Never underestimate the significance of doors. More specifically, the significance of sliding side doors on a type of vehicle that doesn't ordinarily have them.
The ease of sliding doors was the reason that, after a week with the 2012 Mazda5 hatchback, my 8-year-old son declared the car his favorite of all the vehicles he's experienced me testing. And he's been driven in a Ferrari 458 Italia, Land Rover LR4 and a whole host of other truly stunning cars.
Obvious cost benefits aside, the Mazda5 is designed for everyone inside the car, not just the driver. Overhauled for 2012, the family-focused five-door, six-seater offers a lot of comfort and functionality for the money.
Starting at $19,990, the second-generation Mazda5 is available in three versions, all of which are powered with the same 2.5-liter, inline-four-cylinder engine as the Mazda3, Mazda6 and CX-7. I was testing the entry-level Sport with a six-speed manual transmission that was pleasantly responsive.
The Touring and Grand Touring versions of the car are five-speed automatics; the Sport is also available with the same transmission. All three automatic versions receive the same fuel economy estimate from the Environmental Protection Agency of 21 miles per gallon in the city and 28 mpg on the highway. For a car that seats six comfortably, that ain't bad.
The Mazda5 is a multi-utility vehicle, or MUV, that fuses the style and driving characteristics of a car with the family friendliness of haulers such as station wagons, minivans and sport-utility vehicles. The Mazda5 subtracts the I've-given-up-on-fun stigma of the minivan and the gas-guzzling status of an SUV while retaining some of the better characteristics of the usual go-to vehicles for parents.
It's low to the ground like a car, making it easier for little legs to scramble in and out of than a jacked-up SUV. Borrowing a page from minivans, the sliding side doors remove the risk of scratching when a kid gleefully flings open his door into a tall curb.
But what's most alluring about the Mazda5 is the configuration of its interior space. There are three rows of seats arranged on stepped flooring similar to a movie theater. The second row is situated slightly higher than the first, and the third row is slightly higher than the second so, in theory, everyone in the car can see out the front window.
Unlike most hatchbacks, the second and third rows contain just two seats each. The middle row is two captain's chairs separated by a tray with cup holders, making this typically cramped row feel roomier and its passengers feel special. Each of the middle-row seats folds flat and slides forward, enabling access to a split, two-seat bench in the third row, which can also be folded down flat to open up cargo space.
The textiles throughout the cabin, however, could be improved. The fabric in the cargo hold on my test car was getting tufty — a sign it should be more rugged. And the light-colored cloth seats were just asking for a Gatorade spill. A darker fabric is available on the Sport, and the two higher trim levels can be had with leather.
The Mazda5 is the Japanese manufacturer's first production car to express the nagare design idea it's incorporated into various concept cars over the years. Nagare is a naturalistic sensibility that strives to translate Mother Nature into Mazda auto design. Wind and water were the driving forces, both inside and out. Mazda5 designers were told to envision a single bead of water, its surface rippling, then make that tiny droplet into a car.
It's no easy task, but that sensibility is evident in the swooshing indentations of its side panels and teardrop headlamps, as well as the stitch patterns in the seats.
As a whole, the fit and finish of the interior looked and felt exactly as one would expect for a car at this price point. The dashboard was well organized and laid out in a blend of smooth and textured black plastics that, while inoffensive, were rudimentary. At the top of the center stack, where some other Mazda cars house a square screen for Navigation, the Mazda5 incorporates a long and narrow rectangle that, in an unattractive orange-y red lettering, displays the temperature, time and radio settings.
The radio, unfortunately, had to be cranked to overcome road noise. The Mazda5 could definitely stand some more sound baffling, though parents who are distracted by their kids' bickering in the back seats might welcome this otherwise unwanted audio overlay.
Personally, bickering just inspires me to get wherever I'm going more quickly. To that end, the Mazda5 is happy to oblige. The engine, with its 163 pound-feet of torque, is quite sprite for a car designed to carry little ones. Although the suspension has been redesigned for more passenger comfort without sacrificing the Mazda "zoom zoom" tagline, poorly maintained roads are not the Mazda5's strong suit.
Its best attributes are its family-friendly ones — a comfortable and configurative interior, an upfront cost that's within budget and fuel economy that won't bust the bank once fuel prices resume their climb upward.