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2007 Mazda 5

Auto journalists generally have a steady and varied stream of vehicles rolling into and out of our driveways.

  • Driver

Auto journalists generally have a steady and varied stream of vehicles rolling into and out of our driveways.

This can be bad and good: Bad, in that our neighbours think we're drug lords, and good, in that sometimes we get to drive expensive sports cars.

Again bad, in that we have to give the hot wheels back – but really good in that when it comes time to buy a vehicle, we can usually make a well-informed decision based on lots of seat time in media cars.

Last year, while our now-departed 1998 Plymouth Voyager minivan was slowly self-destructing, I brought home a charcoal-grey Mazda5 GT for a week of testing. This sensibly sized, four-cylinder, five-speed manual crossover/mini-minivan thingy immediately struck a chord with our family.

My kids liked the back seats and thought it looked cool. My wife enjoyed driving it, and especially liked the manual transmission and zippy handling.

I liked the idea of an economical, Euro-sized six-seater that sported 17-inch alloys and had a little bit of street cred. Priced at $23,895, the tester offered excellent value.

So we decided to buy one. Mazda Canada sold me a 2006 press vehicle that had reached the end of its run with 13,425 kilometres. This silver specimen had some signs of wear, but Mazda replaced the damaged front bumper, some interior trim and (about three months into my ownership) a front wheel that couldn't be balanced because of an earlier altercation with a curb. Damn journalists.

Ten months later, and with 29,000 km on the clock, the experience has been mostly positive, with a few caveats.

The Mazda5 is built on the same corporate platform that holds up the Mazda3, Volvo S40, Land Rover LR2 and the European Ford Escort.

It comes in two trim levels – the $19,995 GL and the $22,795 GT (prices are unchanged for 2007) – and both are powered by Mazda's smooth 2.3-litre DOHC 16-valve four that puts out 157 hp and 148 lb.-ft. of torque at 4500 r.p.m. Those prices are a tad misleading, however, as air conditioning (with automatic climate control) costs $1,100. Mazda's marketing types presumably came up with that little ruse to keep the advertised base price below the 20K mark.

That aside, the Mazda5, even in base GL trim, comes very well equipped. Sixteen-inch alloys are standard, as is ABS with electronic brake force distribution, rain-sensing wipers, anti-theft alarm, four-speaker CD/AM/FM, power locks, mirrors and windows, and a tilt/telescoping steering wheel with audio controls.

The GT adds handsome five-spoke 17-inch alloys, side and head curtain airbags, a six-speaker sound system, fog lights, sporty body cladding, heated mirrors, centre row fold-out table/cargo bin, cruise (with steering wheel controls), power moonroof, power latching for the sliding doors and a leather-wrapped wheel and shift knob.

That's good bang for $2,800 and, for us, it was a no-brainer.

A four-speed automatic with manual override can be had for $1,000 but, sadly, traction control is not available.

Clever packaging and surprising utility are the Mazda5's strengths. Two large sliding doors give easy access to the second-row bucket seats, which slide forward and back, creating more legroom for those in the third row, if needed.

The second-row seat cushions flip up to reveal more storage, and a clever tray/storage bin folds out from under the right seat, giving my kids a place to put drinks, Game Boys, etc.

The middle- and third-row seats fold flat, providing numerous people and cargo combinations. With all the seats down, there's 170 cm of flat storage.

While the third row may not be the epitome of comfort, it is fine for kids and adults on short jaunts. The default mode of our 5 is third row folded flat.

There is decent room behind the second row, but if you're used to standard minivan space, the compact dimensions of the Mazda5 will definitely be a compromise. We were willing to make that sacrifice.

On the road, the 5 has been totally reliable and has served up something no other minivan can offer: driver involvement and a modicum of sporty character – although you'll never mistake this for a Miata.

The electronic steering is communicative and accurate, and the 5 responds to inputs with a satisfying immediacy. The shifter, which sprouts from the base of the centre console, is a tad clunky but slices cleanly through the box. Clutch take-up is smooth and progressive.

The 2.3-litre four acquits itself quite well, considering the 1,512 kilograms it has to haul. When loaded down, however, progress is a little more lethargic, and passing manoeuvres have to be planned well in advance. Some of this power deficiency is overcome by relatively short gearing.

We've been averaging about 9.5 L/100 km on regular fuel.

The only mechanical problem so far has been an accessory belt that squeaked in wet weather. The technician at Oakville Mazda cleaned a film of dust off the belt and all has been well.

The two gripes I have concern the suspension and Toyo Proxes A18 all-season tires.

The ride has always seemed a bit jarring and brittle, as if there's not enough suspension travel, or the components aren't up to the task. Too much clunking spells cheapness, and since the rest of the vehicle is so refined, it's a bit of a downer.

The 205/50R17 Toyo tires are not good performers with this vehicle in wet weather. As soon as the road gets damp, these puppies spin like Bill O'Reilly. .

We've just switched over to Pirelli 210 SnowSport winter tires on steel wheels (in the same size), and I've noticed an improvement in ride quality and wet-road traction. Maybe it's time to do some research into replacement summer tires.

I have to keep reminding myself that our Mazda5 is (almost) an entry-level vehicle and, as such, represents incredible value. The stereo sounds decent and the leather-wrapped multi-function wheel wouldn't look out of place in an Audi.

About the only giveaway to the 5's bargain-basement price tag is the rest of the interior – hectares of hard black plastic. Similarly, the seat fabric is shiny and cheap looking and the bottom cushions are too short for those with long legs.

On the plus side, the interior finishes all seem pretty tough and are showing no wear.

A heated leather seat package (which includes the climate control) is available on 2007 GT models. It bumps the price to $25,125.

Overall, we've been very happy with Mazda's young-at-heart crossover and, in the past few months, we're seeing a lot more on the road.

Which is bad and good.

Bad, in that we are no longer the only cool Mazda5-driving family in our 'hood.

Good, in that Canadians are getting hip to a clever little family hauler.

 


wheels@thestar.ca;

 

pebleakney@aol.com.

 


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