No longer brainwashed by the great SUV deception, for which we can thank the price of gas, we North Americans are finally accepting something the rest of the world has always known: that it's possible to build a compact car offering exceptional interior versatility without sacrificing the fun factor. The Mazda5, available in Sport and Touring versions, is a perfect expression of this philosophy. We tested the Touring with a 5-speed manual, priced at $18,950. EPA mileage is 22/27 city/highway.
First Glance: Designed from the inside out
Never reluctant to draw on history to make a point, I'd like to take you back to the 60's when I was editor of a car mag with the unfortunate name of Canada Track & Traffic. Critics who couldn't appreciate the difficulty of competing with media giants south of the border immediately dubbed it Trash & Tragic, but they might have held their tounges had they bothered to notice an article comparing the interior spaciousness of two English compact sedans (one from Rover, the other from Triumph) with popular American land yachts of the time. Though the latter were longer and wider by far, they were inferior when interior dimensions were measured because the Brit cars were designed from the inside out. Don't get me wrong: all manufacturers use seating bucks to check interior space but styling begins and ends on the exterior and everything else becomes a compromise.
The Mazda5, however, was designed from the inside out, resulting in comfortable seating for six, flip-folding seats that do more tricks than a circus dog, and handling that makes it genuinely fun to drive. And guess what? It manages to look mighty handsome, too.
In the Driver's Seat: Clearly intended as a driver's car
Looking inside a Mazda5, much of the magic seems to be in back. But don't let that fool you, for the planners intended this as a driver's car, too. The seats are supportive, the steering wheel tilts as needed, visibility is expansive. The instrument panel is nicely laid-out, so that all essential controls fall to hand and, for the most part, are functionally simple. I'll give high marks to climate and stereo controls which, after a brief learning period, could be operated with only a momentary glance away from "eyes on the road." Sound and cruise settings are handily-located on the steering wheel.
Storage is only average although the glove compartment would hold more if the owner's manual wasn't comparable in size to the Manhattan telephone book. When, for goodness sake, will automakers put manuals into a database easily accessed (and illustrated) on one of those information panels they love to impress us with? Leave the manual at home and call up the info when needed!
Another beef: the massive steering wheel tilt-control is awkwardly located and stiffer than a weightlifter's handshake. I did like the gearshift location, high up on the console where it could be flicked through the gears like a Miata. Well, almost like a Miata.
On the Road: Very quick and very frugal
Perhaps even more remarkable is the Mazda5's handling, its steering feel, and the 4-wheel disc brakes, all of which made it possible for me to have fun on the local winding roads. Engine noise is not intrusive and the sunroof doesn't cause buffeting but with the windows open the airflow creates a tremendous "banging" sound from unattached seatbelts. Having said all that, I question whether the 4-speed auto, which most people will buy, can deliver similar performance. 5-speeds needed here, Mazda.
Journey's End: All things to all people
I've saved the best to the last. Like a minivan, which it isn't, the Mazda5 has convenient sliding second-row doors. It seats two up front, two in the second row, two in the rear. And because the middle seats slide to-and-fro and recline, those rear seats are not intolerable for adults. Each mid-row seat can be folded flat individually, as can the third-row seats. The right-side mid-row seat reveals a moveable tray suited to drinks and food, the folded left-side offers its own storage bin. (Please refer to our image gallery to see how all this miraculously happens.)
Meanwhile, back at the steering wheel, I'm driving the Mazda5 as if it were a sports sedan, enjoying the performance and handling. Speed addicts might be looking for a V-6 option, which isn't necessary, and those for whom practicality is most important can be assured that even the base Sporting Mazda5 includes all the essential features. In summary, I have no hesitation in suggesting that the 2006 Mazda5 is the most intelligent vehicle on this planet. Other planets need apply.