ALTHOUGH Mazda avoids the term like the Florida GOP avoids Katherine Harris, the Mazda5 is indisputably a minivan -- a three-row, six-passenger vehicle with sliding doors along the fuselage. Given this morphology, what else could you call it? The company favors, rather lamely, the term "multi-activity vehicle." What, casino gambling, Zen archery, pagan sacrifice? Please.
Can we just get over the minivan stigma? You could fill the Suez Canal with all the gasoline wasted because suburban breeders -- afraid that a minivan would make them look like, well, exactly what they are -- opted instead for three tons of big ugly SUV. Look, the cultural code of minivans is confused. Minivans are sexy. If nothing else, they are proof positive that you have had successful and productive congress with the opposite sex. Can you say as much for a Corvette? I don't think so.
So, yes, a minivan, albeit one seen through the small end of the telescope. Built on the chassis and sharing the mechanicals of the Mazda3 compact sedan, the Mazda5 is a half-foot shorter and narrower, and nearly 1,000 pounds lighter, than the genre template Dodge Caravan, and on first sight seems to have a case of shrinkage to rival one of David Blaine's vital appendages.
That disagreeable image aside, it's actually a pretty decent-looking vehicle, with much of the urban voltage of Mazda's other compact-sport offerings. Our up-level Touring edition tester ($19,510 base price) was bedecked in sassy street couture: sill extensions, a roof spoiler, 17-inch alloy wheels, fog lights, blacked-out grille and mirrored vertical tail lamps. With its bullet nose, steeply raked windshield, tapering-to-aft glassy sections and circumferential fender roundels, the Mazda5 looks rather like a Mercedes R-Class as designed by Japanese wood nymphs.
Like the R-Class, the Mazda5 features bucket seats in the front and mid rows, as well as a bench seat in the rear. The mid-row seats slide fore and aft, and the convenience tray between them -- Mazda calls it the "karakuri" (karakuri being the Japanese word for, um, "divine storage bin"?) -- folds and stows under the right-side seat cushion to allow walk-through access to the rear.
Make that "crawl through." The rear bench seat, elevated slightly to provide passengers better outward sightlines, is wedged tightly between the wheel wells, and for most adults going back there will feel like climbing into an upholstered mailbox.
That's OK, because this packaging solution -- 2+2+2, a type of vehicle known in Europe and Japan as a "space wagon" -- is geared primarily toward urban families with young children. If you've ever wrestled, Laocoon-style, with a child's car seat in a crowded parking lot, the easy access of the sliding side doors (with a nearly 28-inch aperture) will fill you with teary gratitude.
Meanwhile, if your multi-activities should include transporting bikes, gardening supplies or frat boys stiff with drink, the mid-row and rear seats fold flat (they don't quite form a flat load floor because of the space between the mid-row buckets). The cargo capacity is 44 cubic feet, about the same as a Ford Explorer.
Despite and indeed because of its size, the Mazda5 offers many consolations, which begin in the driver's seat. In a manner of a seaside resort's infinity pool, the open cockpit space commingles with the panoramic view beyond the A-pillars and windows (the hood drops off so steeply from the windshield that it's invisible). The comfortable, armrest-equipped driver's seat is tall and upright, as it properly should be in a vehicle designed for close-quarters urban driving.
The central console is trimmed in brushed alloy, and climate, audio and optional navigation systems are stacked in an orderly and sensible way -- sensible not always being Mazda interiors' metier. The cockpit accessories are backlit in a soft green rather than the Hebrew National orange of the Mazda3. As you might expect in so family-friendly a vehicle, the rest of the interior is abloom with cup holders, cubbies, stowage bins, power outlets, mirrors and courtesy lights -- all of it destined to become quite sticky.
The transmission console is a banked panel below the dash where, in our tester, the stubby stick shift resided in its stitched-leatherette gusset. Reminded me of some Nissan vans and one Alfa Romeo I used to love. To the left was the tidy control panel for the optional navigation system ($2,000), the screen for which resided in a motorized clamshell compartment atop the dash.
Another notable high-end option is the overhead DVD entertainment system. Next year, I understand, Mazda will offer a Grand Touring edition with heated leather seats, high-intensity headlights and perhaps Isofix child-seat fasteners in the third row. In the meantime, the 2006 model is a lot of minivan -- or space wagon, or multi-activity vehicle, or snow blower -- for the money.