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Century Ahead: 2006 Mazda5’s Sporty Personality Adds To Its Practicality, Economy, Safety

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BY SAM MOSES
For the Tribune's Accelerate section

If you were to ask me to name the most innovative car company out there, I would say Mazda, on the basis of the four-seat RX-8 rotary-engine sports car and now the Mazda5 whatever-you-call-it.

It's a mini minivan, maybe.

Mazda is the only manufacturer I can think of that offers two original, unique vehicles.

There's nothing gimmicky about Mazda's creativity and they're not trying to be offbeat, unlike, say, the Chevy Avalanche or Subaru Baja.

Mazda is simply thinking along the lines of function, practicality and utility, with an emphasis on economy and safety.

The Mazda5 is built on the platform of the successful Mazda3 compact car. It's shaped like a box with aerodynamic lines.

It carries six, in three rows of two seats each. There's a big, low rear liftgate and two sliding rear doors, like a van — and, better than a van, the power rear windows roll down for fresh air.

Its overall length is 181 inches, which is about 20 inches shorter than your average minivan, and its turning circle is just 34.5 feet, about 5 feet tighter. These two things make it very easy to park.

With the third seat folded, the cargo capacity of the Mazda5 matches some full-size minivans in that same configuration, although with both of the Mazda's rows folded, the minivans have more room, thanks to their length. Still, the headroom and legroom in the first and second rows of the Mazda5 rival the minivans. And the second-row seats fold flat. There are storage bins under the seat bottoms, as well as a tray with two cupholders that folds out between the seats. This kind of convenience is hard to find.

The third row is somewhat cramped and the two seats aren't separated as they are in the first two rows, but they're still fine for kids and the smaller people in a car pool.

The front seats fit well and are made of a durable, attractive outdoorsy material. Mazda was the first to use this type of material, if I recall correctly. The driver's seat has lumbar adjustment.

There's tons of storage space inside, including a cavernous double glovebox and a shift lever that extends from the center stack, leaving all the room between the front seats for compartments. The front door pockets include a space for water bottles.

The instruments are tidy, the dash design is clean in polished aluminum and black, and the three-spoke, leather-wrapped, steering wheel is sporty.

The power sunroof was a nice touch that added an open feeling to my touring model, which goes for $20,410, including freight and a $900 optional four-speed automatic transmission with manual mode.

I might choose this transmission, although it sometimes snatched when pulling away from a stop sign.

The sport model, with a five-speed manual gearbox but still equipped nicely, is $17,995.

Fuel mileage is rated at 21 miles per gallon in the city and 26 mpg on the highway.

The engine is Mazda's sturdy 2.3-liter inline four-cylinder, making 157 horsepower. I put nearly 400 miles on the Mazda5 and never found myself needing any more zip than this engine offered.

On one late-night run home from Seattle, it smoothly and effortlessly pulled 80 mph, while still getting more than 20 mpg. And the high beams are excellent.

The handling was nice and tight, just like the Mazda3 it's based upon. It felt like a sporty five-door, definitely not like a minivan.

Along Airport Boulevard, I hit a deep pothole with both left side tires and the suspension took the hit without jarring my teeth. The brakes are firm as well.

Standard safety equipment includes side airbags in front, side air curtains for all three rows and antilock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution.

The second and third rows of seats have child safety seat anchors.

The Mazda5 is a vehicle for the 21st century. Like the Mazda Miata MX-5 sports car, everything is right. I hope it gets the recognition it deserves.

Likes: The total inventive package, especially the functional rear windows in sliding rear doors

Dislikes: The automatic transmission has one rough spot under easy acceleration from a stop

Bottom line: An original vehicle with excellent execution whose time has come

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