Is the 2006 Mazda5 a compact, tall wagon or a diminutive minivan?

It's actually something of an experiment, because it's the kind of small van that's popular overseas but not usually seen in U.S. showrooms.

New for the 2006 model year, the Mazda5 is an affordable runabout with six seats - two seats in each of three rows - as well as sliding second-row doors, like those on a minivan, and four-cylinder power.

Yet the Mazda5 is shorter, narrower and lighter weight than traditional minivans sold in this country. It even can be had with a five-speed manual transmission - something not found on minivans here.

The Mazda5 also is lower-priced than traditional minivans. Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, for a base Mazda5 with manual transmission is $17,995; automatic transmission starts at $18,895.

In comparison, the lowest-priced, passenger minivan in the United States has been the seven-seat, short-wheelbase, 2006 Dodge Caravan, which starts at $19,095 for a base model with automatic.

Meantime, small wagons with four-cylinder engines typically come with only five seats spread across two rows and have starting prices of more than $15,000. For example, the 2006 Toyota Matrix starts at $15,650 for a manual transmission model and $16,450 for base version with automatic.

Built and sold in Japan, the Mazda5 is available in the States in two trims - Sport and Touring.


Even the top-of-the-line Touring model with all the factory options, including a $2,000 navigation system, has a retail price of less than $22,000. But note that some amenities, such as factory-installed leather seats and all-wheel drive, aren't offered.

The Mazda5's price won't be the only attraction for couples, singles and families with small children, though.

The vehicle's well-thought-out, adaptable interior is appealing.

With the rearmost four seats folded down, the Mazda5 offers up to 44.4 cubic feet of cargo room, which is on par with that of the Dodge Caravan and double the 21.8 cubic feet of cargo space at the back of the Matrix.

Look carefully at the details inside the Mazda5. The six seats aren't plush but they're comfortable, with decent support. Front bucket seats and second-row separate seats each come with an inboard, pull-down armrest.

Second-row seats slide forward and aft on a track for optimal positioning, and third-row riders, though quite close to the rear liftgate, have acceptable headroom, unless they're 6-footers.

All passengers have adjustable and lockable head restraints. Other standard safety items include curtain airbags that extend all the way to the third row seats and seat-mounted, side airbags for the front-seat passengers.

The Mazda5 driver's seat has a manual, ratchet-type height adjustment so views over the large dashboard area are good. I just wish that the front passenger had seat height adjustment, too.

Check out the hidden storage areas in the second row. They're accessed by lifting the second-row seat cushions. One of these storage areas holds the cupholders/tray that can be positioned between the second-row seats. The other is available anytime for storage of small items or even purses.

Note there's at least one cupholder, sometimes more, for each seat.

All this fits inside a vehicle that feels nimble and easy to drive.

For example, the Mazda5 tester maneuvered into and out of parking spaces with ease. On curvy roads, the vehicle moved as a stable, compact unit. It's built on a stretched platform of the Mazda3 compact car, which already has gained praise for its fun handling.

Suspension is independent MacPherson strut in front and independent multi-link in back and provides a competent, though not cushioned, ride in the Mazda5.

The vehicle's lower body height vis--vis minivans helps reduce the tendency for the Mazda5 to feel tippy. The lighter weight plays a role, too, in making this vehicle feel sprightly - something that's not usually associated with minivans.

For example, the Mazda5 is at least 374 pounds lighter than the four-cylinder-powered Caravan and nearly 1,000 pounds lighter than a Honda Odyssey van.

Note, though, that this sprightliness is evident when the Mazda5 is carrying one, two or three people and not much more.

The vehicle's dynamics - not to mention sense of power - deteriorate when the Mazda5 is loaded, which is why the Mazda5 might be a good choice for folks who don't usually carry five or six people but who want that versatility on occasion.

The Mazda5 uses the same 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine with variable valve timing that's in the Mazda3 car. This powerplant does a good job in the lighter-weight Mazda3, but the Mazda5 tester, with four-speed automatic, felt sluggish when there were four, five and six adult passengers.

Horsepower in the Mazda5 is 157 and maximum torque is 148 foot-pounds at 3,500 rpm.

This is close to the 150 horses and 165 foot-pounds of torque at 4,000 rpm in the base, four-cylinder Caravan.

But most minivans sold in this country have six-cylinder power, such as the 244 horses and 240 foot-pounds of torque at 5,000 rpm found in the Odyssey with V6.

And even the Matrix has an uplevel four cylinder with 164 horsepower, though torque is just 125 foot-pounds at 4,400 rpm.

Drivers will notice that as the Mazda5 becomes filled with more people and cargo, the vehicle's brakes seem a bit less effective, and the tidy handling becomes sloppy.

Fuel savings with the four-cylinder engine is disappointing. The Mazda5 is rated at 21 or 22 miles a gallon in city driving, depending on the kind of transmission in the vehicle. The highway rating is 26 or 27 mpg.

These numbers are about on par with the heavier, four-cylinder Caravan's 20/26-mpg rating.

But Honda's larger, heavier Odyssey has a rating of 20/28-mpg with its V6 that includes a system that can automatically deactivate some engine cylinders to preserve fuel.

Other drivers didn't seem to notice the Mazda5 test vehicle, even though it was new to the market. I guess the compact size isn't readily noticeable unless the vehicle is right next to a larger van, and the Mazda5 styling is pretty mainstream.

But after driving the Mazda5, I think more carmakers should install manually sliding doors on their smaller vehicles. At grocery stores and in shopping malls, I didn't have to worry about the Mazda5's open doors blocking my way or striking vehicles parked too close.

Because the Mazda5 is new, there's no reliability report from Consumer Reports.

There has been no safety recall of the newly introduced Mazda5, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has no crash test reports.