2006 Mazda5
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Review and photos by Jil McIntosh

It has a four-cylinder engine and it seats six passengers. So naturally, Mazda calls the newest vehicle in its line-up the Mazda5.

The Mazda5 might very well carve out a new niche in the North American market: the mini-minivan. We’ve had “tall wagons” for some time, with cars like the Chrysler PT Cruiser and the Suzuki Aerio. But the Mazda5 is different: it offers three rows of seats and holds six passengers, just like a minivan.

At first glance, its styling makes it easy to mistake for a minivan; it isn’t until you park it alongside the real thing that its more compact size becomes apparent. It’s only about 15 mm longer and 80 mm taller than the Mazda3 Sport hatchback upon which it’s based.

Its price-tag is smaller than a minivan as well. In base form, the GS will retail for $19,995, the upscale GT for $22,795. That’s not what most people will pay; no doubt to keep it five bucks under the all-important $20,000 barrier, Mazda sells the air conditioning for an additional $1,100, and an automatic transmission for another $1,000. Even so, that puts the fully-loaded model at $24,895. Comparing 2005 prices, only the base $25,405 Chevrolet Uplander comes close, with most competitors starting over $26,000. Among fellow Japanese manufacturers, every minivan, save for Mazda’s own MPV, starts at or over $30,000.

2006 Mazda5
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The big question is whether North America is ready for it. It’s old news in European and Asian markets, where the first and second generations of the Mazda5, called the Premacy there, have been on sale since 1999. So-called “space wagons” are produced by several manufacturers for overseas sales, where their practicality for clogged roads and high fuel prices make them popular. Mazda Canada spokespeople said that while there is no benchmark in North America for this new breed of people-mover, the company’s target customer is under 35, with a young family, but finds sedans too small, SUVs too bulky and inefficient, and minivans “not cool”. The company also figures on seeing more than a few older buyers who transport grandchildren, but not often enough to justify a larger vehicle. Initial estimates are for 3,000 to 4,000 per year, although company representatives say that based on dealer response, that may be too conservative, and that moving 5,000 to 8,000 annually is not out of the question.

And since Canadians are more favourable toward compacts and hatchbacks, the company won’t be surprised if, per capita, we buy more of these than Americans do.

2006 Mazda5
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Along with its platform, the Mazda5 shares the Mazda3’s 2.3-litre four-cylinder engine, which produces 157 hp and 148 lb-ft of torque. If that doesn’t seem like much for a people-hauler, the short-wheelbase Dodge Caravan makes 180 hp but hauls 219 kg (482 lbs) more in curb weight. Admittedly, my test drive wasn’t with six passengers and all their gear, but the engine performed very well, both on city streets and a highway jaunt. An added bonus is a timing chain, eliminating the pricey maintenance of a belt.

The Mazda5 also receives a modified version of the Mazda3’s superb handling, but its chassis is tuned for this taller vehicle’s tendency toward more body roll and the different weight distribution that third-row passengers will create. Steering response isn’t quite as razor-sharp as with the Mazda3, but that’s built in on purpose: quite simply, minivans aren’t sports cars. The van also borrows the Mazda3’s electro-hydraulic power assist steering, which uses an auxiliary electric motor to lessen horsepower drain from the power steering pump.

The cars prepped for the press test-drive were all equipped with five-speed manual transmissions. It’s set up to be easy to operate, with a light clutch and smooth shifter that’s positioned readily at hand in the centre stack. The optional four-speed automatic includes Sport mode for sequential gear shifting, which may prove handy when trying to climb long inclines with all six seats occupied.

2006 Mazda5
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It’s fairly easy to get into the seats, too. The Mazda5’s interior is thoughtfully planned, with two sliding doors that open wider than on the full-size MPV minivan, and a clever liftgate that opens in two stages. Shorter users can access the rear cargo without the gate opening above their reach, while taller people can open it fully. On the GT model, the sliding doors are equipped with an “easy-close” system; they’re not fully electric, but when they’re slid almost closed, a motor pulls them in the rest of the way. If there’s any downside to the Mazda5’s design, it’s in the lower sliding door hinge, which is large, flat and fully exposed, and in a position where it’s perfect as a step in or out for tiny feet. There’s a large warning sticker on it, but parents will have to be diligent about cautioning children not to step on or insert a hand into this potential pinch-point.

2006 Mazda5
Photo: Mazda. Click image to enlarge

The seats are arranged in three rows of two, and the second-row seats fold and slide back and forth for ease of entry into the third, and to minimize or maximize legroom, depending on whether anyone’s sitting behind. Several tall people complained that “all the way back” still wasn’t back far enough, but at 5-foot-4, I had enough space. The second-row windows lower all the way into the door, and headroom is very generous, no matter where you’re sitting. As with most six-seaters, I wouldn’t want to ride any great distance in the last row, but it was less cramped than expected given the Mazda5’s shorter footprint, and smaller children should be quite happy back there. The GT includes a clever storage system dubbed the “Karakuri table”. The cushions on both second-row seats flip up, revealing storage bins; a small plastic table, with cupholders and net storage bag, pulls out of the passenger-side seat and fits between the two.

2006 Mazda5
Click image to enlarge

None of the seats remove entirely, but both the second and third rows fold forward to create a flat cargo floor. There is 90 litres of storage space in the back when the third row is upright, and a cover on the side of the cargo area pulls away to reveal a shallow indentation; the extra few centimetres of space permit longer items (specifically, a golf bag) to be stored flat behind the seat.

Both models come well equipped. The base GS includes four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, 16-inch alloy wheels, rain-sensing wipers, power mirrors, automatic headlamps, CD player, rear wiper, power locks with keyless entry, power windows and floor mats. The GT adds 17-inch alloy wheels, heated mirrors, fog lights, spoiler, cruise control, easy-close sliding doors, power sunroof, side and curtain airbags, theft alarm, fold-out table and leather-wrapped wheel.

As is to be expected, the Mazda5 will have some detractors, who will no doubt concentrate on its limitations. No, you’re not getting six hockey players and all their gear into it; there isn’t as much overall interior space as in a full-size minivan; and if your hobby is scouring antique stores for full-size armoires, you may have some difficulty. There will always be a market for big vans.

But for many buyers, the Mazda5 will be an all but perfect vehicle: it’s easy to park, simple to manoeuvre, it’s big inside, and even with an automatic transmission, its 11.2 L/100km fuel economy rating for city driving undercuts every 2005 minivan listed in EnerGuide’s ratings. Perhaps it’s time we learned what Europe and Asia have known for years: good things can come in smaller packages.

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