Redesigned Mazda5 Offers Superior Handling

Special to Informer | 5/31/2012, 4:52 p.m.

The term minivan is often a misnomer. Family haulers such as the Dodge Caravan, Toyota Sienna and Honda Odyssey are behemoths that occupy a footprint nearly as hefty as a full-size SUV. In contrast, the minivans of past decades, such as the Chrysler Town & Country and Plymouth Voyager, were built atop compact-car chassis and were thus smaller than today's full-size vans.

Despite the initial success of the minivan as huge sellers, the last half decade has however, not been kind to minivans. In an age of rising fuel costs, that segment of the auto market has steadily dwindled as Americans discovered there was nothing "mini" about vans' growing dimensions or fuel appetite. According to the government fuel-economy ratings, the minivans outdo the gas mileage of truck-based big SUVs but aren't much better than the ratings of the full-size crossover SUVs that are increasingly popular with consumers.

The redesigned 2012 Mazda5, courtesy of the plucky Japanese automaker better known for its innovation in engine technology and Zoom Zoom commercials, provides a bold departure from the pack - a micro-van that is in essence the true reincarnation of the original minivan. At 180.5 inches long, the Mazda 5 is a hybrid between a minivan and a wagon. It's nearly two feet shorter than a Dodge Caravan or Honda Odyssey, but it seats six, instead of eight. It also has the best fuel economy ratings in the class and the lowest price [under $20k for the mid trim level].

Mazda says the 5 "mini-mini" is aimed at young families looking to move up from an economy car but who don't want the high sticker price or sluggish handling of a bigger van. With an overall width of 68.9 inches, height of 63.6 inches and sitting on a 108.3-inch wheelbase, the 2012 Mazda5 delivers roomy comfort while being surprisingly compact.

In test drives within the District of Columbia and Northern Virginia, we found the Mazda easier to maneuver in tight urban spaces than the larger vans. The long wheelbase helps give it extraordinary passenger space for its modest external dimensions, and the short front and rear overhangs enable better handling and parking ease. Despite the wheelbase, the Mazda5 features an impressive tight turning circle of 36.7 feet, making it remarkably easy to maneuver in tight situations.

Mazda5 also offers a high amount of safety features - standard. These include six airbags [advanced dual front, front-seat mounted and full-length side curtain], anti-lock brakes, electronic brakeforce distribution with brake assist, dynamic stability control with a traction control system.

The 5's handling secret lies in its family roots. It is built on the same C1 platform used by compact cars like the Mazda3, Ford Focus and Volvo C30. In open highway and winding Virginia country roads, the Mazda5 felt more agile and responsive than many compact cars despite its roughly 3,500-pound curb weight. Lean and body motions are well-controlled, and precisely placing the vehicle quickly becomes second nature.

The Mazda5 features a comfortably spacious cabin that can be configured for two, three, four, five or six passengers, plus commensurate amounts of cargo. The seats slide and recline and can be folded flat without needing to remove the headrests. They also feature a one-touch lever that automatically tips the seatback forward and slides the cushion to its front-most position to allow easy access to the third row.

Though Mazda has been making a big deal about the "Nagare" design language now incorporated in their cars, I have found myself less enthusiastic about the redesign of the 2012 model. The five-point "smiley-face" grille plus a more bulbous nose that sports a big grin, the addition of "sand ripple" creases on the side, and fender arches seem to me like design miscues.

Overall, I recommend the Mazda5. It is a great fit for families that dread buying a minivan because of how they drive or don't quite need all the space and seating minivans offer.