 17-inch alloys and had a little bit of street cred. Priced at $23,895, the tester offered excellent value.

So we decided to buy one. Mazda Canada sold me a 2006 press vehicle that had reached the end of its run with 13,425 km on the clock. This silver specimen had some signs of wear, but Mazda replaced the damaged front bumper, some interior trim and, about three months into my ownership, a front wheel that couldn’t be balanced due to an earlier curb altercation. Damn journalists.

It is now ten months and 16,000 km later, and the Mazda5 experience has been mostly positive, with just a few caveats. First, a little vehicular background:

2006 Mazda5 GT
The author’s silver 2006 Mazda5 GT. Click image to enlarge

The Mazda5 is built on the corporate platform that holds up the Mazda3, Volvo S40, Land Rover LR2 and the European Ford Escort, among others. The idea of a compact economical minivan is not new. This form of transport, known as the MPV (multi purpose vehicle), has been available in other markets for years with such offerings as the Renault Scenic, Ford Galaxie, Toyota Verso and Fiat Multipla.

The Mazda5 comes in two trim levels: the $19,995 GL and the $22,795 GT (prices are unchanged for 2007) – and both are motivated by Mazda’s smooth 2.3-litre DOHC 16-valve four that puts out 157 hp and 148 lb/ft of torque at 4500 rpm.

Those prices are a tad misleading, however, as air conditioning (with automatic climate control) will cost you $1100. Mazda’s marketing types presumably came up with that little ruse to keep the advertised base price below the 20 grand mark.

That aside, the Mazda5, even in base GL trim, comes very well equipped. Sixteen-inch alloys are standard, as is ABS with electronic brake force distribution, rain sensing wipers, anti-theft alarm, four-speaker CD/AM/FM, power locks, mirrors and windows, and a tilt/telescoping steering wheel with audio controls.

The GT adds handsome five-spoke 17-inch alloys, side and head curtain airbags, a six-speaker sound system, fog lights, sporty body cladding, heated mirrors, centre row fold-out table/cargo bin, cruise (with steering wheel controls), power moon roof, power latching for the sliding doors, and a leather wrapped wheel and shift knob. That’s a good bang for $2800, and for us, it was a no-brainer.

A four-speed auto with manual override can be had for $1000, but sadly, traction control is not available: more on that later.

2006 Mazda5 GT
2006 Mazda5 GT
2006 Mazda5 GT. Click image to enlarge

Clever packaging and surprising utility are the Mazda5’s strengths. Two large sliding doors give easy access to the second row bucket seats, which slide forward and aft, creating more legroom for those in the third row if needed. The second row seat cushions flip up to reveal more storage, and a clever tray/storage bin folds out from under the right seat, giving my kids a place to put drinks, Game Boys, etc. The middle and third row seats each fold flat, providing numerous people/cargo combinations. With all the seats down, there’s 170 cm of flat storage.

While the third row may not be the epitome of comfort, it is fine for kids and adults on short jaunts. The default mode of our 5 is third row folded flat. There is decent room behind the second row, but if you’re used to standard mini-van space, the compact dimensions of the Mazda 5 will be a definite compromise. We were willing to make that sacrifice.

Down the road, the 5 has been dead reliable and has served up something no other minivan can offer – actual driver involvement and a modicum of sporty character. No, you’ll never mistake this for a Miata, but there’s enough zoom-zoom DNA here to keep you feeling young at heart while ferrying the progeny.

The electronic steering is communicative and accurate, and the 5 responds to inputs with a satisfying immediacy. The five-speed shifter, which sprouts from the base of the centre console (a la WRC rally car) is a tad clunky but slices cleanly through the box. Clutch take-up is smooth and progressive.

2006 Mazda5 GT
The author’s 2006 Mazda5 GT. Click image to enlarge

The 2.3 litre four acquits itself quite well considering the 1512 kg it has to haul around, With the 5 loaded down, however, progress is a little more lethargic, and passing manoeuvres have to be planned well in advance. Some of this power deficiency is overcome by relatively short gearing. At 120 km/h, the engine spins at 3500 rpm, but to the Mazda’s credit there is no engine thrum at speed. We’ve been averaging about 9.5 L/100 km on regular fuel.

The only mechanical problem we’ve had was an accessory belt that squeaked in wet weather. The technician at Oakville Mazda cleaned a film of dust off the belt and all has been well.

The two gripes I have with our Mazda 5 concern the suspension and OEM Toyo all-season tires.
The ride has always seemed a bit jarring and brittle, as if there’s not enough suspension travel, or the components aren’t up to the task. Too much clunking spells cheapness in my books, and since the rest of the vehicle is so refined, it’s a bit of a downer.

2006 Mazda5 GT
2006 Mazda5 GT. Click image to enlarge

The other issue is poor wet traction with the 205/50R17 Toyo all-season tires. As soon as the road get damp, these puppies spin like Bill O’Reilly. A contributing factor here is a short first gear, which means the torque multiplication when launching is quite high. Remember, no traction control. I suspect automatic equipped cars don’t experience this to such a degree.

We’ve just switched over to Michelin winter tires on steel wheels (in the same size), and I’ve noticed an improvement in both ride quality and wet road traction. Maybe it’s time to do some research into replacement summer tires.

I have to keep reminding myself that our Mazda 5 is (almost) an entry-level vehicle, and as such, represents incredible value. The stereo sounds decent and the leather wrapped multi-function wheel wouldn’t look out of place in an Audi.

About the only give-away to the 5’s bargain-basement price tag is the rest of the interior: acres of hard black plastic. Similarly, the seat fabric is shiny and cheap looking and the bottom cushions are too short for those long of leg. On the plus side, it all seems pretty tough and is showing no signs of wear.

A heated leather seat package (which includes the climate control) is available on 2007 GT models. It bumps the price to $25,125.

Overall, we’ve been very happy with Mazda’s young-at-heart crossover, and in the past few months we’re seeing a lot more on the road. Which is bad and good. Bad, in that we are no longer the only cool Mazda5-driving family in our ‘hood. Good, in that Canadians are getting hip to a clever little family hauler.

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