2012 Mazda5: It puts the “mini” back in “van”

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If you think about it, most current “minivans” aren’t.

They’re pretty huge, actually.

The 2011 Toyota Sienna, for example, is 200.2 inches long, has a 119.3 inch wheelbase and weighs 4,275 lbs.

It’s a great van, but mini, it ain’t.

A 1984 Dodge Caravan – grandaddy of all minivans – was more than two feet shorter overall (175.9 inches) had 7 inches less wheelbase and weighed almost 1,000 lbs. less.

Now that’s a “mini” van.

So, too, is the 2012 Mazda5. It’s only 5 inches longer than the original Dodge Caravan – and so about two feet shorter than full-size vans like the current Sienna. It’s for people who want the utility of the traditional minivan layout – including dual sliding door and low step-in height – but don’t need or want an eight passenger bus that sucks gas and takes up too much space in the garage.

WHAT IT IS

The Mazda5 is a compact minivan so about the same size overall as a current mid-sized sedan.

Although there are numerous similar-looking and sized “crossovers” and smaller SUVs on the market, the 5 is the only one that has traditional minivan-style sliding doors, as well as minivan-style three row seating.

Like the ’84 Dodge Caravan, you can get a manual transmission in this thing, too.

Think of it is a modern take on the original minivan concept.

Prices start at $19,345 for the Sport. A mid-range Touring model has an MSRP of $21,345 and a top-of-the-line Gran Touring model stickers out at $24,025.

All versions are front-wheel-drive and four-cylinder-powered – again, very much like the original ’80s-era Caravan.

WHAT’S NEW

The 5 is significantly updated for the new model year. Exterior and interior styling is new, the cabin is roomier, the standard engine is bigger and more powerful and there’s an available six-speed manual transmission – the latter a feature that’s all-but-impossible to find in a recent vintage van, mini or otherwise.

WHAT’S GOOD

Right-sized for families that aren’t the Duggar family.

Still seats six people.

Available manual transmission.

Handles better than you’d expect.

Reasonably economical four cylinder engine.

WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD

Needs almost 10 seconds to reach 60 MPH, slow for the class – and the times.

Not offered with AWD.

Not-so-great standard warranty.

UNDER THE HOOD

The 2012 5 comes with a new (and larger) 2.5 liter engine rated at 157 hp – an uptick of 4 hp over the previous 2.3 liter engine. That you won’t notice in terms of feel, but the new engine’s additional 15 lbs.-ft. of torque does improve low-speed responsiveness enough that you can tell the difference between the 2012 and the 2011 5.

The new engine is available with either a six-speed manual transmission (standard in the Sport) or a five-speed automatic (standard in the higher-trim Touring and Gran Touring versions).

The 5 is the only traditional minivan (though downscaled) on the market right now that comes with a four-cylinder engine and which offers an available manual transmission.

Other vans all come standard with V-6 engines and while they deliver much quicker acceleration, they also drink a lot more gas. Mid-20s on the highway (and mid-high teens in the city) is typical for those vans. But the 5, being smaller, lighter and four-cylinder powered, is solidly in the low 20s in city driving and approaches 30 MPG on the highway (with either the manual or the automatic transmission).

ON THE ROAD

Once it gets going, the 5 can hustle. Unlike any other true minivan – all of which are big, heavy, lurchy things that do not like to be driven much faster than the speed limit except in a very straight line – the 5 exhibits minimal body lean when driven significantly faster than the speed limit in a less-than-straight-line. It tracks with precision, doesn’t wallow or bounce up and down. In a word, it feels comfortable being driven at a pretty aggressive clip – if you want to do that. If not, the ride’s still very much like what you’d probably expect in a minivan – meaning, smooth, quiet and absorptive of potholes and dips.

The only downside is getting it going.

Standard minivans may corner like the Goodyear Blimp but most of them – with V-6 engines pushing 300 hp in some case – accelerate like muscle cars. Most get to 60 in 7 seconds or less. That is quicker than a mid-late ’70s-era Corvette – just for reference.

The 5, meanwhile, needs 9.5-9.6 seconds – and that’s with just the driver on board and no cargo. With two or three passengers and another couple hundred pounds of Stuff out back, the 5 is vulnerable to humiliation by Mopeds and Priuses and maybe even a well-driven ’70s-era Super Beetle.

Of course, the passage of time has warped our perspective a bit. Back in 1984, the Dodge Caravan was no quicker. But on the other hand, other cars were slower than they are now – and speed limits were lower, too. The 5 is still adequately powerful in most situations, most of the time. But Mazda might give some thought to at least offering an engine upgrade (maybe a turbo?) that would goose the underhood output and performance of this car to line up a bit better with today’s road realities.

AT THE CURB

Original minivans looked a lot like the box they came in – so to speak. The Granny Panties of transportation.

The 5 is much sleeker, almost sexy – at least, as sexy as a minivan can be. There’s a subtle “dual scallop” that runs along the flanks, from the front doors to the cutouts for the rear sliders; up front, a Mazda3-style nosepiece with low-wide grille opening with what look like mini-projector beam driving lights on either side of it.

The interior even has a few hints of rotary power (a Mazda calling card, though of course not a 5 feature). The top of the dash, for example, is crowned and looks a lot like the leading edge of a rotor. The shifter is mounted up high, flowing out of the center stack and not positioned down low on the console in between the seats – where it would eat up space as well as be vulnerable to coffee spillage. There’s even a pull-up style parking brake lever, another sporty touch. (A pull-up parking brake lever is also practical and safer because it can operate as an emergency brake whereas a foot-actuated parking brake can’t because it’s almost impossible to modulate braking pressure with a foot brake in an emergency. You’re much more likely to lock up the back wheels and send the vehicle into a skid.)

First and second row chairs have armrests and the second row seats are separated by a fold-away console. There is enough headroom in the second row to leave a two inch air gap between the crown of a six-plus-footer’s head (mine) and the headliner. The 2012 also has about four inches more second row legroom (39.4 inches) than the previous-generation 5 (35.2 inches).

And it’s much easier to get in and out of the second row through the wide opening provided the dual sliders. Power-actuation isn’t offered – but these manual doors are easy to use because they’re much lighter than a standard-size van’s. In a full-size minivan, you pretty much have to have power doors – unless you’ve got 18 inch pythons.

The 5’s third row seats are – very surprisingly – usable, even for a six-foot galoot like me. My head just barely brushed the headliner. But you do have to be fairly nimble to get in and out of the third row. Still, they’re very usable and endow the 5 with legitimate six passenger capability.

THE REST

One of the other appealing qualities of the 5 is its price. Just over $19k to start – and very serviceably equipped as it sits, with most major power options, climate control AC with secondary controls for the second tow, keyless entry, tilt-telescoping wheel and a CD-playing, MP3-ready stereo – vs. well into the low-mid $20k range to start for a standard-sized van. For smaller families, it’s nice to have the option of a vehicle like the 5 that costs several thousand less to buy – and gets about 5-8 MPG better gas mileage, too. Also take into account that the base Sport’s 16 inch wheel/tire package will cost you less down the road – when it comes time to buy new tires – than 17 or 18-inch tires.

On the other end of the scale, a top-of-the-line Gran Touring 5 with heated leather seats, Xenon HID headlights, Blueooth, trip computer, SiriusXM satellite radio, sunroof etc. – is just barely over $24k, whereas you can easily pay as much as $40,000 for a top-of-the-line standard-sized van.

The only complaint I can toss at the 5 is the mediocre comprehensive warranty (just three years/36,000 miles – though you do get a five-year/60,000 mile deal on the drivetrain) and the so-so power.

Some may also miss AWD, but right now, most other minivans don’t offer that feature, either. In fact, the Toyota Sienna is the only traditional minivan still available with AWD. Many people, apparently, have figured out that except for outright blizzards, a FWD vehicle with the right tires (and the right driver) will go almost anywhere that an AWD vehicle can – and costs less to buy, feed and maintain.

THE BOTTOM LINE

If it’s a mini van you want, there’s only one that fits the bill.

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