2006 Mazda5

A nanovan that's maxifun
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What are they putting in the guava juice at Mazda's design headquarters? Whatever it is, I want some. In a market filled with nichebusters and me-too copycats, the No. 4 Japanese automaker keeps finding ways to turn out clever, affordable funmobiles that are just a bit more creative than the competition. The Mazda3 is a supersporty sedan or hatchback for well under $20,000. The Mazda6 is one of the quickest sedans in the mid-$20s. And now the Mazda5 comes along with many of the attributes of a minivan-except the frumpiness. It is actually a ball to drive.

The idea is to build a car with practical features parents want, while sparing them the self-loathing. There are minivan-style sliding doors on both sides, for instance, which make it easier to handle babies in car seats and move gear in and out. Mazda manages to squeeze three rows of bucket seats into a relatively small space, creating seating for six. The seats flop and fold in various ingenious ways, for optimal cargo stuffing, and there's the customary pass-through between the two seats in the middle row, making it easy for kids to clamber into the third row. Antilock brakes and side-curtain air bags are standard, a must for any parent concerned about safety. The standard transmission is a sporty five-speed manual-try finding that on a Toyota Sienna-that makes an overachieving four-cylinder engine seem fairly peppy. And buyers can add upgrades like a power moonroof, a six-CD changer, fog lamps, and a rear spoiler and still stay under $20,000.

The trade-offs for all this fun practicality are things that 40-somethings probably care about but 20-somethings don't. Despite three rows, the Mazda5 is small, and with all three rows intact, there's precious little cargo space in the back. The third row doesn't fold completely flat, a disappointment to do-it-yourselfers who occasionally need to transport lumber and wallboards. And to keep the price within range of young families, Mazda has cut a few corners. In the front seat, only the driver gets a middle armrest, for instance. And there's a shortage of storage boxes and other nooks. Suburban parents with soccer teams to transport and other heavy hauling needs might be tempted to check out the Mazda5 but will probably opt for something more full figured. Which is probably just the way Mazda wants it.

Snapshot

NITS: The right-side sliding door won't open when the gas cap is unscrewed-a design compromise forced by tight packaging.

G-FORCES: There's only one engine, a 157-horsepower four-cylinder that's peppy enough to be fun. Stick with the standard five-speed manual transmission, and you'll enjoy yourself more than anybody transporting kids ought to. Big 17-inch tires help produce a stable highway ride, although the Mazda5's height does make it feel a bit top-heavy on curves.

GIZMOLOGY: Climate dials are straightforward and easy to use, but the digital radio display is small and difficult on imperfect eyes. A nice standard feature: steering-wheel-mounted controls for the radio.

KID MARKS: This is a great car for kids, at least small ones. Even toddlers will enjoy the autonomy offered by the second-row captain's chairs, which also help keep siblings out of each other's space. A handy tray with two cupholders folds out from underneath one of the seats. And the captain's chairs recline, to facilitate highway naps (for grown-ups too!). The third-row seat won't fit teens or adults but handles smaller kids just fine. Tough upholstery is reasonably kidproof.

HOT or NOT: Not. The Mazda5 is tall and ungainly-but can be sported up with a rear spoiler and other doodads that give it a kind of ugly chic.

PAIN AT THE PUMP: Modest. Mileage ratings range from 21 mpg/city to 27 mpg/highway. Ranks 407 out of 477 (lower is better) on U.S. News's muscle per gallon index.

CRASH COURSE: Not crash-tested by the government or by private testing organizations.

STANDARD SAFETY GEAR: Side-torso air bags, side-curtain air bags, antilock brakes.

PRICE POINTS: Base prices range from $17,995 to $19,510. Price as tested: $21,510.

MORE INFO:www.mazdausa.com