AUTOS

Married with children?

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' métier. 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.

IT'S also a frisky little thing, thanks to its close mechanical kinship with the Mazda3. Inboard of the 17-inch V-rated radials are the same front MacPherson struts (with offset coils and anti-roll bars) and rear multi-link suspension, all of it giving the car a tensed and tuned feel through tire-scuffing corners. Considering that the Mazda5 weighs a full quarter-ton more than the 3, this suspension does a heroic job fighting off body roll while providing unusually civil ride compliance for so short a wheelbase. The steering is husky, well-weighted and quick to react — more MX-5 Miata than Mazda MPV — and generally, the vehicle is just a kooky pleasure to drive.

It's not particularly quick, of course. Even flogged mercilessly with the five-speed stick, the 2.3-liter, four-cylinder (157 hp) can pull around 3,381 pounds only so fast. Zero-to-60 times are in the mid-9s. And yet, from stoplight to stoplight, the Mazda5 zings and sings without complaint and at cruising speeds the van simply breezes along.

I can forgive less-than-blazing speed in a vehicle that charms and delivers as well as this one. Are you the wheelman of some starter family out in the exurban boonies? Do you need great gas mileage, lots of flexible cargo space and fret-free access to child safety seats? I have some bad news, Jethro. You need a minivan.

The Mazda5 is the good news.


Automotive critic Dan Neil can be reached at dan.neil@ latimes.com. * (INFOBOX BELOW) 2006 Mazda5 Touring Base price: $19,510 Price, as tested: $21,510 Powertrain: 2.3-liter, 16-valve DOHC inline four cylinder with variable valve timing and variable induction; five-speed manual transmission; front-wheel drive Horsepower: 157 at 6,500 rpm Torque: 148 pound-feet at 4,500 rpm Curb weight: 3,333 pounds 0-60 mph: 9 seconds Wheelbase: 108.3 inches Overall length: 181.5 inches EPA fuel economy: 22 miles per gallon city, 27 mpg highway Final thoughts: Space wagons, the final frontier

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