Life has a funny way of sneaking up on you. The night I took this picture, I became an uncle and my brother became a father. Meanwhile, my own first progeny is (hopefully) a few weeks away. An unplanned ten pounds of diaper ruination doesn’t have the Missus and me scrambling to shop for family trucksters yet, but it struck us as all too symbolic when the flat-pack crib wouldn’t fit in the WRX wagon. The signs are all around: grownuphood is upon us.
Thankfully, we live in a post SUV world. Sort of. Ladder-frame truck based behemoths are on the wane, but their successor in the family hauler role has yet to be anointed. The amorphous “crossover” leads, but the last few years have shown it slowly melting into more wagon-like forms. That wagons are The Hoon’s Choice is a foregone conclusion, but when it comes to hauling more stuff than ass, for the price, there’s no beating a van. The question is, how do you get the utility of a van without feeling like you’ve given up on life?
Mazda has the anwer.
Our 2010 Mazda5 Touring arrived sporting a price tag of $22,480 and a hue we’ll henceforth refer to as press car red. It’s powered by a 2.3L four cylinder backed up by a five speed auto. 2011 will bring a Nagare-ized 5, but in the meantime we’re talking about a model that’s largely unchanged since 2006. Which, really, is fine by us. The Mazda5 is based on the widely praised compact Mazda3 chassis, a solid contender for hot hatch value.
The Touring trim gets you a solid “acceptable” in terms of feature load: power everything, cruise control, sunroof, and a six disc audio system with aux in and Sirius satellite radio. Leather, satnav and DVD entertainment are available in Limited trim. All-in-all, the controls, plastics and upholstery have a very Target feel: not especially high-end, but hardly bargain-basement. Value is the word.
If we’re to evaluate this as The Hoon’s Family Hauler, we’ve got to take issue with a light beige interior (“sand” they call it). It’s a pleasant hue and a welcome departure from typical shades of gray, but was already showing stains with under 3500 miles on the clock. We’d consider it the interior of choice for two groups: those who are already walking around with stains on their shirt, or those with unrealistic expectations for their children.
With segments busting left and right, the Mazda5 creates its own niche somewhere between compact wagon and minivan. It’s got three rows of seats, but only seats six. Conversely, you could look at it as the smallest six-seater around. With the way-back seats down, the cargo area is huge, able to contain two rambunctious boxers with room for a third. With them up, the trunklet is good for one row of grocery bags and not much else. Thankfully, the back seats fold individually, giving room for five with their gear piled up one side. Just make sure to put the smallest member of your party back there; tell him it’s his special fort or something.
Under the mini captains chairs in the middle row are decently sized storage bins and a cool flip-out center console/basket thing. The middle row folds flat as well, leaving room for bikes or surfboards up the side. Just don’t let your friends see it with all the seats folded down; you’ll spend every weekend from here to eternity helping people move.
Knowing the 5 is based on the Mazda3 chassis, we came in with high expectations. Regarding the chassis: satisfaction accomplished. Excluding sportwagons, the Mazda5 is the best handling people mover we’ve ever piloted. The suspension’s perfectly damped and as firm as it could be without earning a dreaded “stiff” label. It leans, but nowhere near what you’d expect. Essentially, it drives like a well-sorted budget hot-hatch, begging you to chuck it harder into the next turn. Just be sure to press the “DSC Off” button, which is bafflingly far away from the driver and close to the spouse. It’s especially baffling as there’s a row of unused switch blanks down and to the left of the driver. Should all this corner-chucking get out of hand, we’ve verified a mid-corner lift will get the backend to rotate in a surprisingly graceful fashion.
While the chassis is top-notch, the powertrain is less so. Maybe we’re asking too much of a budget people-mover, but the 5 just doesn’t sound good. At idle the engine sounds grumbly and the power steering sounds like the Power Loader from Aliens. Unlike some four bangers, the engine note doesn’t improve with speed.
The market is thick with driver-friendly, quick-shifting, rev-matching paddle-actuated six or seven speed automatic transmissions. The Mazda5’s five-speed slushbox is not among them. It exhibits the frustrating, delayed cog-fumbling that leaves us opting for three pedals. Using the manumatic gate quells some of our gripes, but not all. Miraculously, you can get the Mazda5 with a stickshift. Seriously, like, even in the real world. 1,000 Hooniverse Points, right there.
The transmission wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t backing up an engine that’s next to useless below 4000 rpm. The 153hp 2.3L four-pot works hard
for its money getting the Mazda5 to do anything but plod. While the Mazda5 will never be accused of being a fast car, but it’s no slow, either; it’s just that you’ve got to keep the engine in a rev range I prefer to reserve for cars I don’t own.
We pulled just under 20mpg in a mix of errand running and high speed freeway cruising. We expected better, given the 21/27 rating, but we’re willing to chalk it up to a combination of our harder than the EPA driving style and the engine being hardly broken in yet.
Too much complaining? Maybe. After all, the base (read: stick-shift) Mazda5 starts under $19k. A lot of car for not a lot of money, as they say. Maybe we’re just cranky because we wish Mazda would put this shared-with-the-3-chassis to good use and build a Mazdaspeed5. We could re-publish the same review, but replace the last four paragraphs with heaps of praise for the 263hp direct-injected turbo mill.
Transition from prodigal youth into semi-responsible grownuphood is all too often accompanied by settling. The tyranny of practical matters wrings the fun from our habits, leaving us with only the options that checked off the right boxes. And yet, the Mazda5 checks off all the boxes, but hardly feels like settling…in fact, it can be a friggin’ blast at times. Maybe this grownup gig won’t be so bad after all.