BY STEVE WALKER
There are tangible rewards out there for the used car buyer willing to approach things from an alternative angle. Following the herd provides the safety of numbers and should ensure that the most precipitous pitfalls are avoided but with just a little independent thinking, you could tap in to one of the bargains that the mainstream market routinely flows past. All of which brings us to the Mazda5. With a whole gaggle of higher profile rivals competing for sales in the compact MPV sector, Mazda's offering was regularly overlooked by new car buyers and comparative rarity as well as this lowly profile has meant that it's been largely the same story in the used arena. Don't let that put you off: the 5 has plenty to recommend it.
The explosion in the compact MPV sector around the turn of the century saw what was previously a modest niche in the market become a full-blown money-spinning sector in which no mainstream manufacturer could afford to be without representation. The Citroen Xsara Picasso, Renault Scenic and Vauxhall Zafira combined with the Ford C-MAX to form a mainstream into which most buyers were drawn. That left Volkswagen's Touran, Toyota's Corrolla Verso, Honda's FR-V, Fiat's Multipla and Mazda's 5 competing for the scraps from the top table with an underclass of tightly-priced offerings from the budget marques.
The origins of the Mazda5's design can be traced through the Premacy via the MX-Flexa design study, shown at the 2004 Geneva Motor Show. Originally built to demonstrate one possible direction for future Mazda MPV vehicles, the MX-Flexa received such a warm reception that many of its design principles were incorporated virtually unchanged into the Mazda5 production car.
The Mazda5 hit the streets comparatively late in the day, long after the compact MPV concept had blossomed and borne fruit. This tardy arrival came at a stage when the choicest chunks of the market had already been divvied up amongst the big boys, partly explaining the 5's failure to make a more significant impact. The range was fashioned around four engine options, two petrols and two diesels, with the diesels arriving a little later. Trim levels ran from TS through TS2 to the visually-enhanced Sport and the Sport Nav which tacks on a satellite navigation system with a 7" pop-up screen.
The '5' was facelifted late in 2007 with a revised nose bringing a sportier look and improvements to economy and CO2 emissions. Electric operation for the sliding side doors became available as an option.
What You Get
Running on the same underpinnings as the Ford Focus C-MAX - which, in turn, purloined its mechanicals from the acclaimed Focus family hatch - the Mazda5 has a strong pedigree. It's sleeker styling, 6+1 seating layout and the inclusion of sliding side doors - a unique feature on a compact MPV at the time - makes the 5 a more attractive and practical proposition than the 5-seater Focus C-MAX. Predictably, it's also more expensive.
The interior was designed according to Mazda's "6+1" concept which attempted to deliver comfortable seating for six occupants, plus an additional element of utility that stresses plenty of luggage space, walk through convenience and ample stowage space. The key theme is the open space created in the centre of the cabin that means that every occupant has ample shoulder space and assists interaction between passengers by ensuring there are always sightlines between one row of seats and another.
Although there's ample room on the inside with three rows of two seats, the Mazda5 isn't superstretch limo long. In fact, at 4,505mm in length it measures just 85mm longer than the Mazda3 family hatch, whilst the width is identical, so there shouldn't be too many horrors when manoeuvring this wagon into a crowded multi-storey car park. Despite its wheel at each corner stance, the turning circle of just 530cm means that even if you do need to throw a shifty three-point turn, you won't need acres of road to do so.
Mazda claimed a class first for the large sliding doors on both sides. Previously restricted to seriously-sized MPV vehicles, these make good sense because they don't swing out in the manner of conventional side-hinged doors. How many times have you been forced to sheepishly apologise when the kids whack their doors into the flanks of a parked car in a supermarket car park? The Mazda5 solves that particular problem. These doors slide backward to create an opening of fully 700mm, an aperture that should be plenty wide enough for a parent carrying an infant. The plastic tailgate is another clever touch. Mazda discovered that the tailgate mechanisms of many MPVs and 4x4 vehicles were becoming so heavy and cumbersome that they were difficult for lighter weight operators to close. With a two-step mechanism built in, the tailgate of the Mazda5 is light and smooth in its action.
The second and third rows of seats can be arranged in a number of configurations. In addition to their sliding adjustment and reclining functions, the second row also features a double-fold mechanism. Folding down the second and third row seatbacks creates a virtually flat floor for the luggage compartment. Other rivals are a little slicker in this regard, but the Mazda5 scores in terms of ease of operation. The space between the second row of seats is given over to either a utility box or a 'karakuri' occasional seat that's narrow and only really suitable for small children.
All models feature electric windows, manual air-conditioning, power steering, tilt and height adjustment of the steering wheel and a CD stereo.
What to Look For
All of the engines are tough units and the diesels are especially good so no major mechanical issues there. The cabins are reasonably hardwearing too but look for damage in the rear caused by tots. The Mazda5 tends not to be driven quite as hard as more conventional models like the Mazda3 and Mazda6 but it's still worth keeping an eye out for mega mileage company hacks. Worn carpets, shiny steering wheels and scuffed trim are the usual clues.
Check that all the electrical items work properly, ensure that the air conditioner delivers chilled air soon after the engine is started and remember that there's no excuse for missed servicing with a car of this age.
(approx based on a Mazda5 1.8) As you might expect, parts are plentiful and relatively inexpensive. A clutch assembly will be around £130 and an alternator should be close to £175.
Brake pads are around £40 a front set with rear shoes around £50 and a replacement headlamp is close to £140. A full exhaust is about £280 and a catalyst is about £280. Dampers are around £60 each and a radiator about £140.
On the Road
The Mazda5 is certainly one of the better handling compact MPVs out there with the super soft suspension and sloppy body control that afflicts some rivals refreshingly absent. Of course, rounding corners at speeds that would shame a hot hatchback isn't on the agenda for most MPV buyers and the Mazda5 manages to raise a smile on the road without compromising too much on the important aspects of ride comfort and refinement.
There's not a dullard amongst the engines, so don't beat yourself up if junior's insatiable appetite for cutting edge games consoles has swallowed the cash you were going to use to upgrade from the entry-level 1.8. You'll be reaching for the gearstick more regularly with this unit installed but it's lively enough, especially if your Mazda5 is likely to be living out its life scurrying between schools and supermarkets. It also returns a 36mpg combined economy figure.
The 2.0-litre petrol (34mpg) is quicker and more flexible for longer trips, while the torque of the diesels, which both average close to 45mpg on the combined cycle, make for a driving experience that's more relaxed still - even if noise levels are less subdued. The range-topping diesel is a bit of an animal by compact MPV standards and would be a good choice for frustrated boy and girl racers forced out of their performance hatchbacks by an ever-expanding family.
Mazda haven't skimped on safety systems either, developing a curtain airbag that covers all three rows of seats especially for the 5. Anti lock brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution are augmented by a manual brake assist booster. Dynamic Stability Control aims to keep things ship shape.
There will be many buyers out there seeking a pre-owned compact MPV of a certain age who haven't had the Mazda5 appear on their radar. Why should they? The model's low profile as a brand new offering has translated onto the used market and the job of choosing a compact MPV is difficult enough without expanding the hunt out of the mainstream to lesser known and harder to find alternatives. In this instance, however, a winding of your search could pay dividends. The Mazda5 is up with the best of its contemporaries thanks to six adult-sized berths plus room for a little 'un, those sliding side doors and a polished driving experience. The ride may be too firm for some tastes and the interior is a little dull in places but there's no doubt that this 5 is worthy of a high position on every buyer's list.