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Mazda’s redone minivan proves that small is very big

Andy Stonehouse
Summit Daily Auto Writer
2012 Mazda5 Grand Touring
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As the grim reality of gasoline prices possibly as high as $6 a gallon this year begin to dawn on the driving public – and no oil spill or hurricane to blame them on, which makes you kind of go “hmmmm” – maybe it’s time for some abstract thinking.

Abstract is the name of the game with the all-new 2012 Mazda5, the Japanese carmaker’s even-more-unusual-than-before micro-minivan.

The 5 has undergone a total makeover inside and out, plus a new 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, and the results are even more iconoclastic than they have been in the past.

Mazda’s little people-hauler always made sense on paper, though it’s fully at odds with the traditions of America’s Suburban-driving soccer moms: room for six but mileage as high as 28 MPG highway, all built on the same austere footprint as the Mazda3, so you can actually park it.

Mazda5 seems like the kind of vehicle you’d see in the rest of the world, where each member of the family does not automatically get his or her own DVD screen, captain’s chair and room for a ping-pong table; the 5, nonetheless, offers plenty of acreage and comfort for those both fore and aft.

The new body design, full of flowing lines and Mazda’s now-standard purple microdot smiley face grille, adds a pleasant if not a little peculiar stamp to the vehicle.

The company’s Japanese designers call it, perhaps more than a little lamely, “Seductive Smartness;” the upshot is a little swoopy minivan with the most absolutely pronounced flowing body lines since the old BMW Z4 roadster.

More than just a deep Zen design, Mazda5 is actually fun and easy to drive, which certainly cannot be said for most minivans, particularly the Chrysler and Dodge models, or even the moderately bulky Toyota Sienna.

The 5’s car roots mean a total lack of ponderous bulk, yet with full-size first- and second-row seating and a compact but commodious third row, it really will seat six adults; flatten the second and third rows (second row seatbottoms flop forward to mostly absorb the seatbacks) and you have a knee-height cargo space that’ll absorb your Costco run with no problems whatsoever.

Access is particularly easy, across the board, from the extremely light and easy-to-open rear liftgate to the dual, manual-sliding passenger doors that can be closed and opened with one finger.

I’m not kidding about the fun-to-drive part. While the new 2.5-liter puts out an austere-sounding 157 horsepower, Mazda5 is light enough to enjoy the benefits of that pull, cruising comfortably at freeway speeds. It’s front-wheel drive; my tester was outfitted with Blizzaks and was poised for winter travel.

Steering is smooth and responsive, braking more than adequate, and the combined effect quite amazing: A minivan which does not suck your soul out of your body, the minute you sit behind the steering wheel.

A five-speed automatic with manual shift control is standard, with a six-speed manual on the Sport model just to further reinforce that pleasant driving nature.

The 5 is also appointed with the standard litany of Mazda’s slick yet subdued interior design bits, from the wheel-mounted audio, cruise and trip computer controls to the deep-set, red-lit audio, AC and mileage readout display.

The range of audio controls is a little overwhelming (it’s one of Mazda’s hallmarks); the shift lever juts out of the center stack for easy control, and a low, open-faced center console accommodates a totally regular number of beverages. Not the 3,000 beverage holders standard in your average minivan. The overly hydrated will have to improvise.

Beyond that, it’s pretty straightforward, with the concentration on stylish motoring and a modicum of space, and not a thousand bits and pieces, as the competition has done in recent years. You’ll have to decide if simple is indeed better, though I suspect that the price (about $25,000) and the mileage make it a more welcome choice this season.


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