Test Drive: Mazda5

San Diego ? Remember when a minivan was actually small, and not the largest product in a brand?s lineup? ?Mazda does, and the all-new 2012 Mazda5 takes the concept to a whole new level with maximum utility and a total Zoom-Zoom treatment.

There are several things that set the Mazda5 apart from other so-called minivans, but the most obvious is its demur size.? At 180-inches long, it is about the same length as a Toyota Corolla and Honda CR-V.? It?s nearly two feet shorter than the iconic Chrysler Town and Country van and weighs about 1,300 pounds less.

The most dramatic change in the second generation Mazda5 is the styling, which Mazda calls ?Seductive Smartness.?? The vehicle silhouette is similar to the original with its dramatically laid back windshield and the roofline that tapers down toward the rear.? What is dramatically different is the new Mazda family broad smiley face grille and a unique wave-like pattern stamped into the side panels.? At a distance the waves first looked like graphics, but they are very much real and stamped into the steel doors.? The result is a dramatic and sophisticated ?Nagare flow design language? which is said to represent the forces of wind and water?and it works creating a unique and very sophisticated look. ?The design also produces a super slippery 0.30 coefficient of drag.? There?s no mass market vehicle that has the style drama of the Mazda5.

Inside the same Nagare design language is used on the instrument panel, trim, seats and even the seat fabrics.? The result is a rich, sporty looking interior that is both comfortable and supportive for longer trips.? Seating is in a 2-2-2 configuration, but the third seat is better suited for children. Nevertheless, four passengers in individual bucket can be very comfortable and have room for up to 44 cubic feet of cargo with the third row seat folded and significantly more with the middle seats folded flat.? Interior space is maximized, too, with features like hidden storage spaces under the middle seats and spacious storage space between the first and second row seats.

Unlike the larger minivans, Mazda5 doesn?t have the power sliding side doors and rear hatch.? Rather the lightweight doors slide easily opening and closing with a very light touch.

Powered by the same 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine as is used in the Mazda3, Mazda6 and CX-7, the new larger (increased from 2.3-liters to 2.5) Mazda5 engine is rated at 157-hp. ?The engine is mated with a standard six-speed manual transmission on the Sport model or an optional five-speed automatic with manual shift control.? The automatic is standard equipment on the Touring and Grand Touring trim levels.

With the new larger engine, 0 to 60 mph acceleration times are dropped by about a second to 9.1 seconds.? That?s about a second or two slower than the larger competitors with V-6 engines.? The plus side is the fuel economy, which at 21 mpg city and 28 mpg highway, by the EPA estimate, is as much as 10 mpg better than the competitors in the city and a mile or two per gallon better than most for highway driving.

The Mazda beats all the larger minivans hands down in the corners.? It has a strong dose of the Mazda Zoom-Zoom DNA which includes four-wheel independent suspension and four-wheel disc brakes.? The Mazda5 is a blast to drive quickly through sharp corners and sweeping curves alike.? It stays flat and firmly attached to the road with good feedback and a precision feel, more like a sport sedan than bulky van.? It was also superior in town picking through traffic or maneuvering through a tight parking lot.? The tight 36.7-foot turning radius is a big plus, too.

The Mazda van comes in three trim levels ? Sport, Touring and Grand Touring ? with the base price starting at $19,990 for the Sport.? At that price, the Sport includes the manual transmission, 16-inch alloy wheels, automatic climate control, power windows and locks, keyless entry and cruise control in addition to all the standard safety equipment that?s included on all trim levels.

Step up to the Grand Touring model with automatic transmission for $24,720 and the equipment list grows with 17-inch alloy wheels, xenon headlights, leather seating (heated in the front), premium audio with Sirius Satellite Radio, Bluetooth and a few other cosmetic and convenience goodies. ?Options are limited to a few cosmetic and convenience upgrades that add only $1,000 if all the option boxes are checked.? The only down side is there is no build-in navigation option. ?On features alone, the Mazda5 Grand Touring gets extra points for it value.

For someone who wants the convenience of a minivan, but doesn?t need seven or eight passenger capacity, the Mazda5 is a winner for $5,000 to $20,000 less than the competition. The big bonus is the sporty handling and better fuel economy.? This is a minivan I could get excited about.

Bill Schaffer