Mazda5: A Minivan with Major Sales
The Good: Good fuel economy, low price, improved interior
The Bad: Sluggish acceleration, lack of luggage space with all three rows of seats in use
The Bottom Line: An excellent choice for young families on a budget
Mazda likes to portray itself as a company that specializes in sporty, fun-to-drive cars, which is why its advertising slogan is "zoom-zoom." So, it must be a little embarrassing that lately the Ford (F) subsidiary's hottest offering is arguably the 2008 Mazda5, a fuel-efficient little minivan that saw its sales rise 29.2% in June and 44.1% (to nearly 12,000 units) in the first half of this year. What's "zoom-zoom" about the Mazda5, other than its sales?
Not much, and that's the point. Consumer tastes shifted dramatically in May, as shoppers started gobbling up the most fuel-efficient and inexpensive models they could find. And in the minivan segment, the Mazda5 is the model that best fits that description. If you have kids and want an inexpensive, carpool-friendly vehicle that doesn't gulp gasoline, there's nothing quite like it on the market. Its toughest competition is probably the Kia (KIMTY) Rondo, which is being heavily discounted right now (more on that later).
The Mazda5, which first came out as a 2006 model but was updated for '08, is a classic front-wheel-drive minivan with sliding rear doors and three rows of seats, yet it's rated to average 24 miles per gallon (22 city and 28 highway with a stick shift, slightly less with an automatic). That's significantly better mileage than bigger rivals such as the Dodge Grand Caravan/Chrysler Town & Country and Toyota's (TM) Sienna, which are both rated to average 19 mpg, and Honda's (HMC) Odyssey, which is rated at 20 mpg. (In 172 miles of mixed driving, I got 22 mpg in my test Mazda5.)
The Mazda5 is also remarkably inexpensive. Its average recent selling price is just $20,289, according to the Power Information Network (PIN), seven grand less than the average midsize van. The entry-level Sport version starts at just $18,630 with a five-speed manual transmission, rising to $21,395 for the midrange Touring model and $23,150 for the fanciest Grand Touring trim line. (Like BusinessWeek, PIN is a unit of The McGraw-Hill Companies (MHP).)
The Mazda5 comes packed with standard equipment, from power windows and other accessories, to cruise control, a tilting and telescoping steering wheel, and a six-speaker sound system with a CD player. But even if you load up the Grand Touring model with navigation ($2,000) and rear-seat entertainment ($1,200) systems, Sirius satellite radio ($430), and an auto-dimming mirror with a compass and Homelink ($275), the Mazda5 still tops out at about $27,000, compared with $35,000 or $40,000 when you load up one of its larger competitors.
Of course, there is a downside to owning a diminutive, European-style vehicle like the Mazda5, which is roughly 20 in. shorter than the Sienna, Odyssey, and Town & Country/Grand Caravan. Sure, the Mazda5 has a third-row seat that gives it a six-passenger capacity, but competitors seat a maximum of seven or eight and are roomier. The Mazda5's third row is mainly for children, and with it in place there's virtually no space in back for luggage. If you're planning a long trip with more than two kids, chances are you're going to have to buy a roof rack to accommodate everyone's baggage.
The Mazda5 earned the top five-star rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for safety in frontal collisions and for rollover protection. Antilock brakes with brake-force distribution, seat belt pretensioners, and front, side, and head-protecting, cabin-length, side curtain airbags are all standard. However, stability control isn't available.
Behind the Wheel
If "zoom-zoom" is a priority, the Mazda5 isn't for you. It comes with one relatively small engine, a 2.3-liter, 153-horsepower inline four-banger. Even with only the driver aboard, it takes a bit more then 10 seconds for the vehicle to accelerate from zero to 60. Load it down with several additional passengers and their luggage, and I suspect the Mazda5 would be very pokey.
That said, you don't generally choose a minivan for its speed, and the Mazda5 handles crisply. Based on the same platform as the Mazda3, its small size and tight turning radius make it easy to maneuver in tight spots. As with other minivans, the sliding rear doors also let the kids get in and out without banging the doors into other vehicles in parking lots. The steering is precise and suspension isn't spongy, as it often is in minivans. A five-speed automatic transmission is optional on the base model (which otherwise comes with a stick shift) and standard on the higher trim lines.
The front part of the Mazda5's cabin was redesigned for '08, giving it a more attractive center console and electroluminescent gauges. Among other things, there are now inboard armrests for front-seat passengers, and outboard armrests and air vents and fan controls in the second row.
Seating is theater-style, with each row of seats slightly higher up than the one in front of it, improving visibility in the two back rows. The first two rows of seats are relatively roomy, with bucket seats up front and captain's-chair-style seats in the second row that slide forward and backward. This setup can be used to increase foot and leg space in the third row when necessary, but the third row is too cramped for most adults to sit in comfortably.
Leg space up front is also a bit cramped for tall drivers. Headroom is O.K., but there is noticeably less shoulder and hip space than in larger vans. Luggage space is minimal with all three rows of seats in use. The backs of the second-row seats fold down, and the bench-style third-row seats fold down in a 50/50 pattern. With the third-row seats folded down, capacity expands to 44.4 cu. ft., rising to 71 cu. ft. with all four back seats folded down. That's plenty for most uses, but it's only about half as much as in the Odyssey, Sienna, and Town & Country/Grand Caravan.
One caution: Even compared with other minivans, the Mazda5 isn't made for rough or snowy driving conditions. I didn't test the vehicle in snowy weather, but I did nearly manage to get stuck at the top of my steep gravel driveway on a perfectly balmy day. The van's low-profile, all-season tires spun and spun until they dug a deep hole in the driveway before finally grabbing. Traction control probably would have made all the difference, but (like stability control) it isn't offered on the Mazda5. As with other minivans, the Mazda5's ground clearance (5.5 in.) is considerably less than an SUV's.
Buy It or Bag It?
If you have one or two kids, and can get by with less interior space than a traditional minivan offers, the Mazda5 is an excellent choice. With a little ingenuity, you can probably cram one adult and five kids and their gear into it for carpooling. And for longer trips, there's plenty of space for two adults and two kids.
Alternatives to consider include both the Kia Rondo and the slightly bigger Kia Sedona. Another alternative is to move down to an even smaller vehicle, such as the Toyota Rav4 (which is available with three-row seating), Dodge Caliber, or Toyota Matrix/Pontiac Vibe.
Before buying a Mazda5, at the very least be sure to check out the Kia Rondo. It's about the same size as the Mazda5, seats up to seven, and is rated to average 22 mpg. It's also incredibly inexpensive at the moment. The Rondo's starting price is just $17,000, and Kia is offering $1,500 cash rebates on the Rondo through July 31, plus an additional $1,000 off to buyers who already own a Kia or certain competitors' models. (The Sedona is somewhat pricier but also is being heavily discounted in July.)
The bottom line is that the Mazda5 is an excellent choice, but shop around a little before buying. We're definitely in a buyer's market for minivans right now.
See the BusinessWeek.com slide show for more of the 2008 Mazda5.