When flipping though the pages of a parenting magazine whose subscription I've been meaning to cancel (my kids are 4 and 6, and I no longer need or want to read about great new birthing techniques every month), I became intrigued by ads for the Mazda5. What is it? A miniaturized minivan? A big sport wagon with sliding doors and room for six? My curiosity was matched by hordes of emails from other young mothers wanting to know about it as well. I was a bit skeptical at first. Although I appreciate the ingenuity of a company that thinks outside the box wide enough to create a car that none can define, I have to admit I don't really like the way this car looks. The only thing dorkier than a minivan is a mini minivan. To me, the sloping nose and wedge shape of the vehicle is, well, lame.

However, after driving the Mazda5 Touring for a week, my opinion has taken a complete 180 and I'm now forced to bite my tongue and apologize profusely for my previous (and, I'll admit, slightly rude) comments regarding the car's aesthetics. Functionality always wins, and the Mazda5 is a fantastic specimen of functionality on a budget.

It all starts with the sliding doors. If you haven't experienced sliding minivan-esque doors, you should. The ones on the Mazda5 manually open to expose a 27.5-inch-wide by 42.6-inch-tall opening for easy access to both the second and third rows. They're easy for children to operate on their own (if you want them to), and they're more efficient in tight parking spaces because they take up much less space than traditional hinged doors (which inevitably trap passengers on one side or the other when trying to enter the vehicle). The one downside to the Mazda5's sliding doors is that the mechanics of the sliding hinge on the bottom of the door are exposed, and during my test drive they tended to trap my daughter's pant leg in the hinge when she was trying to enter the car, causing her leg to get stuck and pinched in the door. No harm done, but it's a point to be mentioned.

The seating configuration in the Mazda5 is two in the first row, two in the second row (both with Latch anchors and tethers) and two more in the third row. The seats in the second row sport under-seat storage bins. The space between the second-row captain's chairs can be left open as an alley to the third row, or more aptly utilized with a fold-up cargo net (ropes course for action figures), cupholders (deadly crocodile-laden pools for said action figures) and/or a pop-on tray (picnic table for dinner on the go). The seats slide forward and backward to create additional legroom when needed, plus they tip forward for access to the third row, recline and fold flat in one step. The third row splits 50/50 and can be folded in one step to create an infinite number of seating and cargo-storage configurations. Bravo, bravo!

Driving the Mazda5 is equally a pleasure. Expecting a floaty ride like I experience in most minivans, I'm pleasantly surprised by the Mazda5's nimble agility. With none of the tilt and sway that goes along with cornering in a taller vehicle, the Mazda5 drives more like a sport wagon. With a turning radius of just 34.8 feet, this vehicle can handle tight U-turns quickly, before anyone can catch me turning where I'm not supposed to - theoretically speaking, of course.

Also sporting plenty of standard safety features - such as front, side and curtain airbags for all three rows, "crushable" brake and accelerator pedals, and convenience features such as remote keyless entry and steering-wheel-mounted audio controls, all for dirt cheap - the Mazda5 is the perfect example of functionality on a budget. The Mazda5 Sport model starts at $17,695, the Touring version costs $19,150 and the Grand Touring is $21,300. Maybe now you can afford to have that third baby and still afford to marry them all off in the end (there is a light at the end of the tunnel, isn't there?).

*For more information on the Mazda5 and its safety features, visit www.cars.com.

LET'S TALK NUMBERS

LATCH Connectors: 2

Seating Capacity (includes driver): 5

IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS THAT COUNT

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

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

SENSE AND STYLE

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

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