Driven: 2012 Mazda5

By John Beltz Snyder

March 08, 2011

—San Diego, California

The hard-to-define Mazda5 sits lonely in its segment since the discontinuation of the Kia Rondo. That’s not to say that Mazda prefers to be the sole competitor—quite the opposite, in fact. Mazda welcomes the Ford C-Max to the arena, as the company claims to believe this will shed more light on the mini-minivan, or whatever you choose to call it. The company is confident the 5 will stand up to scrutiny, which is why they invited Winding Road to take it for a whirl.

The first striking change for 2012 is cosmetic. The Mazda5 gets new character lines, which definitely make it stand out when viewed from the side. It comes from the Nagare (meaning “flow”) design language, previously seen in some of Mazda’s concept cars. Nagare is evident throughout the vehicle, but it is most noticeable here. Not only does it give the Mazda5 a fresh, if somewhat surprising, look, but it also helps to make the car more aerodynamic than before.

Opening either of the remarkably light sliding doors, we find a three-row, six-passenger setup. The height is just about perfect for easy ingress and egress. The second row of seating is comprised of two reclining captains chairs, which should help sleepier passengers get more comfortable. The third row is pretty tight, but should be ample for small children. All rear seats fold flat to make room for cargo, when necessary. In general, the interior quality seemed to be pretty good—slightly more refined and comfortable than the budget Mazdas we’re used to—whether in the base Sport trim or in the top-of-the-line Grand Touring model. And for Mazda, comfort and refinement seemed to be the driving forces behind many aspects of the vehicle.

In Mazda’s introduction to the vehicle, engineers spoke about the body roll they had programmed in (intentionally!) to the suspension. Knowing that the brand prides itself producing useful vehicles that are also fun to drive, we were flabbergasted. The intention was to make it more comfortable and natural feeling. With a bit of body roll, occupants wouldn’t be caught off guard in a turn and spill their coffee, or a sleeping baby wouldn’t be jolted awake. A fine intention, sure, but a concession we wouldn’t expect from Mazda, even in this more family-oriented offering. But, at this point, we still hadn’t driven the vehicle to experience this willful tuning characteristic.

On the road, we noticed the body roll all right, but it had essentially the opposite effect on the corner carving dynamics than we expected. Rather than pull the weight of the car toward the outside of our arc from the top, the car almost leans into the turn and settles in on its suspension, making it feel as though its center of gravity is lover than it actually is. On turn in, the Mazda5 plants itself over the wheels and locks in for the turn. Here, we should note—at the risk of revealing our innermost secrets—that one of the qualities rated in our Involvement Index is whether a vehicle’s roll is communicative and not a form of instability. And while the Mazda5 might not be the king of this feature, it definitely made the presence this quality very clearly apparent when carving the canyon roads near the border to Mexico south of San Diego.

The steering in the 5 reminds us of that in the Mazda2, only with less feeling. It’s nicely responsive and predictable. We wouldn’t mind a little more snap from on center, but the car generally goes where you point it, and reacts appropriately to movements both fast and slow. It might not be quite as quick to settle back down to anticipate maneuvers in succession, but that is part of the nature of this being a larger, heavier vehicle than our beloved Deuce. And, when we keep in mind the people who will likely be buying this car—young parents with greater concerns than hitting the perfect slalom with little Eric cheering from his baby seat—the relative nimbleness of this car will likely be more than ample for even more spirited jaunts to the daycare.

For the new model year, Mazda tuned the acceleration and braking to work more harmoniously with the steering for smoother driving. In some cars, light pressure on either pedal will elicit a dramatic response. This is a “predictable” response only if you’ve got a heavy right foot. For the rest of the casual driving world, this makes the gas and brake harder to modulate, and can lead to some pretty herky-jerky starts and stops. With the likely consumer in mind, the Mazda5 produces a more progressive response. The more pressure you apply, the more of a response you get. It sound’s like a no-brainer, but before the “Duh!” comments, we must point out that the Mazda5 responds with remarkable linearity, and throughout the entire travel of the pedals. You have to dig pretty deep to get it to act dramatically—a really good quality if your passengers are prone to motion sickness or easily roused from sleep. Plus, it just feels good to have such smooth, precise control when accelerating or braking.

Mazda5’s new 2.5-liter inline four replaces the old 2.3-liter version, providing 157 horsepower and 163 pound-feet of torque. Whether equipped with the five-speed automatic transmission with manual mode or the new six-speed manual transmission, the car returns a combined 24 miles per gallon (21 city, 28 highway). The automatic does a fine job of transferring power to the wheels, and it will thankfully hold on to a gear when in manual mode. Really, though, the six-speed manual (one more gear than the previous model year) is where it’s at. We’ve praised the five-speed manual in the smaller Mazda2 before, for its good feel, short shifts, and natural proximity to the right hand. The do-it-yourself gearbox in the 5 feels almost exactly the same, and is located in the same part of the center console; it just has a sixth, tall gear for super comfortable highway cruising. When we switched from the Grand Touring trim level into the base Sport model, what was a practical family machine became an undercover lover.

There’s only one problem: the manual transmission can only be had in the base trim. We understand why. It would not make sense financially to proliferate the stick throughout the model trims when Mazda expects the six-speed to only make up about five percent of the Mazda5s sold. Still, though, the Grand Touring model is nice enough that we feel torn between the goodness of the manual and the amenities of the higher trim level. The heated leather seats in the GT model are comfortable and soft to the touch, as is the leather-wrapped steering wheel. The panoramic moonroof is downright massive. The xenon headlights and rain-sensing windshield wipers are slick. The six-disc changer is nice, and the Bluetooth hands-free connectivity is nearly essential. For a daily driver (let’s face it, we’re not going to be shopping the Mazda5 for our budget track toy), convenience is probably going to win out over the joy of swapping cogs on our own, particularly with the manual mode of the five-speed, and certainly when a significant other is involved in the decision-making process. This is the part where we shed a single tear and admit that—based on total package and not the merits of the transmissions alone, mind you—we would choose the Grand Touring trim over the Sport with a manual.

That was as painful to write as it is to read, we assure you.

You may have noticed one feature we haven’t mentioned—navigation. That’s because it’s not there. In any trim level. If you want that, the dealer can sell you a Garmin, but you’ll find no navigation screen built into the 2012 Mazda5. Still, for the price, it’s likely many customers will find just what they were looking for, which is a roomy vehicle with a small footprint, a great deal of comfort, and even a healthy dose of fun.

2012 Mazda5 Sport 6MT
Engine: Inline-4, 2.5 liters, 16v
Output: 157 hp/163 lb-ft
Weight: 3417 lb
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 21/28 mpg
Cargo Capacity: 55.44 cu ft
Price: $19,195
On Sale: Now