Mazda5 review: Sedan, station wagon or minivan?

2012 Mazda Mazda5

2012 Mazda Mazda5 (Credit: Tribune Media Services)

I got almost everything I wanted from the 2012 Mazda5, a six-seat mini-minivan, but it really depended on what scenario I was putting it through each day.

I quickly learned that I had to keep the "mini" in mind when it came to the Mazda5. Want to haul six passengers but cringe at the fuel-economy numbers found with third-row crossovers and larger vans? You'll score with the Mazda5 as long as your kids are out of rear-facing child-safety seats.

Looking for the convenience of sliding rear doors to load younger children into the vehicle, but want to have a third row to bring along a couple of adult helpers? Don't count on it in the Mazda5.

The Mazda5 is an alternative to a traditional sedan or station wagon for families. It can be a more fuel-efficient option when compared to three-row crossovers. It definitely drives more like a car versus a van; for parents who love to drive, this could be the most enticing feature of all. However, don't expect it to compete equally with a "real" minivan.

I found the Mazda5 to be easy-to-maneuver and somewhat zippy to drive with its four-cylinder engine. I enjoyed avoiding the feeling of steering a boat around town; you can feel the Mazda5's small size and agility when on the road, despite its "van" status.

The Mazda5 is economical for families as well, especially when compared to bona-fide minivan competitors. The 2012 Mazda5 has a starting MSRP of $19,625, but my top-of-the-line Grand Touring edition had a sticker price of $25,920.

Exterior

For those secretly wishing for minivan conveniences but not quite ready to join the team, the Mazda5 is a much more low-profile start. At first, it looks like a compact hatchback that would be at home on the streets of Europe or Asia. On second glance, you notice rear sliding doors and a taller frame, which clue you in to its minivan characteristics. It's a good-looking little number.

It will be easy for all ages to get in and out of the Mazda5, thanks to its low step-in height. A high roofline keeps the grown-ups from having to bend over too much when entering the Mazda5 or getting infants and toddlers settled into their child-safety seats. And, those sliding doors -- I'm converted! It's a huge convenience for such a small detail. I was hoping for a power liftgate, too, but even on the top trim level, it's not an option.

I was really happy with the cargo area's size when the third row wasn't in use and folded flat, but as is the case with many third-row vehicles, once the third row is up, the cargo area is severely diminished. I only had room for groceries when using the third row; no stroller or other gear would fit. When the third row is folded down, there's plenty of room. Go ahead and pack in a few grocery bags with your stroller in the back!

The 2012 Mazda5 has a new 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine for this model year that makes 157 horsepower. That's not bad if you're looking for a little driving fun on the way to softball practice. My test car's Grand Touring trim comes with a standard five-speed automatic transmission; a six-speed manual is available on lower trims. With either transmission, the Mazda5 gets an EPA-estimated 21/28 mpg city/highway. It requires regular gasoline, raising the Mazda5's appeal for an average family.

SENSE AND STYLE

Family Friendly (Not Really, Fair, Great, Excellent): Great

Fun-Factor (None, Some, Good Times, Groove-On): Some

Interior

I had strong likes and dislikes with the Mazda5's interior. The interior's look isn't exactly upscale; it has a rather stripped-down appearance, which wasn't a surprise considering the price point, but there were things I expected, especially at my test car's top-trim level, that weren't included in this minivan.

What was missing? I was surprised there wasn't a navigation system or a backup camera option on the Mazda5, yet it did come with a rear entertainment system! I was also slightly annoyed by the six-disc CD changer, too; I'd gladly trade it for a screen with better displays for the satellite radio or even a USB input for an iPod. The car only comes with a rudimentary MP3 jack.

When it comes to seating, it's true that the Mazda5 can accommodate six passengers, but not if you throw child-safety seats in the mix. After installing rear-facing convertible seats in the second-row captain's chairs, the walkway to the third row was obstructed. Although the captain's chairs slide forward and back to get passengers in the third row, I couldn't slide them forward with the rear-facing convertibles installed in them. Bummer. That meant I essentially was back to a four-seater. However, if you've got two kids in forward-facing car seats or no safety seats at all, the Mazda5 could haul them and a few friends with ease.

Keep in mind that this is a mini-minivan and adjust expectations for the third row accordingly. It's better suited for children than for adults. However, the second-row captain's chairs provide lots of flexibility when not holding rear-facing child-safety seats. With their ability to slide back and forth, the captain's chairs make things a little easier when maneuvering within the cabin.

My favorite features in the Mazda5 were the hidden storage bins underneath the captain's chairs. Pull up the seat cushion and there's room to store books, toys or even reusable shopping bags. And all passengers are guaranteed a cupholder -- there are two up front (along with a storage bin), two more in a center console that sits between second row's seats (and can be folded out of the way when not in use) and two more for third-row passengers.

IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS THAT COUNT

Storage Compartments (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Ample

Cargo/Trunk Space (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Ample

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