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.