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Driver's Seat: 2012 Mazda5 is peppy, fun, but not built for a crowd

2012 Mazda5 Touring: It's the miniest of the minivans. Price: $21,195 base price. Fancy white paint, a rear bumper guard, and delivery pushed that to $22,240.

2012 Mazda5 Touring: It's the miniest of the minivans.

Price: $21,195 base price. Fancy white paint, a rear bumper guard, and delivery pushed that to $22,240.

Marketer's pitch: "An unexpected vehicle for life unexpected."

Conventional wisdom: says the Mazda5 is "a strong choice." And the New York Times adds it's "the starter minivan that splits the difference between thrills and frills."

Reality: Fun to drive, well-packaged, and room for six. Well, six-ish.

Zoom zoom, indeed: Ever since Mazda embraced its RX-7 and Miata heritage, it has become the darling of car nuts like myself. Even the last-generation MPV minivan sported handling that other minivans couldn't hold a candle to.

As it is with the Mazda5. The steering is firm and precise. Even with just 157 horses providing the movement, this was still a peppy machine.

The shifter for the five-speed automatic is in just the right spot, and rowing through the gears is as fun as driving a stick.

Expressway struggle: Keeping up with traffic was never a problem. But once, while in automatic mode, the Mazda5 hesitated for a moment before pulling out from a stop on the Schuylkill Expressway.

Keeping informed: The Mazda5 lacked the cool infotainment display screen of other vehicles I've tested. The orange info center was homely but much easier to read than some of the slot-machine displays I've seen recently.

Five's a crowd: Start packing in the bodies, though, and things change. We added Sturgis kids 1.0 and 4.0, plus 6-foot-tall boyfriend 1.0, for a jaunt along country roads to West Chester. The handling suddenly became, well, quirky. The motion, slower.

And even though we still had a seat to spare, 10-year-old Kid 4.0 felt squished in the third row, and said the seats were too low. And he's normally a patient sufferer of many an automotive misfortune (see Toyota Sienna, "Naughty chair").

On the bright side, the middle row features two captain chairs with armrests. And Mom and Dad were happy in the front. Sorry, kid!

Easy egress: The sliding rear doors and center captain chairs at least make getting in and out a breeze.

The night shift: The Mazda5 as tested didn't have cool little courtesy lights for all the seats. Those kids need to learn to share anyway.

Paging Detective Monk: Cleaning dog hair off the cloth seats requires some OCD tendencies. The fabric doesn't want to let go.

The floor mats cover the carpets well and are Velcroed down, but long, three-fingered mats coupled with stubby knuckle pieces made me worry they would be torn within a year.

"Thar she blows!": The Mazda5 lacks an engine temperature gauge, a critical oversight in my estimation. It does feature a blue temperature light when the engine is cold, so at least the driver gets some clue to what's going on.

Bargain: Despite the low price, the Mazda5 comes with antilock brakes, dynamic stability control, and traction control standard, even on the $19,195 Sport model.

Cheap touch: The lightweight plastic on the dashboard feels cheesy.

The speedometer and tachometer reflected in their plastic surrounds in an odd way, and made me wonder if I was getting bleary-eyed.

Mileage: All those zooms come at a price: I averaged about 24 m.p.g. in the Mazda5. That's only a couple of m.p.g. better than the Toyota Sienna, Honda Odyssey, and even the Ford Explorer V6.

Where it's built: Hiroshima, Japan.

How it's built: J.D. Power & Associates puts the overall dependability for all Mazdas and predicted reliability for the Mazda5 in the "about average" category.

In the end: Perhaps it's no competition for a minivan, but the Mazda5 certainly offers more usefulness than the average sedan. For families with small kids or the need for the occasional ride-along guest, this fun, versatile, inexpensive package is a great choice.