Mazda5 road tripping: Small van proves perfect for small family

Consumer Reports News: September 08, 2011 04:23 PM

Consumer Reports is on record as loving the right-sized Mazda5. It’s affordable, efficient, comfortable, easy to use, reliable, surprisingly roomy, and unexpectedly fun to drive. Needless to say, it scores very highly in our tests. So it’s no surprise that when friends come asking us what to buy, we often recommend the mini minivan. Looking at the Mazda5’s sales numbers, however, it’s clear that few buyers are heeding our advice. Sometimes it seems like Americans buy cars by the square foot.

Still, a good friend who had been looking for a particularly fuel-efficient family hauler for years, finally bought one on my recommendation. When she sold it a mere eight months later, dissatisfied and complaining of a lack of space, I was naturally puzzled. (The 5 has average customer satisfaction rates among the 1-million plus subscribers who respond to our Annual Auto Survey.) I had driven several versions of the Mazda5, commuting, and occasionally taking family trips a couple of hours away. But I had never really taxed the little van’s hauling abilities until this summer.

So when I needed a car for a really long road trip this month, I practically begged for our new 2012 Mazda5. We needed to deliver my daughter to school in St. Louis, a 1,200-mile trip from our home in Connecticut. I was also eager to ease the drain on my bank account that a V6-powered minivan or SUV could inflict for that many miles. And with all my daughter’s gear for four years of dorm life onboard, plus a week’s worth of luggage for my wife and me, I figured I’d try to better understand my friend’s complaints about a lack of space or power, or uncover any untoward compromises the little van might force.

Mazda5-road-trip-cargo.jpgAs our daughter commenced piling up a huge mound of suitcases, duffels, electronics, lap desks, coats, and dorm décor, I started getting nervous. To add drama, another friend going to the school asked if we could also transport her dorm accoutrements (a chair pillow, lap desk, printer, lamps, rug, supplies, etc.) on our way. The pile was daunting, and I really questioned whether the Chrysler Town & Country we recently tested might have been the better choice.

In the end, it took some tight packing. And we definitely didn’t have room for a fourth passenger. But I was surprised how much space I had to see out the windows. Over the three-day trip, my daughter never complained of not having enough room.

We took the long(ish) way to St. Louis, stopping at Hershey Park for one last family fling and sightseeing through Louisville, and staying with extended family in Southern Ohio. Even climbing the Appalachians through West Virginia, fully loaded on the way out, our 5 (with the new 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine) never really struggled. It would downshift to fourth gear and hold about 3,400 rpm over the hills, but was never loud or obnoxious, and it didn’t lose speed.

Over the 3,000 mile round trip, we averaged 26.6 mpg according to the trip computer, a little short of the 27-plus I was hoping for, but it still saved us almost 47 gallons and $173 in fuel - and about four fill-up stops—over a Town & Country.

One thing my friend had specifically complained about was the lack of console space, claiming she had no place to put her purse. And I found that electronics plugged into the 12-volt power plug tended to clutter up the cup holders and make them hard to use. The center console bin (back behind the cup holders) wasn’t much help, either, since it was impossible to see (and difficult to reach) while driving, making it difficult to retrieve things stashed there.

On our road trip, though, I found the dashboard shelf and a couple of small dashboard cubbies were perfect for stashing cell phones, an iPod, and sunglasses.

I think the car could use a second charge port up front, and the console storage between the seats needs to be redesigned. Another big bin in front of or below the shifter would be really helpful. And it seems there’s plenty of space along the shelf above the glove box for power outlets and iPod jacks. For me, it was an annoyance, but not a showstopper.

Perhaps the best thing about the Mazda5 is the price. For less than $25,000, our Grand Touring model has a sunroof, seat heaters, Bluetooth (all worthwhile on a long trip), and nice red piping on the leather seats. According to our Auto Price Services, you can buy one for less than $23,000. At that price, maybe I’ll look for one myself when it’s time to replace my Subaru. And most of all, I still won’t hesitate to recommend it to friends.

Eric Evarts

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