All too often, driving a family and its accoutrements can mean having to sacrifice a fun driving experience. Or if you want enough room for everyone and everything, you pay for it dearly at the dealership by buying an expensive minivan, crossover or SUV. But there does exist one car that can give you both the seating and versatility you need with a starting price tag below $20,000: The 2012 Mazda Mazda5.

Where does it fit?

The Mazda5 is in a class all its own. Once competing with the now defunct Kia Rondo, the Mazda5 stands alone as a "C-wagon." Five-inches longer than the original 1986 Dodge minivan, the Mazda5 is perhaps the truest "minivan" on the market, with a much smaller footprint and lower cost than those that dominate that space today.

Maybe your favorite if...

Part wagon, part minivan and part compact car, the Mazda5 offers the soul of Mazda zoom-zoom in an ultra-versatile and economical package. So if you are in the market for a minivan but the high price tag has you suffering from sticker shock, or if you don't want to have to choose between your love affair with driving and your devotion to your children, you'll want to take a closer look at the Mazda5.

Maybe look elsewhere if...

The Mazda5 isn't as big or tech-rich as a full-size minivan, so you might need to improvise with aftermarket or dealer-installed options if you want navigation or a rear entertainment system, and you will only be able to fit six passengers instead of the seven-to-eight that minivans can carry.

Outside curves that wow

It was a bold choice for Mazda to put so much of its Nagare (flow) design language into the Mazda5. Striking side sheet metal with rippling curves makes the Mazda5 look more like a concept vehicle than a production car. Anyone who wants to distance themselves from the soccer-mom style dominating the exteriors of SUVs and minivans will love the sleek, graceful form of the Mazda5 while still appreciating the practical sliding side doors and rear liftgate.

Seating for six

The 2012 Mazda Mazda5 can seat six in relative comfort, but the kids will be fighting over who gets to sit in the second row captain's chairs and who gets the rear bench. Granted, the rear bench offers pretty good room for smaller adults and kids, but the second row is built for full-sized adults and features comfortable bucket seats that recline and adjust fore and aft. A removable center console is available, so you easily go from having a middle aisle for easy access to the third row to having a place to stow games and iPods. Sport models feature cloth seats, Touring models add leather-clad steering wheels and shift knobs, while Grand Touring models feature stylish heated leather seats with contrast piping - a sexy little detail that almost makes you forget this is a wagon/minivan.

Family hauler, sports-car style

It can be hard to reconcile sporty driving dynamics with a family-friendly design. If the suspension is too stiff, your kid's milkshake winds up all over the back seat when you take a curve. If the suspension is too soft -- well, you might as well be auto-piloting the car. So to have a good balance of both is important to a lot of drivers and the latest generation Mazda5 works hard to accomplish that feat. Improving on the previous generation's sometimes rough ride, a little roll has been added during quick lane changes and driver inputs. But don't worry - even though passengers have a smoother ride, the driver still gets a fun, sporty experience thanks to Mazda's "Dynamic Harmony Concept" that has optimized the Mazda5's power, performance, steering and brakes. Add in the new six-speed manual transmission (on five-percent of Mazda5's to be sold) and you might just forget the kids are there as you take on the back-road twisties.

Favorite Features:

Nagare styling

The 2012 Mazda Mazda5's stylish sheet metal smacks of a concept vehicle. From the rippling side panels to the shapely hood and fenders, you'll forget this sexy car is closely related to the minivan.

Second-row captain's chairs

Quite often the second row of a vehicle is never as comfortable as the driver's seat. But this isn't the case in the new Mazda5. Second-row captain's chairs and optional aisle storage tray are manually-adjustable for optimized comfort.

Under the Hood

The 2012 Mazda Mazda5 is powered by a 2.5-liter in-line four-cylinder engine capable of 157 horsepower and 163 pound-feet of torque. It is also the only minivan available with a six-speed manual transmission, although only five percent of the units made will be equipped with one. Everyone else will get a five-speed automatic transmission and both will get the same fuel economy which is improved by one mile per gallon versus the outgoing model.

2.5-liter four-cylinder
157 horsepower @ 6,000 rpm
163 lb-ft of torque @ 4,000 rpm
EPA city/highway fuel economy: 21/28 mpg (manual), 21/28 mpg (automatic)

2012 Mazda5 Sport

Starting just over $19,000, the base Mazda5 Sport includes air conditioning, power accessories, 16-inch alloy wheels, an MP3-compatible CD audio system with auxiliary input jack and satellite radio, cloth seats and a six-speed manual transmission. Standard safety features include dynamic stability and traction controls, anti-lock brakes (ABS) and six airbags. 

2012 Mazda5 Touring

A fully-equipped Mazda5 Touring comes with a five-speed automatic transmission, 17-inch alloy wheels, Bluetooth hands-free phone and audio system, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, fog lamps and a trip computer.

2012 Mazda5 Grand Touring

A fully-loaded 2012 Mazda Mazda5 Grand Touring includes a power moonroof, auto on/off HID headlights, heated mirrors, rain-sensing wipers, heated leather seats with adjustable lumbar support for the driver, and an in-dash six-disc CD player. It is important to note that none of the trims available, including the Grand Touring, can be equipped with a factory-installed navigation system or USB-port for plugging in and charging iPods and phones. But these features can be ordered as dealer-installed options made by aftermarket companies.

KBB value analysis

The 2012 Mazda Mazda5 Sport with manual transmission starts at a Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price of right about $20,000, and tops out close to $25,000 for a fully-loaded Grand Touring model. Although the Mazda5 doesn't currently have a direct competitor in the U.S. market, buyers typically cross-shop it with three-row crossovers like the Toyota Rav4 and minivans like the Honda Odyssey - costing anywhere between $25,000 and $44,000. We expect the Mazda5 will continue to appeal to families that need room for six, want a sporty driving experience and don't want to pay a premium for those things. In addition, the Mazda5's Kelley Blue Book Fair Purchase Price should remain below MSRP, making it an even better value for those looking for a deal at the car lot. The 2012 Mazda Mazda5 is available at dealerships now.

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