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Mazda5 downsizes the minivan concept

September 02, 2005|by MALCOLM GUNN/Wheelbase Communications

It's either the smallest minivan offered for sale in North America, or it's one of the most versatile tall wagons on the market. Any way you look at it, the Mazda5 is a uniquely different kind of family bus, both in its design and in the wide range of tasks it's capable of performing.

This nifty niche vehicle takes the leadership role in a new category that's currently wide open for the taking. While most auto makers seem bent on churning out a succession of ever-expanding minivans, Mazda has taken the opposite approach by downsizing the format. This should suit buyers who don't require quite as much people or cargo space and want to save money at the gas pumps.

The Mazda5 resembles a smaller-scale version of the company's regular-strength MPV minivan, only with some extra styling sizzle tossed in for good measure. It comes with three rows of seats, two side-sliding doors and a tall ride height just like every other vehicle of its type. But the Mazda5 (not to be confused with the MX-5, formerely know as the Miata), which is based on the popular Mazda3 series and is about the same length and width as the Mazda3 Sport hatchback model, has room for a maximum of six passengers who must be willing to pack a bit light.

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Those fortunate passengers are treated to hospitable surroundings. The first two rows of seats consist of high-back buckets, while the third row is a 50/50 split bench. The second-row seats slide (fore/aft) and recline for optimum comfort. The seat backs on all but the driver's chair can be folded flat to accommodate bulky objects. There's also the usual assortment of cubbies and storage areas, including what Mazda refers to as a "sub-trunk" located beneath the cargo floor that provides a hiding spot for valuables.

Much of the Mazda5's engineering effort was concentrated in providing a controlled, almost sporty ride, while keeping road noise and vibration to a minimum. Another focus was to tune the Mazda3-based rear suspension to handle the weight of more passengers.

Delivering power to the Mazda5's front wheels is a 157-horsepower, 2.3-liter four-cylinder adapted from the Mazda3. Not only does this engine have a reputation as a solid performer, but it uses a metal timing chain to operate its two camshafts instead of a more commonly used (and costly to replace) rubber timing belt that must be replaced every 60,000 miles or so.

A five-speed manual transmission is standard while a four-speed automatic is optional. The shift mechanism for both is conveniently located low on the center stack, instead of between the front seats where it would take up more room.

The base Mazda5 Sport includes air conditioning, tilt/telescoping steering wheel, rain-sensing wipers, four-speaker audio system with steering-wheel-mounted controls, anti-lock brakes, 17-inch alloy wheels and side-impact and side-curtain air bags.

Move up to the Touring and the content list grows to include climate control, second-row floor console, premium sound system, power sunroof, fog lights and a rear spoiler.

However you choose to describe it, the Mazda5 is capable of serving in a variety of roles. It avoids looking or acting in a stereotypical minivan manner, yet it can do more than a comparably sized wagon or hatchback, especially when it comes to carrying people.

All of this gives the Mazda5 a first-out-of-the-gate head start that assures it of a leadership position in what could become an emerging segment. For now, it's a category of one.

Copyright 2005, Wheelbase Communications

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