Somewhere between the introduction of the pioneering Chrysler minivan in 1984 and today, we lost the "mini" in minivan. The original base-model Dodge and Plymouth minivans were 175.9 inches long. Now, the best-selling minivan is the maxi-sized Honda Odyssey, which is 202.9 inches long, more than two feet longer.
Mazda has long taken a slightly different road with its minivans, including the redesigned 2012 Mazda5. Though Mazda insists that it's a "multi-activity vehicle," and not a minivan, the Mazda5 has three rows of seats and dual rear sliding doors. Sorry, Mazda, but if it walks like a duck…
At least the company is consistent: Beginning in 1989, the company sold the Mazda MPV, which also was a minivan that Mazda insisted wasn't a minivan; per the name, it was a Multi-Purpose Vehicle.
Regardless, the Mazda5 is more of a true minivan than any other minivan on the market. With a length of 180.5 inches, it's undeniably small, but inside, the packaging makes it seems much more spacious. Unlike larger minivans, there is no three-across seating -- the Mazda5 has three rows, but it's always two across, for a six-person capacity.
With all the seats in place, the Mazda5 has, as you might expect, not much room in the rear for cargo -- just 5.6 cubic feet, which will make you glad the grocery stores uses all those individual plastic bags instead of the taller, wider old paper bags. Fold down the third-row seat, though, and there's 27.5 cubic feel of room back there.
The previous Mazda5 had a 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine, but the 2012 model gets a slightly more potent 2.5-liter, with 157 horsepower. The base Sport model has a standard manual transmission; the 5-speed automatic comes standard with the mid-level Touring and top-of-the-line Grand Touring model. Fuel mileage isn't bad at all for a six-passenger vehicle -- an EPA-rated 21 mpg city, 28 mpg highway, for the automatic or manual transmission. Our actual overall mileage in the test Grand Touring model was an impressive 25.5 mpg.
The Sport model starts at $19, 195 with the 6-speed manual transmission. The automatic adds $1,000. The test Grand Touring model started at $23,875, and had no options, so with shipping, the bottom line was $24,720.
Even the base-model Mazda5 is pretty well-equipped, and our Grand Touring model was reasonably luxurious, with leather upholstery, xenon headlights, heated mirrors and front seats, rain-sensing wipers, a very good sound system and a power sunroof. Safety features abound, and include stability control, traction control, and side-curtain airbags for all three rows.
What this Mazda5 didn't have are some of the ultra-premium features offered on some of the larger, pricier minivans like a power folding rear seat, power side sliding doors and a power rear liftgate. And a navigation system isn't offered.
What is there, though, should be plenty for most of us looking for an economical people-mover that is much more fun to drive than you would expect. Handling is sharp and linear, and the ride is quite good, thanks in part to the longish 108.3-inch wheelbase that makes the Mazda5 feel larger than it is, in a good way.
The 2.5-liter engine is a good match for the 5-speed automatic transmission, which downshifts quickly when you need more power for merging or passing.
Inside, passenger comfort is excellent upfront, reasonably good in the middle row, passable in the third row. Adults will fit back there, but kids will be happier. A 250-mile day proved that the driving position is comfortable for long drives. Instruments and controls are well-placed -- the gearshift lever sticks out from the bottom of the dashboard, saving some space.
The Mazda5 fills a small but worthwhile niche in the market, and for the last few years, sales have been quite healthy, and the 2012 redesign, which is a real improvement in styling. Keep in mind, though, that they could be in short supply for a while. Although the Mazda plant in Hiroshima, Japan, where the Mazda5 is built, wasn't damaged by the earthquakes, 90 percent of the parts in the vehicle come from Japan, so some of Mazda's suppliers could have been affected.
2012 Mazda5 Grand Touring
Base price: $23,875
Price as tested: $24,720
EPA rating: 21 miles per gallon city driving, 28 mpg highway
Engine: 2.5-liter, 157-horsepower four-cylinder
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
Length: 180.5 inches
Wheelbase: 108.3 inches
In a nutshell: Good thing, small package.