SAN DIEGO – The ’12 Mazda5 is the Swiss Army Knife of the automotive world.

Need a vehicle that seats six? Check. Want cargo-carrying ability? Check. Looking for something fun to drive and fuel efficient? Check and check.

At 180.5 ins. (458.4 cm) in length, the ’12 Mazda5 is dwarfed by competitors, including the Honda Odyssey at 202.9 ins. (515.3 cm) and Toyota Sienna, which measures 200.2 ins. (508.5 cm).

Its diminutive proportions are more in line with U.S. minivans of old, when they were indeed “mini.” The ’84 Dodge Caravan, arguably the world’s first modern minivan, measured 175.9 ins. (446.7 cm).

Mazda says its new people-mover is sized perfectly for today’s environment. During a test drive here, the cross/utility vehicle displays car-like handling its minivan competitors can’t match, while its smaller size means maneuvering in and out of tight parking spaces and along traffic-clogged roads is a snap.

At a somewhat lithe 3,457 lbs. (1,568 kg), the Mazda5 doesn’t require a huge engine to move it along.

The standard 2.5L 4-cyl. includes Mazda’s Sequential Valve Timing to optimize the intake stroke, and its Variable Induction System improves low- to mid-range torque. It produces 157 hp and 163 lb.-ft. (221 Nm) of torque.

The engine proves more than adequate in most driving conditions, but it does struggle to move the Mazda5 up some steep inclines.

While no barnburner, it’s unlikely the minivan crowd will be running laps at the local track. And the Mazda5’s fuel economy – 21/28 mpg (11.2-8.4 L/100 km) city/highway – makes the lack of a V-6 easier to swallow.

Product planners decided to equip the Mazda5 with a 6-speed manual transmission as standard, an unusual choice for a vehicle in this class.

Only a couple of Mazda5s were made available with the manual, but in a short test drive the pairing of the 2.5L and 6-speed proves a perfect match for the twisting roads of Southern California.

Although the manual is standard, the auto maker admits it will be chosen by only about 5% of customers. The vast majority will pay the $1,000 charge for the optional 5-speed automatic.

While not as much fun as the manual, the automatic remains a good fit for the Mazda5. Shift points are well-timed and imperceptible.

Still, a 6-speed automatic would have been the wiser choice. Most competitors now are offering 6-speeds on nearly all new vehicles, including B-sized cars, as a way to boost fuel economy. A similar move likely would have hiked the Mazda5’s highway rating above 30 mpg (7.8 L/100 km).

’12 Mazda5
Vehicle type Front-engine, FWD 6-passenger CUV
Engine 2.5L DOHC I-4; aluminum block, heads
Power (SAE net) 157 hp @ 6,000 rpm
Torque 163 lb.-ft. (221 Nm) @ 4,000 rpm
Transmission 5-speed automatic
Wheelbase 108.3 ins. (275 cm)
Overall length 180.5 ins. (458.4 cm)
Overall width 68.9 ins. (175 cm)
Overall height 63.6 ins. (161.5 cm)
Curb weight 3,457 lbs. (1,568 kg)
Base price $20,195
Fuel economy 21/28 mpg (11.2-8.4 L/100 km)
Competition Honda Odyssey, Toyota Sienna, Kia Sedona, Chrysler minivans
Pros Cons
Seating for six Tight third row
Clever under-seat storage Love it or hate it styling
Decent fuel economy Automatic missing a speed

At first glance, the Mazda5 looks like a scaled-down version of a conventional minivan. It’s on closer inspection that its more sculpted body-side panels become apparent.

The unorthodox styling is derived from Mazda’s nature-inspired Nagare concept. It takes awhile, but it does grow on you. If you have to drive a minivan, why not one with some panache?

Up front, the fascia bears a family resemblance to most other Mazdas, complete with the gaping lower grille that some have likened to a smiling face.

Like it or hate it, the design helps the Mazda5 stand out in a crowd and conveys the “zoom-zoom” attitude the auto maker strives to imbue in all its vehicles.

Ingress and egress to the captain’s chairs in the second row is a breeze through the twin-sliding doors. The manually operated doors can be opened with one finger.

The resulting wide opening makes it easy to get into the third row, which can be accessed by a 1-touch lever that automatically tips the seatback forward and slides the cushion to its front-most position.

While not the place where adults will want to spend a lot of time, the third row is fine for small children and can be folded flat to increase cargo room to a spacious 44 cu.-ft. (1.2 cu.-m) when the seats are not needed.

The seats, themselves, are comfortable and supportive, reflecting Mazda’s efforts to inject a little bit of sports car in every vehicle.

But the surprise-and-delight feature is the under-seat storage in the second row, which can be accessed by folding the cushions forward. Families will find it a good spot to hide away all the kid clutter.

The ’12 Mazda5 is available in three trim levels: entry-level Sport, Touring and top-grade Grand Touring.

Prices start at $19,900 for the Sport trim equipped with a manual transmission and top out at $23,875 for the Grand Touring with the automatic.

When compared with the Odyssey’s $27,800 price tag and the $24,560 entry-level price of the Sienna, the Mazda5 provides plenty of bang for the buck and is a good option for those looking for maximum versatility at a reasonable price.

bpope@wardsauto.com