Snug Minivan Built for City Agility
Sunday, July 24, 2005
Small has a chance to make it big in America. Consider the 2006 Mazda5, a minivan that is "mini" in the truest sense of the word.
It is built for the city.
It fits neatly into tight spaces. It presents no visual obstruction to other drivers. But it can carry six passengers and judicious amounts of their stuff.
The Mazda5 also fits into tight pocketbooks, starting below $20,000. But for families with small children, it offers as much utility as the Mercedes-Benz R350, a minivan that has a base price of $48,000.
That could be seen as an apples-and-oranges comparison. The Mazda5 is for the Striving Class. The Mercedes-Benz R-Class is unmistakably for the rich. But these two new-generation minivans are remarkably similar in function and design.
The R-Class, reviewed in this column July 17, also seats six. But it is made for adults who have already reared children, as opposed to those who are still rearing them. Thus, the R-Class has comfortable seating for six adult bodies. The Mazda5 has comfortable seating for four adults -- two up front and two in the middle -- and two small children in the rear.
I am using the term "minivan" because its euphemistic alternatives -- "touring" and "tourer," preferred by fashion-conscious automotive marketers -- make no sense. The official name for this week's vehicle, for example, is "Mazda5 Touring." The Mercedes-Benz R350 and its sibling R500 have been festooned with the moniker "Grand Sport Tourer."
I don't know what a "tourer" is. Here's betting that the buying public is equally befuddled. But I do know a minivan when I see one, and the tubular, high-ceilinged Mazda5 and R-Class -- as well as the Chrysler Pacifica -- are new-generation minivans.
Their newness is in their approach to answering an old question: How do you give sex appeal to what essentially is a utilitarian people hauler?
In the 1990s, with consumers growing weary of unstylish traditional minivans, car companies responded by rolling out sport-utility vehicles. Those models were big, bossy, bodacious. They were assertive. SUVs and other truck-based vehicles now have become so popular that their sales account for nearly 50 percent of the U.S. automotive market.
But SUVs have shortcomings. Larger models swallow fuel and space. Some models that are agile off-road are relatively clumsy on the highway. SUVs have been portrayed as environmental villains, and their owners have been maligned as selfish gluttons. SUV ownership, in that context, is not for the fainthearted.
Many consumers want something else -- something that can carry people and baggage without bearing a load of social opprobrium. Practically, they need minivans and station wagons. But psychically, they want something with more panache than traditional minivans and wagons can offer.
The Mazda5, R-Class and Chrysler Pacifica -- and others, such as the Nissan Murano and Subaru B9 Tribeca -- are the results of that internal consumer conflict. They are all minivans masquerading as SUV equivalents absent SUV problems. But, as shown by the Mazda5, there is much competence in that pretense.
The front-wheel-drive Mazda5 is a brilliant, space-efficient concept. It has no wasted sheet metal. That means it is the right size on the outside with enough space on the inside to do what a minivan is supposed to do -- carry lots of people and things. It has the same business-class three-row seating found in the R-Class and the Pacifica, and it offers many of the amenities, often as options, sold in those more expensive vehicles.
The Mazda5 also has moxie -- the guts to move nimbly and quickly through urban traffic, and the ability to steal your heart in the process. That does not mean it will satisfy racetrack lusts. It is a minivan, after all.
But there is enough oomph in the Mazda5's 2.3-liter, four-cylinder, 157-horsepower engine to get you to the church and everywhere else on time. And because that engine is fuel-efficient, especially when combined with the standard five-speed manual transmission, you should have enough money left to enjoy yourself when you arrive.