The 2012 Mazda5 is a pleasant bargain _ a nimble minivan that's smaller than others, yet has seats for six, best fuel mileage of any van, a value price and even an available manual transmission.
The five-door Mazda5, restyled for 2012 and with a new, more powerful engine, also is a recommended buy of Consumer Reports magazine.
And with U.S. gasoline prices staying stubbornly in the mid to high $3 range, the 2012 Mazda5, with a federal government fuel economy rating of 21 miles a gallon in the city and 28 mpg on the highway, is a thrifty way to carry people and cargo.
While starting retail prices for other minivans soared to more than $24,000 in recent years, the starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, for a 2012 Mazda5 is $19,990.
This is for a Sport model with manual transmission, new, 157-horsepower, four-cylinder engine and standard features that include manually sliding rear side doors, attractive cloth-trimmed seats, lots of storage cubbies, floor mats, automatic climate control, and audio controls on the steering wheel.
With five-speed automatic, the 2012 Mazda5 has a starting retail price of $20,990.
Even the top-of-the-line Mazda5 Touring model, with all options included such as rear-seat DVD entertainment center, Sirius satellite radio and gate/garage door opener, tops out at just under $27,000.
These prices compare with the $28,885 starting retail price for a 2011 Honda Odyssey with standard automatic transmission and 248-horsepower V-6 and the $24,830 starting retail price for a 2011 Dodge Grand Caravan with automatic transmission and 283-horsepower V-6.
Even the 2011 Kia Sedona minivan has a higher starting MSRP, including destination charge _ $25,390 with 271-horsepower V-6 and automatic transmission.
Perhaps because of the fuel thrifty nature of the Mazda5, sales are up 22 percent so far this year compared with last calendar year to nearly 13,000. Still, this number pales in comparison with the bigger, heavier passenger vans, like the top-selling Odyssey, that have sold three to four times as many vans this year.
But buyers of the bigger vans won't find the $20,770 sticker price that I had for the test Mazda5, which included Sirius satellite radio, fog lamps, remote entry key fob and standard safety features of curtain air bags, antilock brakes, traction control and electronic stability control.
The van's refreshed exterior for 2012 has attractive side swirls in the sheet metal for an interesting look, not the plain slab sides of some other minivans.
The best part of this van was how easy it was getting inside and onto the first two rows of seats. All four of these seats are separate chairs _ no bench seating _ and at 5 feet 4, I could turn and set myself on the seat cushions without climbing up or dropping down.
The manual height adjustment on the front seats got me positioned high enough I could look over lower-riding cars and through the windows of larger cars to see traffic ahead.
The Mazda5 tester moved into compact-sized parking spaces without fuss, and thanks to good views out of the vehicle and its tidy, 15-foot-long size, the Mazda5 was easy to parallel park in smaller city-sized street parking spaces. Note that the Grand Caravan, Odyssey and Sedona are all some 21 inches longer, from bumper to bumper, than the Mazda5.
Passengers feel some vibrations from the road and hear considerable road noise. It can become loud when the vehicle is on rough-surfaced concrete roads. I kept cranking up the radio volume when I was on these roads.
I heard the engine, too. This year, it's the same 2.5-liter, double overhead cam four cylinder that's also used in the larger Mazda CX-7 sport utility vehicle as well as the Mazda6.
This powerplant produces 157 horsepower in the van, with torque of 163 foot-pounds peaking at 4,000 rpm, which is more than what last year's engine provided.
The test Mazda5 had the six-speed manual transmission, which let me get this 3,400-pound vehicle scooting along in city traffic with zest and allowed me to select gears for spirited uphill driving.
I admit I forgot about the sixth gear sometimes, as I moved well through highway traffic in fifth gear and didn't need to do much downshifting. In sixth gear, the Mazda5 rolled easily along, getting the maximum from the engine.
The only time I wished for an automatic was when I crawled through congested traffic for several miles on a highway.
Overall, in traffic that was 65 percent highway-speed driving with many mountain roads, I managed a commendable 25.5 mpg, which is above the federal government's 24 mpg combined city/highway rating and well above the 23.5 mpg combined rating of the Odyssey.
Second-row seats in the Mazda5 move forward and back on their tracks, which helps passengers adjust legroom between second- and third-row seats.
The third row is a bit tight to get into, and in contrast to the front two rows that have a space or console between them, the rearmost seats are separate but rest right next to each other. Third-row passengers also find that because these seats rest so close to the floor, knees get pushed upward. Legroom there is a measly 30.5 inches compared with 42.4 inches in the third row of the Odyssey.
Cargo space behind the second-row seats in the Mazda5 also is at a premium, measuring 44.4 cubic feet compared with 93.1 cubic feet in the Odyssey.
Options are limited, with no power liftgate, rearview camera or navigation system.