- The Washington Times - Friday, September 21, 2007

Generally speaking, many Americans have a pretty simple way of telegraphing their success stories and it can be summed up in three words: Bigger is better.

You can tell people are doing well just by looking at their giant SUVs, or their big houses, or their flat screen tvs or, well, you get the idea.

Size is a simple, effective way of communicating status and, frankly, who among us wouldn’t indulge in a little excess given the opportunity?

But, sometimes bigger isn’t better. Sometimes, smaller is.

Case in point is the Mazda 5 that I recently spent some time with. To most people it’s a mini minivan. The term alone conveys the message that this is not the vehicle the owners really wanted. It’s the one that practicality and budget restrictions required.

And that’s a shame because there is a lot more to this Mazda than initially meets the eye. It’s big in the ways it needs to be and small in the way its owners come to appreciate.

For example:

• With its flexible seating, sliding side doors and rear hatch, it’s big enough to comfortably accommodate four adults and two children, or a family of four and all the luggage it will need for a summer vacation, or two adults and a whole lot of stuff purchased at the home-improvement center. Yet, it’s small enough and agile enough to dart through the urban jungle and fit into many parking spaces that won’t hold a car.

• It’s tall enough to give driver and passengers the “high, wide and handsome” view that keeps them from feeling overwhelmed in a world of bullying SUVs. Yet, it’s small enough to navigate narrow two-lane byways, without occasionally having to crawl up the curb.

• Its engine is big enough to keep up with today’s 75-80 mph interstate traffic. Yet, it is small enough to average approximately 20 to 25 miles per gallon of regular unleaded gasoline.

The new-for-2007 Grand Touring edition I drove is fancy enough to contain standard four-speed automatic transmission, high-intensity-discharge headlights, leather seating, automatic climate control, six-speaker sound system, power sunroof, windows and door locks. Yet, even with the optional satellite radio ($350) and a couple of smaller options, its price tag came in at $22,734. Add a $2,000 navigation system and the Mazda is still a couple of thousand dollars below the average price of a full-size family vehicle.

Okay, you get the idea. This is an inexpensive, versatile vehicle. Now, let’s talk basics.

All 2007 Mazda5 models have front-wheel drive and come with a 2.3-liter, four-cylinder engine that produces 153 horsepower and 148 pounds-feet of torque. The suspension is independent at all four wheels. The antilock brakes have vented discs at the front wheels and solid discs at the rear. Steering is power-assisted rack-and-pinion.

Safety features include reinforced body construction, side-impact beams, dual front airbags, three-row side-curtain airbags and collapsible brake and accelerator pedals.

For 2008, the Mazda 5 gets even better. The exterior has been updated and the automatic transmission is a five-speed, which will slightly improve fuel mileage. New standard equipment for base models includes rear air vents and an input jack for an MP3 player.The Grand Touring edition gets more, including Bluetooth wireless capability, automatic on/off headlights, heated door mirrors and rain-sensing windshield wipers.

Honda was the first to test the American waters with its original Odyssey mini minivan. Despite its clever construction, the first Odyssey didn’t really catch on and was withdrawn after a couple of years to be replaced by the current full-size minivan.

Will the Mazda 5 fare better? Automotive trend watchers have been saying for a couple of years that there is a movement toward smaller vehicles. In addition, significantly higher gas prices should work in the Mazda 5’s favor.

But, a look at recent company figures shows that in the U.S., Mazda 5 sales through June totaled 8,309 — a drop of 12 percent from the same period in 2006. Europeans, I’m told, love the vehicle, but it could be that Americans are still stuck on bigger-is-better and “anything but a minivan.”

As I said, that’s a shame. The Mazda 5 may not be sending out signals that its owner is the richest person on the block, but it just might be telling the world that he or she is the smartest.

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