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2012 Mazda 5: Not your mother's minivan

A practical and entertaining alternative for young families
by: Mazda USA New styling make the Mazda5 one of the most attractive vans today, regardless of size.

The minivan is back and better than ever.

No, that's not the punch line of a joke. I'm talking about the Mazda 5, a compact van with a surprising amount of interior room that's actually fun to drive.

Back in the 1980s, Chrysler introduced the first American minivan. Based on the company's compact K-car chassis, it was quickly embraced by suburban families and helped save Chrysler from bankruptcy. Other manufactures soon introduced their own versions, including all the major American and Japanese car companies.

But despite their practicality and relatively good fuel economy, minivans eventually fell out of favor with consumers who began buying larger and less economical sport utility vehicles. Partly in response, manufacturers increased the size of their minivans until they were almost as large as the full-size vans of the 1980s. Although they still retained such practical features as sliding side doors and ample interior space, their prices increased almost as fast as their mileage dropped.

Then Mazda reversed the trend and introduced the compact Mazda 5 in 2006. Like the original minivans, it was clearly aimed at young families. Although smaller than some station wagons, it featured a pop up third row of seats and could comfortably seat two adults and four children - or six adults in a pinch. Powered by a 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine, it also got much better mileage than most of the SUVs out there at the time.

But even more surprising, the Mazda 5 looked sporty and was fun to drive. The base model even came standard with a five-speed manual transmission, the only one available in any van on the market. Reviewers called it zippy, a step down from the company's Zoom Zoom advertising image, maybe, but plus anyway.

After a few styling and refinement tweaks, Mazda dropped the Mazda 5 from its lineup in 2011. But a completely restyled version is now available as a 2012 model. Amazingly, the new Mazda 5 is not significantly larger than the previous generation. It is still a real minivan.

The most obvious change is the exterior style. Although the last generation Mazda 5 looked good, the new one looks great. The styling is swoopier, with the sides featuring wavy lines that seem sculpted in sand. It is inspired by a concept car design called Nagare, which is Japanese for flow - or so the experts say. Whatever the case, the styling is every bit as inspired as the new vehicles from Hyundai, which does not offer a minivan.

But as week of real world driving showed us, beauty is more than skin deep with the Mazda 5. It now features a larger 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that produces more power and better mileage. A six-speed transmission is now standard on the base model, which is designated Sport. That's what we had and the designation was more than appropriate. The engine revved freely, encouraging quick shift through the gears. And the brakes and suspension were up to the challenge, allowing us to drive the Mazda 5 faster than some of the underpowered sports cars we grew up with.

Despite the fun factor, the Mazda 5 still offers a surprising amount of interior room. The dual sliding doors provide easy access to the second row of seats, although adults will have some difficulties reaching the last row. Children shouldn't have any problems, though.

The dash continues the playful theme, looking more like one from the company's sporty Mazda 3 compact than any other van for sale today. The big speedometer and tachometer are easy to see through the three-spoke steering wheel, while the climate and entertainment controls logically arranged in the center of the dash and easy to use without having to take you eyes off the road. Of course, there was no mistaking the manual shift knob in our test vehicle - an invitation for entertaining driving.

As with other Mazda's, our major complaint concerns the silly corporate grill, which looks like a large smile. Although some apparently find it youthful looking, we think the effect is too goofy for such well engineered cars. In its defense, the grill is much better proportioned on the Mazda 5.

With a starting price at under $20,000, the Mazda 5 is a remarkable bargain for young families who are watching their dollars but want a new vehicle. Even the top-of-the-line Grand Touring model with a moonroof and upgraded audio system costs less than $25,000. That should tempt even the harshest minivan critics.

Facts and figures

• Model: 2012 Mazda 5.

• Manufacturer: Mazda.

• Class: Compact van.

• Layout: Front engine, front-wheel-drive.

• Style: Five door minivan.

• Engines: 2.5-liter inline four cylinder engine (157 hp, 163 ft lbs).

• Transmission: Six-speed manual (as tested); five-speed automatic.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 21/28.

• Price: Beginning at $19,345 ($20,950 as tested).