The compact MPV is growing up. It was a natural step, of course, started by the smash-hit first-generation Opel Zafira, which packed seven seats and amazing practicality into a relatively compact body.
It was a clever move that even caught Renault, a leader in the field of people movers by surprise. But not for long. Already on sale is a seven seat "Grand" version of its Scenic. Toyota has joined with its successful Verso and Honda has created the quirky FR-V, a boxy six-seater that takes a different approach.
Still awake?That's the problem, says Mazda. Compact MPVs are amazing feats of engineering, but they're not exciting enough. The one thing all of these vehicles lack, according to the Japanese firm, is a bit of "zoom-zoom"... some driving enjoyment. Mindful of the fact that most vehicles of this type are bought due to necessity, rather than desire, Mazda's 5 aims to soften the blow of the MPV compromise by injecting some agility, performance and fun-to-drive character into the MPV recipe. The concern is, however, whether the focus on spiritedness has led to compromises in the crucial MPV areas of excellence such as cabin practicality, spaciousness, flexibility and comfort.
The GT of MPVsThe focus on sportiness is immediately apparent in the styling. Riding on large 17-inch alloy wheels shod with low-profile rubber and featuring sculpted bumpers and side sills, as well as aggressively slanted headlamps, the Mazda5 2.0 Individual is certainly not your typical cuddly MPV. In fact, it looks rather edgy. The design actually conceals the fact that the Mazda5 is significantly larger than most of its rivals.
Also worth noting is the fitment of sliding side doors, a unique trait in the class, and which shows that Mazda also paid close attention to the practical implications of the overall design, because they're a boon in tight parking spots. Kids often throw doors without thinking, and the sliding doors help you avoid not only costly damage to your own vehicle, but also embarrassing parking lot altercations.
The cabin is massively spacious, with both the second and third row of seats being able to fold away into the floor, leaving a cavernous loading space, fit for the transportation of some fairly hefty home appliances and furniture. Interestingly the middle row of seats is described as being "2+1", referring to the fact that the centre seat is actually not a proper one, and really only suitable for short distances. It can be folded away (leaving walk-through space), or alternatively can double as a kind of table. Importantly, the middle row of seats can also slide fore and aft, which allows either more rear legroom, or more luggage space, depending on whether the third row is stowed or not.
In front, the driver gets the a very modern facia build from quality materials and an excellent driving position, courtesy of rake/reach-adjustable steering as well as a height-adjustable driver's seat. The Mazda's standard equipment level is also generous, with the list including six airbags, climate control, automatic headlamps, a good quality audio system with remote audio controls and electric windows all-round.
Only the lack of cruise control will be a disappointment to some, given the vehicle's likely role as a long-distance family car.
Power and AgilityThe Mazda5 2.0 Individual is powered by a 2.0-litre engine that delivers 107 kW and 185 Nm of torque, the latter figure at a fairly high 4 500 rpm. These figures are not worth writing home about, especially when viewed against the vehicle's not-inconsiderable weight of over 1.5 tonnes, but nevertheless Mazda has achieved its goal of making the "5" feel noticeably livelier than its rivals.
Much of it has to do with the crispness of the controls and the way it immediately responds to driver input, but the clock doesn't lie - with a 0-100 km/h time of below 11 seconds, the Mazda5 is comfortably one of the faster vehicles in this class.
The one downside to the vehicle's responsive character is the firmer ride. Mind you, it is far from uncomfortable, just noticeably firmer than, for example, a Grand Scenic. This means that poor road surfaces can thump through into the cabin. The benefit, on the other hand, is a greater feeling of stability when driving on roads that are not only straight. And, in any event, the ride certainly smoothes out with a load and at speed.
VerdictMazda has sprung quite a surprise with the "5". It is not a company known for this kind of vehicle, and at the same time its stated goal of injecting some fun into the segment may have come across as naive and misguided. But what we have here is potentially the new class champion, and that's unexpected. The "5" is an excellent MPV, exhibiting great attention to detail in the cabin, the most space in its class, a considered specification level that puts the emphasis on safety (including stability control) in addition to the achieved goals of heightened driving enjoyment. Yes, this truly is an MPV that makes the school run fun for everyone, including dad...
Nice to drive
We don't like:
Firmer ride than other MPVs
No cruise control
Actually a six-seater, not seven...
Engine: 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, petrol
Power: 107 kW @ 6 000 rpm
Torque: 185 Nm @ 4 500 rpm
Transmission: five-speed manual
Wheels: 17-inch alloy
Top speed: 196 km/h
0-100 km/h: 10.8 seconds
Fuel economy: 8.2 litres/100 km
Renault invented this segment and has used its expertise to create a people carrier that's very difficult to fault. Not cheap, but loaded with standard features and the comfort levels are very high.
Boasts a very clever seat-folding system that gives it a flat floor and massive load space. Can't match the Mazda's performance and when all seven seats are taken, there is no boot space.
A bit of a dark horse in this category and often overlooked. The Zafira is a very comfortable car for both driver and passengers and the specification level is good. Build quality is also impressive.