2008 Mazda5 Touring Review
Battle Van: ATTACK!
by David Surace
photos by Kelly Surace
I come from a generation of kids who think vans are cool, because the A-Team always showed up in a van. Airwolf was essentially a flying van with guns and rockets. Bad guys showed up in windowless white vans, and they could always, without fail, open up the side door and use their firearms in an accurate and responsible manner while the vehicle was moving. Vans had sensitive surveillance equipment, vans had disguises. Where was the place you put your jillion-dollar painting that your henchmen just heisted from the Louvre? The Van, bien sûr.
Fast-forward 25 years, and… the 80’s are cool again! Hairbands are back! Boxy cars are cool! Turbos are rad! Magenta and cyan are acceptable colors for your socks! Dance club DJ’s are sneaking in cuts of The Stone Roses and 808 State and Derrick Carter. High-school garage bands are busy KERRANGing away at post-post-post-post-post-post-post-punk.
So why do American-market minivans, once the red-hot automobile of the 1980’s, have to act like such poindexters today? I’ll tell you why: they’ve all grown up and left behind their everyday hero roots. Except for one tiny action-figure of a van, and it’s called the Mazda5.
It’s sold all over the place (it’s known in Japan as the Premacy) and while it’s comparatively tiny in the United States–she’s only 181.5 inches from stem-to-stern, with a 108.3 inch wheelbase–the Mazda5 fits perfectly in a segment that we simply don’t see over here, which for expediency I’ll call the “space van” market. They’re designed to fit in the tight urban areas of Eastern Asia and Europe, and delicately sip the expensive petrol and diesel (currently hovering at $9 and $11 per US-gallon, respectively, in the UK). These drivers demand all these things, with plenty of room for people and their stuff, three rows of seats, AND their space van must handle like the dickens because–imagine this–they actually like to drive.
But the Mazda5 is such a rare bird in this country. My Copper Red Mica tester surely looked like the proverbial fish out of water when it cruised around Baton Rouge for a week, certainly for the above reasons but also because I don’t think they sell too dang many down here. Let’s see: six passengers, sporty looks, three rows of seats, two rows of which fold flat as Kansas, 21mpg city / 27mpg highway. Why isn’t it selling like hotcakes?
Current Mazda5 owners, I ask you: Did the salesperson take you to some underground lair to complete your transaction? Was the Mazda5 you saw on the lot boobytrapped in any way?
It’s pretty dang comfortable; the first and second rows get all kinds of adjustments, plus the second row does a neat flip-and-tumble to reveal some under-seat storage. They also slide forward to allow access for my tubby behind to try and squeeze into that third row, which was mainly a dare. Like almost all third rows, this one’s mainly for the kids.
Oh and speaking of which, parents, check this out: when the Mazda5 is on flat ground, you can merely yank the doorhandle on one of the open sliding doors, and walk away–gravity will glide the door to the exact speed it needs to quietly latch shut. No motorized wizardry, just good engineering.
This 2008 model sports a new set of eye-searing electroluminescent gauges which thankfully you can dim at night, but unlike the rest of the Mazda lineup, the function and display lighting is nuclear green and not the usual red. My tester also came with a 6-disc CD changer, an Aux-In port and Sirius satellite radio, but the speaker setup was merely adequate. In fact, the system mainly came into its own while tuned to talk radio.
I will say that Mazda’s done some serious work to deaden some of the underhood racket that you can clearly hear from outside the vehicle. In fact, the more I crawled around in the van when I first got it, the more sneaky places I found sound insulation and foam padding. And they really work miracles once you’re inside; no unpleasant mechanical sounds make it inside the cabin at all.
The thing is certainly handsome for a van. It’s about the size of a Toyota Matrix/Pontiac Vibe, so if you tend to think of it as a sport-compact or hot-hatch then yes, it looks like a four-wheeled guppy. But as a van, it’s completely aggro. The Touring model I had came standard with tall strips of LED brake lights that looked like really angry eyebrows. At the front it has a furious, gaping maw of an air intake, framed by swept and slanted headlight clusters and projector-beam lenses that will stare with fierce alacrity at the soft underbelly of any SUV in front of it. The Mazda5 looks like it wants to take a bite out of your rear axle.
It also comes with a very aggressive wheel and tire package, with fairly wide 17″ Y-spoke alloy wheels and grippy Toyo Proxes A18 tires as standard equipment on all Mazda5’s. That’s fine on a sport-compact, but on a minivan it’s kinda like putting carbon-fiber running shoes on Madeleine Albright.
Except the Mazda5 bears no resemblance to any current or former Secretary of State when it comes to handling. The Toyo tires are exceptionally wide and sticky, and with the wheelbase being so short, the van effortlessly chucked its occupants’ organs to-and-fro at any available 90-degree corner, dry or wet. And I went through plenty of wet; a major storm hit the area last week, and our little action hero dodged all manner of water hazards with zero drama.
It’s certainly not just the shoes. The disc brakes at all corners were quite happy to bite very hard and (figuratively) stand the Mazda5 on its nose, but there’s plenty of pedal travel to keep things civil and gently scrub off speed before a corner. The van’s complicated MacPherson strut assembly at the front is slightly offset from its squat springs to combat any inappropriate camber changes under braking, and the equally complex multilink rear suspension somehow manages to fit almost entirely under the floorpan to preserve the storage space inside. I get the feeling Mazda’s magic trick was to make the springs fairly stiff by minivan standards, but they set the shocks a little softer to improve the ride and keep those meaty tires nice and flat on the pavement.
The end result is that there’s a bit more body roll than, say, a Mazda3 (the chassis from which this vehicle is based), but the ride is still surprisingly supple for such a pointy little thing. It effortlessly dispatched the fast and bumpy sweepers of historic River Road, a tight 55 mph two-lane that meticulously traces the curves of the Mississippi River where it meets East Baton Rouge Parish. I drove several times up and down that road last week, just to see if I could get it to act like a van. It would not.
But every hero has a weakness. In the Mazda5, it’s called the 2.3 liter DOHC inline-4 with variable valve timing, it makes 153 horsepower and 148 lb ft of torque. In my tester it was linked up to a 5-speed automatic transmission with manual shift mode. Let me put this delicately: it has no trouble getting out of its own way, you will not have trouble passing people on the interstate, but this is not a vehicle for the power hungry. The real fun to be had in this van is trying to keep its momentum in the twisties. Should Mazda in its infinite wisdom decide to make a Mazdaspeed5, with its wig-splitting turbocharged four, I will literally pick up the couch and shake it vigorously for nickels.
But I’ll have to say probably the most entertaining thing I did all week in this van was to take it to some friends of ours with a few kids, fill up each of the six seating positions, and cruise around the entire neighborhood at exactly 25 mph. The kids were enthralled with the thing: window down! Window up! Moonroof open! Moonroof shut! Lights on! Lights off! Don’t hit me! He’s hitting me!
The writer in me couldn’t help it: …like an angry, malfunctioning robot, with a belly full of screaming children, the Mazda5 prowled slowly through the dark subdivision, still hungry for a tasty rear transaxle.
Eat that, Airwolf.
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