My last Rental Review re-ignited one of TTAC’s “third rail” debates, that of compact pickups versus their full-size brethren. For the uninitiated, this topic is only slightly less contentious than discussing the merits of Roe v. Wade on a 1970′s college campus. User krhodes1 commented that when it comes to small trucks versus an equivalently priced full-sizer “Sometimes paying more for less is worth it.” I’m not entirely sure I agree with this sentiment across the board, but I know someone who does when it comes to minivans: my mother.
My family has owned two minivans: a 1995 Honda Odyssey and a 2002 Kia Sedona. The Odyssey stayed with us for 7 years, taking trips to Florida, Upstate New York, Philadelphia and other locales on the Eastern Seaboard while surviving a maelstrom of vomit, spilled popcorn and the various flotsam and jetsam of childhood prior to the invention of cheap portable digital media devices. Despite being horrendously underpowered and lacking sliding doors, the Odyssey was adored by my mother, which made her the sole person without a New York City taxicab medallion to ever express such feelings.
Her love for the Odyssey (and her disdain for the Sedona) came down to its footprint. At 187 inches long, the Odyssey was quite compact for a minivan, easy to park on city streets and maneuver in traffic. Since it was largely designed with the Japanese market in mind, the small size and powertrain were considered adequate for Japan, and the formula certainly worked for her. But the car was decidedly not a hit in America and the next generation Odyssey morphed into a full-size van with a V6 engine, sliding doors and acres of room inside.
Small minivans have never been a hit in America, but Canadians, with their denser urban areas and higher gas prices, do tend to gravitate towards them. Not only do we get the Mazda5, but we also get the Kia Rondo and Chevrolet Orlando, which are not sold in America. The Orlando is a pseudo-van in the same vein as the original Odyssey, with a not very powerful 4-cylinder engine and conventionally hinged doors. Like the Odyssey, it’s also not that popular in Canada. But it is more popular than the Mazda5, despite the Mazda possessing supposedly superior sliding doors, which minivan owners seem to favor by a significant margin.
For TTAC readers looking for a true minivan (rather than a not-so-mini-van), the Mazda5 is about as perfect as can be. It’s even available with a manual transmission! Just like the CX-5, this is a utility vehicle that happens to drive very nicely. If there were some kind of way to administer a blind test drive without the possibility of maiming or killing anyone, you would swear that you are driving a Mazda3 but sitting slightly higher. The precise, properly weighted steering feels like it was lifted directly from the rest of the Mazda lineup, the brakes were strong and the 2.5L powerplant felt as taxed as one would expect a 157 horsepower motor to feel in a 3,457 lb minivan. It was very slow. In other words, a lot like a CX-5, but without the intelligent 6-speed automatic attached to the new 2.5L SKYACTIV powertrain. Hopefully the next generation Mazda5 will benefit from this, along with a weight loss regimen.
As nice as the car is to drive, even something as mundane as getting groceries led me to recall the “big truck vs. small truck” debate. A modest grocery shop at Costco necessitated having the third row folded (shown above). The third row folds more like a traditional car seat than a minivan, which tends to flip backwards and fold completely flush into the floor. On this particular trip, it wasn’t such a big deal, but in the event that larger objects needed to be hauled, it’s conceivable that the lack of a Caravan style “Stow N Go” system would be a demerit rather than a credit to this car.
Despite Canadian sales figures showing that the Mazda5 is a relatively unpopular vehicle, they are ubiquitous on the streets of Toronto, whether privately owned or in hourly rental fleets like the horribly abused Zipcar you see here. Their small size, sharp dynamics and the correct badge (Mazdas are very popular) make them well-suited for this particular metropolis. But it’s also easy to see why, nation-wide, the Caravan is the runaway winner, outselling the Mazda 10-to-1. The extra length that makes the Mazda easy to parallel park also means that carrying two kids and two hockey bags (don’t laugh, it’s a serious requirement here in Canada) will be a real challenge. The Caravan does have that extra room, along with a V6 engine and a $19,995 base price. An SXT with Stow ‘N Go can be had for $21-$23,000 by the time discounts are factored in (Chrysler Canada officially lists the Caravan as starting at $27,995 but this appears to be a recent change, as it has long been advertised at $18,995. This may be due to the massive incentives being offered on the car, allowing Chrysler to effectively sell it for the same price but officially offer it for more). Canadians have voted with their wallet on this subject; the Caravan is Canada’s 4th best-selling vehicle.
Given my preference for small cars and my affinity for Mazdas, I should be inclined to favor this car. And as much as I love its engaging handling and familiar Mazda feel, I perfectly understand why Chrysler sells so many minivans every single year. Few people actually want to pay more for less, especially families, who must make financial sacrifices in the name of spending money on their children. It’s not merely a matter of “buying cars by the pound” either. It’s difficult to see where the 5 makes sense in the marketplace, unless you are like my mother, who would not be caught dead behind the wheel of an American minivan or someone who prioritizes the driving experience over all else – which is equally rare in this segment. <ost minivan buyers are not looking for that – quite the opposite. In this context, the Mazda5 is a bit of a misfit in the market, but I am certainly glad it exists. If nothing else, it makes the occasions where I do need to rent a minivan feel less alien for someone who drives a Miata the other 364 days of the year.
TTAC arranged for the hourly rental of the Mazda5 via Zipcar. Despite having roughly 22,000 miles on the clock, the car appeared to have weathered twice that. The front end of the car was horribly bashed up, and the interior appeared to be well-worn. It also smelled like wet dog.