When the Mazda marketing and design departments met to conceive the Mazda5, rest assured, I was not the grey man factored into their demographic charts.
Young, brash and with no need or tolerance for kids, dogs, legions of toys or baggage to spoil my driving experience, I am the opposite of the "MPV man". And the Mazda5 is an MPV. And yes, I had to drive it for a week. And yes, I struggled to hate it.
Automotive acronyms await us all in our motoring lives. Of them SUV and MPV are the most dire. SUVs are obviously wasteful and silly, tearing up fynbos and draining our collective oil supply. Fortunately SUVs are mostly quite expensive too, so they rationally excuse themselves from most people's buying decisions.
MPVs though, are a rather more ominous, common destiny for most of us. Especially those in wedlock. Practicality is usually the spousal rational behind forcing the purchase of a SUV, suburban defeat the unintended consequence. To ensure enough interior space for a litany of children, their friends, pets and their friends, the exterior shape usually goes all bulbous.
To ensure maximum load ability the suspension has to be pliant and soft, which means most SUVs corner like furniture laden skateboards.
Pretty and clever
Enter the Mazda5. It looks very much unlike other MPVs. It sits low, on attractive five-spoke alloys. The proportions owe more to aesthetic design principles instead of interior dog-and-children carrying capacity, and the end result is something which looks quite desirable. If MPVs are the automotive equivalent of suburban lifestyle coercision there is currently no more stylish way to do it.
Essentially the Mazda5 looks good because it is original. Mazda have never had an MPV before, so obviously they looked at the staid styling of the competition and did the only sane thing they could: designed something infinitely better looking.
The worth of an MPV though, is how it moves people and their things - of odd shapes and sizes - about.
Before you can move a family and their associated paraphernalia about everyone has to get inside the vehicle, and here the Mazda 5 starts elevating the game. The sliding rear doors enable seamless access. Even if you are forced into a claustrophobic parking bay, the fear of a troop of ten-year olds disembarking with the sound of crashing, hinged doors and ding repair bills echoing is vanquished.
It makes you wonder why other small to medium MPVs do not have sliding rear access doors. Once inside the cabin is spacious and airy, with a range of seat adjustment and arrangement configurations varied enough to satisfy even the most demanding family.
Between the full-size middle seats (which are individually adjustable) a jump seat folds up to facilitate walkthrough access to the two rear seats in the cargo area, which itself has two full-size seats able to fold down by means of a one-touch button availing a flat load bay.
It is all rather clever and spacious too. I managed to fit a full complement of surfboards, diving equipment and a 9'3 paddle board in the Mazda5 without any undue strain. If you need pseudo-panelvan capability the middle and rearmost seats can fold flat to render a very capacious load space.
Detracting from the interior experience is the quality and quantity of plastic trim used. It feels unbelievably cheap with some bits of trim feeling positively Tupperware-like to the touch.
The load bay also yields the usual space saver spare wheel compromise; which is fine around town, but can put a serious damper on a vacation in more rural parts of South Africa if you have a flat tyre.
Pretty? Quite. Practical? Without doubt. A decent drive? Well yes, perplexingly enough.
The speed sensitive power steering is generously light at parking speeds, yet weights up to a direct, responsive feel at cruising speeds making the most of the sorted underpinnings and contributing to a generally entertaining handling package.
Even fully laden the Mazda5 exhibits neat road manners; and when unladen the ride, despite the 17-inch mags, is still good.
Power comes on very smoothly from the 107 kW, 2-litre four cylinder engine, which is impressively efficient too, returning about 8.5 liters per 100 kilometers during testing. If you hammer it you can get a 196 km/h topspeed and run the 0-100 km/h sprint in 10.8 seconds. The dynamic driving experience is spoilt to a degree by the five-speed gearbox though, which can rather obstinate to operate when pushing on, especially the shift-action into fifth gear.
Dynamic safety is primarily enhanced by ABS brakes with extra assistance in the form of EBD and EBA. Passive safety features include driver and front passenger main and side airbags as well as curtain airbags for all three rows of seats.
Sliding door accessibility and seat arrangements
Even keener pricing
Tupperware party interior trim quality.
I was quite prepared to dislike the Mazda5 simply because I detest MPVs. Yet I must admit taking quite a liking to it. The styling is unlike the typical suburban surrender MPV shape, the engine is a little multi-valve gem and the interior packaging and accessibility is simply the stuff of genius.
Disappointingly though, the interior materials are horrid, and the Mazda image in the South African market might discourage some.
Brand snobs would be missing out though. Toyota Verso might be the benchmark in this segment, but Mazda5, with its keen pricing, delightful driving experience and innovative MPV features is a very alluring, alternative choice.