350 Miles in a Mazda5: Elegy for a Discontinued Minivan

James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

I never wanted to write up a rental car; there’s just no way to look at one as any accurate representation of a model. Even a car with 5,000 miles on the clock can creak and dart like it’s seen 100,000, you need to be wary of brakes in anything over 30,000, and most of them have more delete plates and dummy buttons on the inside than you ever knew existed. But I decided to take a last-minute trip upstate to visit my family this week, and after running the gauntlet of New York City public transportation to get to the rental counter five minutes before closing time, I was met with a resigned clerk who seemed to be the bearer of bad news.

“I’m sorry, sir, but all we have left is a Mazda5.”

A Mazda5? Great! This was infinitely more interesting than the bare-bones Focus I had expected. Walking up to the Soul Red minivan, I knew I had to share my thoughts on the thing because it wasn’t just the most interesting car on the lot, it had served nobly as of the most unique people movers on the market for a decade now. What’s more, I was looking at the last of the breed; in keeping with the times, Mazda has replaced its unique little van with the CX-3 crossover, consigning the final few Mazda5s to that automotive ash bin of history: the rental lot.

James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

Like most of the kids raised in the ’80s and ’90s, I grew up in minivans. Mom and Dad had a ’92 “Black Cherry” Dodge Caravan for 10 embarrassingly long years. And while the’92 was replaced by a dirty gold ’01 Caravan, my grandparents went through a first generation Honda Odyssey, then a succession of Toyota Siennas. I know all about living with minivans: their vague steering, floaty suspension, lawn chair front seats, useless back benches, dark, dreary interiors you could get lost in on even the sunniest of days, and the hopeless feelings of both driving and riding in them.

James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

But the Mazda5 wasn’t like that at all. Even in bare bones rental spec, with extra-firm cloth seats and all those dummy buttons looking back at you, it was tall and airy. Still, you can acutely feel the van’s age — the Mazda5 is old, and it shows. It debuted in the U.S. for 2005, got a refresh in ’10, and that’s about it. This could be chalked up to rental-spec trim, but there was no backup camera, its rock-hard black satin plastic trim doesn’t pass muster, and getting my iPhone to play nice with the busy, button-filled stereo felt like entering cheat codes in a Sega as a kid — one wrong button, and you’re back at square one.

The buzzy 2.5-liter four was slow and underwhelming, and while the five-speed automatic did its job smoothly and admirably, it really could’ve benefited from an extra gear. Car and Driver clocked the Mazda5 at a nine-second zero to 60 sprint, and I’d say that’s probably close, though those nine seconds felt like an eternity getting up to highway speed. And once on the highway, the mixture of wind and road noise had me turning the radio up halfway to hear it at a decent volume. At a stoplight, it would’ve been deafening. And as flat New Jersey turned into hilly Pennsylvania then back into winding upstate New York, the winds of a northern cold front pushed the tall Mazda5 around like the smallest kid on the JV football team. 

James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

But that’s it — that’s everything bad I can say about it. Because in the end, the Mazda succeeds where virtually every minivan short of those tuned 1,000 horsepower Honda Odysseys fails: It doesn’t crush your soul.

James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

It feels refreshingly car-like, in a good old-fashioned way. But from way back, like when cars could comfortably seat six (like the Mazda5 can) and having enough headroom to wear a hat was advertised as an important feature (you could wear a freaking top hat inside a Mazda5). You sit in it like you would sit in a car, so unless you get hit with the winds of a season-changing cold front, you rarely feel how tall it is; you have to look up to remind yourself.

Again, it may be due to the bare-bones rental specs, but the entire van felt so refreshingly analog. The steering is heavy and well-connected. The brakes are firm and responsive, and with a few near-emergency stops on the highway — well, near-emergency anywhere outside of the New Jersey Turnpike at rush hour — they acquitted themselves well. Perhaps most importantly, it handled just like you’d expect a Mazda to, and that’s a beautiful thing. On top of the many, many highway miles, I took a few detours: one through the Delaware Water Gap and another through the farmlands approaching my parents’ house, just to put the thing through its paces, and it had me grinning from ear to ear, with great throttle response, a firm suspension, and surprisingly minimal body roll for a minivan. It was more than just a “driving a slow rental car fast” kind of fun, I was beginning to think Mazda’s van may have been the real deal.

James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

And through it all, one word kept coming to mind as I ate up the highway miles: potential. Except for maybe the Toyobaru twins, few new cars seem to be begging to be upgraded right off the lot as the Mazda5. I kept fantasizing about what I would do if it were mine. I kept thinking back to the Boss Wagon, the ’08 Mazda5 that Car and Driver dropped the Mazdaspeed3’s 263 horsepower mill and five-speed manual suspension into some years back. I could do that. Beef up the suspension to eliminate any remaining trace of body roll, and this little van would be one hell of a sleeper. The ultimate sleeper. I should do this. How hard can it be? 

Source: Mazda

Source: Mazda

This is what I thought about driving my one of 7,758 Mazda5s sold this year in the U.S., and it struck me as sad that its days are over. Sure, we’ve driven the CX-3 here, and we liked it a lot. But it’s a crossover: our generation’s automotive equivalent of a combover that fills the void left by those Voyagers, Aerostars, and Ventures that our dads hated driving. But the Mazda5 was never quite like any of those anyway. Thanks to Mazda’s now abandoned (though still fetching) Nagare styling language, and oh-so Japanese proportions, you never had to worry about losing a Mazda5 in a parking lot. Before Ford’s Flex came along, it was really the only game in town if you needed a bigger vehicle for a growing family but didn’t want to settle for a rolling pair of relaxed fit Dockers. And now, the little-big Mazda is no more.

So when I dropped off the Mazda5 at the end of my trip, I was sad to see it go. It’s a versatile, humble, and truly off-beat kind of car — and that’s my favorite kind. Look past the sliding double minivan doors, kid-friendly back seats, and buzzy four-banger, and what you’re left with is one cool, weird car. As it fades into the ether, the most it could ever hope for is to be remembered as a cult classic. And that’s a shame, because 350 miles in the middle of the night made me a Mazda5 convert. Too bad I’m not in the market for a used minivan.

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