Finding the right vehicle for a family of four can be tough. A sedan might be too small, due to surprise play dates and soccer game carpooling. Most days a 7-seat van or SUV is just too big, especially in crowded urban settings. What s a family to do?

Behold! The 2012 Mazda5! It s part transportation, part Swiss Army knife, and part stealth fighter (on account that it s completely off most shopper s radar screens). There s nothing else quite like it. The first generation with its rocket-booster tail lamps has been on my most overlooked list for years now. This second-gen is more conventional in silhouette.

Most would describe the 5 as a mini minivan. Think about it though, major players like Sienna, Odyssey, Town and Country, and Grand Caravan have all grown quite a bit. They re vans now, not much mini about them. The Mazda5 is a minivan.

Just How Mini?

The 5 is only three inches longer than a Honda Civic, so the size is very manageable. It s supremely lithe and nimble in crowded parking lots, the kind that force larger vehicles into three-point turns to squeeze into a slot.

Unlike Civic, Mazda5 holds 6 passengers with three rows of two seats. Most families will use it as a four-passenger vehicle with an enormous trunk. With row number three flattened it scores an impressive 14 in the TP trunk test. One tug lifts the last row seatbacks upright, adding instant passenger capacity. At 5 9 I m good for a ride across town if the guy in the second row isn t an NBA player.

It s not just about seating, the 5er has loads of nooks to stash stuff. The glove box swallows many laptop computers. Storage under the second row seat cushions will swallow up any number of toys and coloring books for the kids. The chairs recline plus slide fore and aft to max out legroom. There are even fold down arm rests and powered windows in the sliding doors.

Simplicity is Good

Mazda5 is not a McMansion or Best Buy on wheels. There s no wood trim, panoramic glass roof or wide screen entertainment system. The sliding doors and liftgate are manual. They re light and they don t need power assist. Even my six-year old twin nieces can easily manhandle them. Another advantage to compact size is that kids can easily climb in and out themselves.

Since 5 is more of a basic family car, keyless ignition, high-end sound system, navigation and backup camera are not offered. The top-of-the-line Grand Touring press car I m driving is available with just one powertrain, a 2.5 liter 157 horse 4-cylinder hooked up to a 5-speed automatic. A 6-speed manual transmission is available in the Sport model.

The Smile is There for a Reason

Mazda5 s grille gets the familiar Mazda happy face. You ll smile too. The front-wheel drive 5 scampers from standstill to 60 miles an hour in just over 9 seconds, but feels quicker. Where it really shines is in the corners. It s a play date for mom and dad every time they slide behind the wheel. Driving dynamics are crisp and confident. Combine that with the smaller footprint of the car and daily surgical shopping strikes become more enjoyable.

While the vanlette doesn t roll much in corners, the ride quality remains surprisingly comfortable. The thick leather-wrapped steering wheel communicates a decent amount of feedback from the tires. Road noise is on the higher side of average cruising at highways speeds, in town it s not an issue. Fuel economy is EPA rated at 21 city, 28 highway. Very few family friendly machines offer up this combination of utility, handling prowess and economy.

From the Driver s Chair

It s easy to find a comfortable driving position with a tilt/telescoping steering wheel. Interior plastics are hard though they look decent. With only a little silver accent trim, the black cabin feels a bit dark and monochromatic. Order the sand color for a much cheerier lifestyle. Hope your kids are cleaner than mine.

Grand Touring comes with automatic climate, those in the second row get their own fan control. The cluster of buttons on the instrument panel takes some time getting used to but it s hardly iDrive. Loads of info (like interior and exterior temp plus sound system data) is crammed into a red LCD display strip on top of the dash. It s a bit busy but workable. At least it s polite, saying hello and goodbye at the appropriate times.

A few little gripes.- There s no 12v power port in the middle row for the kids to charge their iPads (5 doesn t come with a factory DVD entertainment system). There s only one seatback map pocket too. To max out the utility mission this car promises, every seat should have storage on its backside. You can never have too many of those...

With rows two and three folded flat there s an impressive amount of cargo space to tote old clothes and toys to Goodwill (guess what I did this weekend). However, the front passenger seat doesn t fold flat to accommodate surfboards and such. For folks in the Midwest, that s probably not much of a problem...

Go With the Flow

You may have noticed the unique sweeping lines embossed on the side panels. It s inspired by Mazda s Nagare concept car, which itself was inspired by wind and water. I have to admit I was cool to the look at first but I ve grown accustomed to it in the past week.

Sometimes smaller is just better, and in the 5s case that s true. Tap 20 grand from the kid s college fund and it buys a base model 5. This fully optioned Grand Touring goes for $24,670 (plus tax of course and license). Fun and functional, Mazda5 is the perfect tool for small families that live large. Don t leave it off your test drive list.

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