With the redesigned 2012 Mazda5 minivan, the company answered a question I wasn't aware anyone was asking: "Why can't I get a minivan with a manual transmission?"
Well, now you can, but I'm still not sure why you'd want one, unless you are one of those European expatriates so dedicated to the school of shift-for-yourself that you just have no interest in an automatic transmission.
Fine, but one caveat: The majority of customers prefer an automatic transmission, and while you will save some money by buying a new Mazda5 with the six-speed manual transmission, you'll take a hit in resale value when you try to sell it or trade it in. Especially since most newer automatics get equal, or even better, fuel mileage — with the Mazda5's six-speed manual or five-speed automatic, the EPA-rated mileage is the same: 21 mpg city, 28 highway.
Really, though, what Mazda is doing with the manual-transmission version of the Mazda5, called the Sport, is giving buyers the cheapest possible way to purchase a brand-new, six-passenger minivan. There are likely to be plenty of customers who buy a Mazda5 who would otherwise have had to buy a used vehicle. The manual transmission is offered only on this base model, with the price starting at under $20,000. A Honda Odyssey starts at $28,225. Even a Kia Sedona starts at $24,900.
With the manual transmission, you'll save $1,000. And even with the base Mazda5, you get most of the good stuff — power windows and locks, a decent sound system, air conditioning, plus every single safety feature found on the Grand Touring model, which starts at over $24,000.
That manual transmission is a pretty good one, too — shifting is light and easy, with well-defined lever travel and a low-pressure clutch. And while the Mazda5 Sport, with or without the manual transmission, may be the sportiest minivan on the market, that's like saying the thinnest guy on the first episode of "The Biggest Loser" is svelte. I've been waiting since 1984 for a genuinely sporty minivan, and I'm still waiting.
Even so, the Mazda5 is more at home on winding back roads than its competition, especially since the competition has long since forgotten what a "minivan" is. The Honda Odyssey is 203 inches long, an inch longer than a Chevrolet Tahoe SUV. At 180.5 inches, yes, you give up some room with the Mazda5, but you pick up a lot of maneuverability. The Mazda5 is the only true "mini" minivan on the market, and coupled with a sports-minded suspension and grippy P205/55R-16 radial tires on alloy wheels, it corners quite well.
The Mazda5 does fine on the highway, too. The front bucket seats are comfortable, but the narrow distance between driver and passenger reminds you that this is, after all, based on the Mazda3 platform. Two adults fit in the middle-row seat, but the third-row seat is strictly kid-sized. Unless you need it regularly, you'll probably keep it folded down, which gives you 44 cubic feet of storage space.
Inside, the Mazda5 Sport looks and feels like it has been built down to a budget. Instruments and controls are well-placed and simple, but a small display over the center console attempts to jam in so much information that it's tough to read. There were only two options on the test vehicle — a rear bumper guard ($50) and Sirius satellite radio (a pricey $430).
Outside, the new Mazda5 is distinctive, with a pair of "swooshes" down the side, pressed into the sheet metal, a product of Mazda's fling with "Nagare", which was a styling philosophy involving "flow" that was supposed to remind us of oceans and whales and such. The past decade has not been a high point for Mazda design, Nagare or no. How does Mazda explain the minivan's styling? "The design team viewed the overall image as a single bead of water with ripples intentionally left on the surface, such that the body's lines express the flow of motion," while "various lines and motifs appear only to disappear again, creating a repeating theme of change and fusion that guides one's eyes with its expression of beauty." Oh, please.
Otherwise, the Mazda5 is as advertised — a capable, inexpensive and thrifty vehicle that can carry six people, or four and a lot of stuff. The sliding side doors and rear hatch are manually-operated, but that didn't bother me.
As for the manual transmission? Be my guest. But I'll take the automatic.
Redesigned 2012 Mazda5 brings 'mini' back to minivan
2012 Mazda5 Sport (October 1, 2011)