GeekDad Family Car Review: Mazda 5 (the Mini Minivan)

Geek Culture

2012 Mazda 52012 Mazda 5

2012 Mazda 5 has the sliding doors and three rows of seating of a minivan, in smaller, car-like form factor.

My wife and I recently undertook that most dreaded of tasks, buying a new car. Her old wheels, a wheezing, green (where it wasn’t rusted) minivan had served us well for a decade, but its days were numbered. Things have changed a bit since we bought that vehicle and we went into this round with some very clearly defined requirements. When all was said and done, we came away with a Mazda 5. I thought I’d share our experience with it so far, since many of you are right in its target demographic and tends to get overlooked in its odd position somewhere between minivan and wagon.

Shopping for a car is both easier and more complicated than it used to be. There is a lot more information out there than ever, thanks to the web — which puts the buyer in a stronger position than ever. The downside is that so much information can be a little overwhelming. There are plenty of really useful car buying guides online (you can read Wired’s right here), and what we started out with on this exercise was a list of requirements. Among them:

  • Seating for a family of five. Real seating (suitable for long drives).
  • Safety. My family will be in this thing. Enough said.
  • Fuel economy. While it would be used as a family hauler on occasion, its primary purpose is daily commutes. While $4/gallon gas appears to be causing freakouts in the US, here in Canada, I’ve been paying $5 a gallon all year and that’s before the annual summer price spike.
  • Compact enough for urban driving and parking; flexible enough to hold everyone when needed.
  • Reasonably priced (ideally under $30k).

We went through the usual list of suspects: all of the minivans, the wagons and some crossovers. Everything we tried out represented a compromise of one key requirement or another. We test drove a Mazda 5 and kept coming back to it. As a vehicle for a family of five, it hit all of our key requirements pretty much spot on.

Mazda 5 interiorMazda 5 interior

The 5 has three rows of two seats, offering flexible seating/cargo arrangements. Image from Mazda USA

The 5 uses three rows of two seats, for a seating capacity of six. The middle row slides back and forth, to adjust leg room within the various rows and to ease access to the back row. Unlike many third rows that are crammed in afterthoughts, this one is actually useful; at six feet and two hundred and (mumble mumble) pounds, I can sit back there. I wouldn’t want to be in the third row for an all day road trip, mind you, but it’s comfortable enough for short hops. The Grand Touring model we went with includes a flip down tray that adds a nice degree of separation between the two middle row seats, which is ideal for minimizing fights during long hauls; a plexiglass divider would have been better, but you can’t have everything. Minivan-like sliding rear doors make loading kids in much easier than other 3-row vehicles while eliminating the threat of banging doors off neighboring cars in tight parking spaces. None of the seats are removable, but they all individually fold flat. We keep one of the rear seats down at all times for additional storage space, while folding both rear seats opens enough space to transport the dogs. Speaking of storage space, there isn’t a whole lot in here (not like a minivan), especially if all seats are in use. Mazda has, however, utilized any spare space available to create small areas to stash electronics and the like — in the extra deep glove compartment (seriously, it feels like you’re reaching through to the engine compartment), and under seats.

Safety features include ABS brakes, dynamic stability control, traction control, a tire pressure monitoring system, three point seat belts at all positions, whiplash-reducing front seat headrests and a whack of airbags, including side impact curtains. We really would have liked all wheel drive to deal with the snowy weather here in the Great White North (a Subaru made the short list), but were unable to find a vehicle that offered this feature but still met our requirements list. I have a 7-seater SUV with four-wheel drive, so we decided to invest in rims with a good set of ice tires for the Mazda, and if it gets really hairy in the winter, we have the Pathfinder as a fallback. The crash test results, safety features and other insurance-related variables were significant enough that the difference between insurance coverage on the Mazda 5 and the ten-year-old vehicle it replaced was negligible. That was a pleasant surprise from my insurance broker.

Fuel economy is decent (rated 21 city/28 highway). There are vehicles that can do much better, but driving five people and gear in most of them is miserable — or they’re priced above what we had budgeted. What really set this car apart from the minivan we left behind is how much fun it is to drive. It’s only a 4-cylinder engine, but it’s peppy, even with all the kids in the car. If you’re so inclined, it’s even available with a six speed manual transmission; good luck finding that option in a minivan. It has a smaller footprint than a minivan, it’s lower to the ground and Mazda’s tuned it to drive more like a car than a hauler. The GT version we ordered also came with lots of toys — heated front seats, Bluetooth hands-free phone and stereo integration, leather seats (easy to wipe off), a sunroof and Sirius satellite radio, among others — while still coming in on budget. If you’re looking for a built-in navigation system, this isn’t the vehicle for you, however. It’s not even an option. We travel everywhere loaded down with GPS-equipped iPhones and iPads, so we weren’t even considering navigation systems.

Wired’s Autotopia gave the vehicle a detailed review in February. The primary complaints were that some larger vehicles like Honda’s Odyssey can get comparable mileage (true, but in a much larger, bulkier form factor and starting at around $10k more than the Mazda 5), the lack of a navigation system and sliding doors that aren’t powered. Personally, I’ve tended to avoid powered doors (one less thing to go wrong) and these things take minimal effort to open and close. The Mazda 5 isn’t perfect — all wheel drive would have been nice, there are only two power outlets (one front and one back) and if all six seats are used there’s only room for a few grocery bags in the back — but as a multipurpose, safe, economical and even fun to drive family vehicle, it does the job quite well.

2012 Mazda 5 (model tested: Grand Touring).

Wired: Versatile multipurpose vehicle that fits a family of five and their gear with no squishing, sliding rear doors, loaded with safety features, decent fuel economy, nimble driver.

Tired: Requires synthetic oil, could use more power outlets, storage space is tight when all seats in use, large headrests on rearmost seats are a visual obstruction.

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