- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 12, 2006

American motorists are stubborn, but susceptible to change. They have always been partial to the traditional notchback sedan, and disdainful of the European taste for practical hatchbacks and small station wagons.

For a time, hatchbacks all but died in the U.S. market. But an odd thing called the SUV happened. Maybe it was the high driving position, or the feeling of invulnerability that comes with driving a monster truck. But buyers flocked to it and, in the process, discovered a thing called lifestyle, which was a new name for activities people had always done.

SUVs became “lifestyle vehicles” for family vacations and outdoor pursuits. The concept was wrapped in practicality. Soon young people abandoned sleek muscle cars in favor of boxes such as the Scion xB and the Nissan Xterra because they could carry all their lifestyle stuff.

Now the bloom is fading from the SUV, and there’s a proliferation of new crossovers, hatchbacks and sport wagons, all tagged with the lifestyle nomenclature.

Some of these vehicles might have Europeans chuckling condescendingly because they mimic many of the practical features of cars in the Old Country: good fuel economy, enough stash space and passenger room, as well as tidy dimensions for clogged streets and parking.

Just as this evolution gets underway, Mazda introduces its new 5, which resembles nothing else available in this country but seems poised — despite lingering prejudices — to carve yet another niche in a market pockmarked with them.

The 2006 Mazda 5 is a mini-minivan of the sort that has been popular in Europe for years. It is a stretched version of the Mazda 3, which is the Japanese manufacturer’s most successful car.

The new 5 is 5 inches longer than the 3, and weighs about 500 pounds more with the same power, so its smaller sibling is the better performer. But it can seat six adults in relative comfort, or four with a huge cargo area.

For some customers, the only turnoff might be the minivan design, with sliding side doors. But they open wide and glide open and closed with a touch, though they have no power assist, so they are eminently practical.

Interior space is 142 cubic feet. That means if you use the 5 as a vehicle for four, it has 98 cubic feet of passenger space — as much as a midsize sedan — with a whopping 44 cubic feet of cargo space, or more than three times what you’d find in a midsize car’s trunk. In fact, the government classifies the 5 as a midsize wagon.

With the third-row seats up to carry six persons, the 5 has 7 cubic feet of cargo space — about enough to hold a few small duffel and shopping bags.

Two models are available: the Sport, with a base price of $17,995, and the Touring, which starts at $19,510. The power train is the same as the one in the Mazda 3 — a 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine that delivers 157 horsepower to the front wheels through either a five-speed manual gearbox or a four-speed automatic transmission with a manual-shift mode.

Standard equipment on both models is extensive, including antilock brakes, side air bags up front, side-curtain air bags for all three rows of seats, 17-inch alloy wheels, air conditioning, stereo with CD player, and a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel.

The tested Touring model also came with an automatic transmission, automatic climate control, a six-disc in-dash CD changer, motorized glass sunroof, fog lights and — unusual in this class of car — a navigation system. All of that brought the sticker price to $22,635. But you can save $2,000 by skipping the navigation system.

The 5 has some nifty features and odd shortcomings. In the latter category, the driver’s seat has a right-side armrest, but the front passenger seat has none. In the second row, both seats have inboard armrests, but none on the outside.

In the nifty category are storage bins under the second-row seats. On the Touring model, the right-side bin contains a flip-out console with a mesh bag attached. None of the seats can be removed, but both the second- and third-row seats fold flat.

Access to the third row, thanks to the wide sliding-door opening and middle row seats that move forward, is surprisingly easy. Once inside, adults who are not overly large can sit in reasonable comfort in all three rows as long as everyone is willing to compromise a bit on knee and leg room.

Though not a high-performance car, the 5 feels strong off the line.

Hard acceleration produces some raucous engine noise, but it soon settles down, and highway cruising is reasonably quiet, with only modest engine, wind and road noise.

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