The Mazda5 defies categorization in the U.S. In many ways, it’s a car out of time, as the proto-minivan class it belongs to left our market decades ago. Tall, multi-passenger wagons like the Nissan Axxess, Mitsubishi Expo, and Dodge/Plymouth Colt Vista once roamed the roads, but they’ve since gone extinct, making way for the larger minivans that still reign today. And the absence of competition has allowed the Mazda to thrive in the niche segment.
OK, maybe “thrive” isn’t the right phrase. Through the first half of 2014, roughly 7200 Mazda5s have been sold, and that’s down nearly 21 percent from the same period last year. But for parents looking to haul kids on a budget, the six-passenger wagon is pretty much the only game in town. It’s also the most compact and most carlike of all the minivan alternatives out there, two attributes that should please those opposed to the soul-sucking minivan driving experience. If that’s not enough to persuade the enthusiast-turned-shuttle driver, the Mazda5 is also the only people-mover available with a six-speed manual transmission.
Our 2014 Mazda5 Sport tester came equipped with that rare manual option, but what helped differentiate it the most from other multi-passenger vehicles is its taut chassis, which shares many components with the previous Mazda3. Turn-in is reasonably sharp for a car built solely to ferry people. Body roll is noticeable, but no more than expected for a tallish wagon. But perhaps the most engaging thing about the Mazda5 is its steering. Instead of the overboosted minivan steering I was expecting, the helm offered a more Mazda3-like experience — a welcome departure from the segment’s floaty, disconnected norm.
In testing, the Mazda5 just about duplicated the handling results of the last model we tested, a 2012 Mazda5 Touring. The Sport model’s 16-inch alloy wheels wrapped in 205/55-size all-season tires helped it hold an average of 0.79 g on the skidpad and complete the figure eight in 28.3 seconds at an average of 0.60 g. One thing testing director Kim Reynolds noted was how old the Mazda5 felt on the figure-eight — specifically in regard to how the ABS intervened. When braking at the limit, the ABS would kick in abruptly and cause the Mazda5 to become directionally unsettled. Modern systems have become more sophisticated, and the 5’s performance on our handling course just highlights how old its hardware is.
It’s not all bad, though. With the manual, the Mazda5 improved its acceleration numbers from last time. The 2.5-liter I-4 previously offered in the last-gen Mazda3 Grand Touring makes 157 hp and 163 lb-ft in the Mazda5. That power routed through the six-speed manual was good enough to scoot the Mazda5 to 60 mph in 8.2 seconds. Not quick by any means, but almost a second faster than the five-speed automatic-equipped Mazda5 Touring’s 9.1-second result. The quarter mile came in 16.3 seconds at 85.5 mph, compared to 17.0 seconds at 81.5 mph with the automatic. Braking also improved slightly, with the 2014 Mazda5 stopping from 60 mph 7 feet shorter than the 2012 model at 116 feet.
Going back to how old the Mazda5 feels, that impression applies to other parts of the vehicle as well. The exterior styling retains the “smiley” front end look of the previous Mazda3, and doesn’t benefit from Mazda’s latest Kodo design language. It’s not a bad look, but without the corporate face found on the rest of the lineup, the 5 looks dated. It’s a similar story inside the cabin, which features a center stack that’s at least one generation behind. The switchgear and gauges also feel behind the times, and our tester lacked many modern amenities. Features such as three-flash turn signals, push-button start, hands-free keyless entry, Bluetooth, and automatic headlights were missing, though we can hardly complain considering our car’s as-tested price of $21,010. Bluetooth is standard on the up-level Touring model, which starts at $23,065, while automatic headlights are locked away in the $25,465 Grand Touring trim.
The sliding rear doors grant easy access to the second row. Getting to the third row, however, is a bit more of a challenge. The narrow passage between the second-row captain’s chairs is barely wide enough for children to pass, so if you’re an adult, expect to stumble at least once when making your way to the rear seats. Given the Mazda5’s dimensions, those seats are understandably cramped, offering the bare minimum of legroom. Adults should expect to fold themselves origami-style, with their knees ending up somewhere near their chest. But passengers shorter than 5 feet should have no trouble fitting in the back row.
With the third-row seats in place, there isn’t much cargo room. I even had trouble getting the liftgate to close with just my (admittedly full) backpack in the rear. With the third row down, however, the Mazda5 offers 44.4 cubic-feet of space. If more storage is needed, the seat cushions of the captain’s chair lift up to reveal extra compartments, with the passenger-side seat also hiding a fold-out tray and cupholder.
The Mazda5 in some ways is like the modern-day crocodile. It’s survived without many changes since its introduction because it hasn’t needed any. Its unique features make it well suited for its intended purpose, and even in the animal kingdom we see evolution tends to stick with what works. But considering its dwindling sales numbers, the Mazda5 may face extinction if it can’t adapt soon with proper updates. A face-lift inside and out with a dose of Skyactiv drivetrains might help ensure that this rare beast lives on.
|2014 Mazda5 Sport|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$21,010|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, FWD, 6-pass, 4-door van|
|ENGINE||2.5L/157-hp/163-lb-ft DOHC 16-valve I-4|
|CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST)||3362 lb (56/44%)|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||180.5 x 68.9 x 63.9 in|
|0-60 MPH||8.2 sec|
|QUARTER MILE||16.3 sec @ 85.5 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||116 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.79 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||28.3 sec @ 0.60 g (avg)|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON||21/28/24 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS., CITY/HWY||160/120 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS||0.82 lb/mile|