Resistance is futile
The season of Christmas shopping and running the family around for festive get-togethers may be an opportune time to launch a multi-purpose vehicle. Although the timing was coincidental, when the wrapping came off the 2011 Mazda 5 MPV in Hong Kong this month, the Japanese carmaker's compelling gift was a sportier and more stylish reincarnation of the compact people carrier.
The basic dimensions are little changed, but while the design of the previous model might not have warranted a second glance, the new-look 5 has a more distinctive - and technically sophisticated - design. It has also had an engine upgrade, so it pumps out more horsepower.
Mazda's Nagare (flow) design concept, first unveiled in the form of a futuristic concept car at the Los Angeles Auto Show in 2006, has finally trickled down to what is essentially a sensible family car. So there's nothing clunky looking about this multi-purpose vehicle.
The Nagare concept was the result of design studies into motion and 'the effect it has on its natural surroundings'. It has given the new Madza 5's exterior bodywork a flow line that begins with a flat ridge over the front wheels and then turns inwards to become a groove that runs along the length of the sides, just under the door handles, before meeting the tail lights. Another groove is featured just above the base of the doors. It looks better than it sounds, and the concept lends the car a more aggressive yet elegant appearance. In practical terms, it's all about better aerodynamics, lower wind noise and improved fuel efficiency, which Mazda says has been achieved here.
Another feature of the exterior design is a wide smiley grille, a huge improvement in the looks department compared with its predecessor's thin slit of a grille, and the car now has narrow elongated headlamps.
Since utility is the catchword of those looking to buy vehicles of this type, the inside is where it really matters, and space-wise the interior of the Mazda 5 appears little different from the competing cars in the compact MPV class (the smallest people-carriers) - the Honda Stream and Toyota Wish.
Although it's marketed as a vehicle that can 'comfortably carry six adults' (a bit of open sesame produces a seventh, fold-out seat in the middle row) larger grown-ups might feel cramped in the back-row seats, with six-footers finding the space there a bit claustrophobic and short of legroom. But there's ample room in the back for children and younger teens, and the Mazda 5's rivals appear to be equally compact in the rear.
An automatic sliding back passenger door, useful for parking in tight spaces, allows direct access to the middle row only, and back-seat passengers must clamber through the gap where the seventh seat pops out.
Nevertheless, it's a versatile vehicle, with both back and middle seats designed to fold down to the floor. With all four back seats flattened, there's more than enough space for the weekly shopping you'll need for all those family members who would otherwise be riding with you.
After utility, it's safety that the typical Mazda 5 buyer is looking for, and the 2011 model has added safety features including three-point seatbelts throughout and a more rigid cabin structure.
Behind the wheel, this supposedly steady family vehicle is a surprisingly sporty ride that needs little encouragement. Its MZR 2-litre, four-cylinder direct-injection engine is quick off the mark and yet handles well at speed, whether cruising down the straight, pulling off some nifty overtaking on a packed highway or handling tight corners on country roads. The upgraded engine allows the car to put out 142 horsepower, versus the previous model's 136 horsepower.
For a family runaround, it's a highly responsive car. In fact it's so keen that when you find yourself behind a slow-moving truck on a narrow country road, you may spend a lot of time with your foot hovering over the brake. It feels light and yet holds the road well (although, admittedly, the seven-seater was road-tested with only two people aboard).
The Mazda 5 cruises easily on a long incline, too, thanks to the five-speed Active Adaptive Shift function, which is able to calculate the gradient of the road and automatically selects the right gear to handle it. On the test-drive, it hesitated for a fraction of a second finding the right gear up a long, sloping road before regaining confidence and finding its pace again. Manouvreability is surprisingly tight for a vehicle of its class, boasting a minimum turning radius of 5.3 metres.
Ultimately, the new Mazda5 is a sensible family car with a pleasurable and sporty driving feel. Once you've dropped the family off or unloaded the weekly shopping, you may feel the urge to go for a solo spin.
AT A GLANCE
What drives it? A two-litre, four-cylinder direct-injection engine that pushes out 142 horsepower at 6,500 rpm and 180Nm at 4,500rpm. A six-speed manual transmission is standard but a five-speed automatic transmission is available.
How safe is it? The Mazda 5 has won praise for its performance in crash tests. The cabin features three-point seatbelts in all seats, and side-curtain airbags as well as the front seat airbags. The updated structure has more rigidity in the frame. The car has a four-wheel anti-lock braking system and electronic brake force distribution.
How thirsty is it? The car has an average fuel consumption of 6.9 litres per 100 kilometres and is said to be the most economical in its class.
How clean is it: The 2011 model achieves a 6.1 per cent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, at 168 g/km.
Available: Premium, Deluxe and Super Deluxe models of the Mazda 5 sell for HK$209,990, HK$229,990 and HK$249,990, respectively. Mazda Motors (Hong Kong), tel: 28931112