A city wagon for zoom-zooming families


2012 Mazda5 wagon (Courtesy of Mazda)
Warren Brown
Columnist April 15, 2011

I frequently get e-mails from parents seeking the “right” vehicle for their young families. “Right,” in this case, refers to reliability, safety, utility, fuel and overall operational economy, point-of-sale affordability, and fun.

They would prefer that their new ride not be a minivan, station wagon or sport-utility vehicle. They are parents opposed to traditional images of mobile parenthood. They might have lusted for SUVs in their teenage and pre-married years. But now they have children and understand the need for preserving an environment in which clean air, green grass and potable water come as standard equipment.

Warren Brown is a columnist who writes about autos for The Washington Post. View Archive

They are not tree huggers. But they are keen about demonstrating environmental maturity. They, at least, want to be seen as doing the right thing.

Yet, style, in the traditional “fashionable” sense of the word, matters much to them. They like beauty. They actively pursue it. Feel matters to them, too. Small is one thing. Cramped is another. They want space and utility in a manageable package.

Car companies globally have tried to satisfy the competing, often contradictory needs and desires of the YPG (Young Parent Group) class. Some companies have tried to do it the old-fashioned way — employing marketing euphemisms to give young families what they need while concealing the absence of much of what they want. Thus, minivans and SUVs became “crossover-utility vehicles” or “crossovers” and station wagons became “sport wagons.”

The exercise has yielded some outright oddities. Consider, for example, the ill-conceived 2011 Honda Accord Crosstour. It is part sedan, part minivan, part wagon, part sports car, part SUV, part everything. It seems based on the notion that anyone who wants all those things in a single package must have the money to buy it. It therefore is priced accordingly, beginning frightfully close to $30,000.

Mazda, Honda’s scrappy fellow Japanese rival, takes another approach with this week’s subject. The Mazda5 looks like a minivan because it is a minivan — a mini-minivan complete with rear sliding doors. But for more palatable marketing purposes to the YPG class, a group for which the term “minivan” has largely fallen into disfavor, I prefer the term “city wagon.” That fits nicely into the lifestyles of neighborhoods such as Clarendon in Arlington or the university communities in Syracuse, N.Y., or Chapel Hill, N.C.

This city wagon is certainly priced right for academic assistants and researchers working on sub-tenure salaries, or trying to eat, afford shelter and study on student loans. The starting price is $19,195 for the base Mazda5 Sport, the version driven for this column.

For that, you get a beautifully, distinctively sculpted front-wheel-drive wagon with comfortable seating for four and emergency seating for six. “Emergency” applies because the two rear seats make sense only for small children on short trips. They are tiny and much too close to the rear hatch door for my safety tastes.

But here’s the reality: Most young families consist of two parents and one child or two parents and two children. A young couple with four children is in a different cost-and-needs bracket. They are best advised to check out something larger, such as a Kia Sorento, a Mazda CX7 or a base Chevrolet Traverse.

But a young family — I’m thinking two plus two — that fits well into the Mazda5 will find something close to motorized heaven. It’s beautifully styled inside and out. Fit and finish are excellent. And for those people who like to drive, a genuine six-speed manual gearbox is standard. Also available is a five-speed transmission that can be operated automatically or manually.

I love driving. But my wife, Mary Anne, has no patience for manual transmissions. We chose the five-speed automatic-manual and came closer than I wanted to come at this point in our fragile fiscal lives — a condition rendered by house remodeling — to choosing to blow our budget.

The reason had little to do with appearance and everything to do with road performance in weather fair and foul on good roads and those considerably less than desirable. Handling was excellent.

We expected clunky economy-wagon handling. We got something altogether different — on par with fun-to-drive-sports-car handling, which seduced us into driving hundreds of miles more then we intended to drive in the Mazda5. And we had that kind of fun in a little wagon with a standard 2.5-liter in-line four-cylinder engine (157 horsepower, 163 foot-pounds of torque).

In the end, we even fell in love with those tiny rear seats. They fold flat, headrests and all, and they do so quite easily. That creates a maximum of 44.4 cubic feet of cargo space — amazing for something so seemingly small on the outside, so easy to park in the city, so wonderfully maneuverable in urban traffic. We loaded it with the detritus of house remodeling, filled it with the recommended regular-grade gasoline (15.9-gallon capacity, 21 miles per gallon city, 28 mpg highway) and headed southward down Interstate 95, confidently rolling at speed in the high-speed left lane, to the Fairfax County dump.

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