Is the 2006 Mazda5 a compact, tall wagon or a diminutive minivan?
It's actually something of an experiment, because it's the kind of small van that's popular overseas but not usually seen in U.S. showrooms.
New for the 2006 model year, the Mazda5 is an affordable runabout with six seats - two seats in each of three rows - and sliding second-row doors, like those on a minivan, and four-cylinder power.
Yet the Mazda5 is shorter, narrower and lighter weight than traditional minivans sold in this country. It even can be had with a five-speed manual transmission - something not found on minivans here.
The Mazda5 also is lower-priced than traditional minivans. Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, for a base Mazda5 with manual transmission is $17,995; automatic transmission starts at $18,895.
Built and sold in Japan, the Mazda5 is available in the States in two trims - Sport and Touring.
Even the top-of-the-line Touring model with all the factory options, including a $2,000 navigation system, has a retail price of less than $22,000. But note that some amenities, such as factory-installed leather seats and all-wheel drive, aren't offered.
The Mazda5's price won't be the only attraction for couples, singles and families with small children, though.
The vehicle's well-thought-out, adaptable interior is appealing.
With the rear-most four seats folded down, the Mazda5 offers up to 44.4 cubic feet of cargo room, which is on par with that of the Dodge Caravan and double that of the Toyota Matrix.
The six seats aren't plush but they're comfortable, with decent support. Front bucket seats and second-row separate seats each come with an inboard, pull-down armrest.
Second-row seats slide on a track for optimal positioning.
All passengers have adjustable and lockable head restraints. Other standard safety items include curtain air bags that extend all the way to the third-row seats and seat-mounted, side air bags for the front-seat passengers.
The Mazda5 driver's seat has a manual, ratchet-type height adjustment so views over the large dashboard area are good.
Hidden storage areas in the second row are accessed by lifting the second-row seat cushions. One of these storage areas holds the cupholders/tray that can be positioned between the second-row seats. The other is available anytime for storage of small items or even purses. Notice that there's at least one cupholder, sometimes more, for each seat.
All this fits inside a vehicle that feels nimble and easy to drive.
For example, the Mazda5 tester maneuvered into and out of parking spaces with ease. On curvy roads, the vehicle moved as a stable, compact unit. It's built on a stretched platform of the Mazda3 compact car, which already has gained praise for its fun handling.
Suspension is independent MacPherson strut in front and independent multilink in back and provides a competent, though not cushioned, ride.
The vehicle's lower body height vis-a-vis minivans helps reduce the tendency for the Mazda5 to feel tippy.
This sprightliness is evident when the Mazda5 is carrying one, two or three people and not much more.
The vehicle's dynamics - not to mention sense of power - deteriorate when the Mazda5 is loaded, which is why the Mazda5 might be a good choice for folks who don't usually carry five or six people but who want that versatility on occasion.
The Mazda5 uses the same 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine with variable valve timing that's in the Mazda3 car. This powerplant does a good job in the lighter-weight Mazda3, but the Mazda5 tester, with four-speed automatic, felt sluggish when there were four, five and six adult passengers.
Horsepower in the Mazda5 is 157 and maximum torque is 148 foot-pounds at 3,500 rpm.
Drivers will notice that as the Mazda5 becomes filled with more people and cargo, the vehicle's brakes seem a bit less effective, and the tidy handling becomes sloppy.
Fuel savings with the four-cylinder engine is disappointing. The Mazda5 is rated at 21 or 22 miles a gallon in city driving, depending on the kind of transmission in the vehicle. The highway rating is 26 or 27 mpg.
Other drivers didn't seem to notice the Mazda5 test vehicle, even though it was new to the market. I guess the compact size isn't readily noticeable unless the vehicle is right next to a larger van, and the Mazda5 styling is pretty mainstream.
But after driving the Mazda5, I think more carmakers should install manually sliding doors on their smaller vehicles. At grocery stores and in shopping malls, I didn't have to worry about the Mazda5's open doors blocking my way or striking vehicles parked too close.
mazdaThe 2006 Mazda5 is an affordable family tall wagon with four-cylinder power. It seats six and has sliding second-row doors like those on a minivan, but it is shorter and lighter than a minivan.
THE VEHICLE: 2006 Mazda5, a front-engine, front-wheel-drive, six-passenger, small van
BASE PRICE: $17,435 for Sport model; $18,950 for Touring
DESTINATION CHARGE: $560
PRICE AS TESTED: $20,520 (Touring)
ENGINE: 2.3-liter, dual-overhead-cam, four-cylinder with variable valve timing, producing 157 horsepower
MILEAGE: 21 mpg city, 26 mpg highway
LENGTH: 181.5 inches
CURB WEIGHT: 3,389 pounds
BUILT in: Japan
OPTIONS: Four-speed automatic transmission, $900; floor mats, $60; moonroof wind deflector, $50