Fuel Prices and Practical Needs Make Mazda's Microvan a Hit

By Edward A. Sanchez | August 05, 2008
Perhaps it's my inner self-satisfied geek that gets a thrill of being so far ahead of the curve on trends that people think you're either insane or at best eccentric when you first proclaim or propose this supposed trend, only to see people come around years later on blogs and TV shows concurring with your prophetic declaration. Although my "day job" is senior web producer for 9 truck enthusiast sites, I saw the hand writing on the wall long before $4.00+ a gallon gas. I simply did not see the rationality of 6,000+ pounds of body-on-frame metal and the associated gluttonous V8 engine to haul mom and 2-3 kids to soccer practice and karate lessons. "Why don't people see the inherent practicality of minivans?" I kept asking myself. Well, perhaps it was that inherent practicality that people found so terrifying in the first place. In the automotive world, image is everything. Let's consider the top automotive sex symbols: Ferrari, Lamborghini, Corvette, Porsche, BMW, Mercedes. Okay, three out of those five brands capitulated to the SUV craze of the time and created a status-branded sport utility. But aside from possibly Mercedes' inscrutable R-class, not a single minivan exists among them. Yet even most "minivans" today are comparable in size to full-size vans of two decades ago. There must be something even more practical and efficient that would meet 90 percent of suburbanite kid-hauling transport duties.
When Mazda introduced its Mazda5 microvan several years ago, I thought "Wow, what a neat package! Practical, stylish, efficient." Most of my peers thought, "Weird, dorky and small." At the time, selling side-by-side with the slighty more conventional (though still small, comparatively-speaking) MPV, it didn't make a whole lot of sense. Two minivans at a time when the entire industry was in the midst of SUV mania? Mazda soon acknowledged SUVs' dominance in the marketplace by introducing the uncharacteristically-stylish CX-7 and CX-9 crossovers, the latter of which effectively replaced the MPV. At the time of the introduction of the crossovers, many were wondering aloud if the 5 would survive in the U.S. lineup much longer. And then it hit...the Perfect Storm of 2008. Fuel prices through the roof. (Cue Godzilla spewing fire on skyscrapers, taxis exploding, general screaming and bedlam.) All of a sudden, that Expedition rollin' on 22s or the chrome-package Tahoe isn't the status symbol it once was. The kids started protesting after the second straight month of Top Ramen for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And the fourth "account past due" notice on the gas card. Was there anything out there that could reasonably accommodate a typical American family without costing $100 per fill-up? Let's see, six-passenger capacity? Check. Good fuel economy? Check. Nav system available? Check. Reasonably stylish? Check. What is this wondrous vehicle? (Cue drumroll, pull back sheet.) The Mazda5. Yes, that strange little mini-minivan that seemed hopelessly oddball only a few years earlier, now starting to make a heck of a lot of sense. Granted, even with fuel prices what they are, the 5 isn't everyone's cup of tea. And despite my intentionally provocative headline, it's not exactly perfect. It could use a little more power. And the fuel economy, as good as it is, could be a smidge better, perhaps. Well, Mazda's recently-introduced 2.5L version of its MZR engine serves up a dash more power with even greater fuel economy. With a direct-injection and auto stop-start version of that engine waiting in the wings, it's an easy enough fix. Better yet, the 5 is offered with a turbodiesel option in Europe. Perhaps us Yanks aren't quite ready for the en masse onslaught of oil-burners, but it's a possibility. The 5's sales are up significantly for the year, but it's still an admittedly niche player in Mazda's lineup, as well as the overall automotive marketplace. But interestingly enough, Kia introduced its strikingly similar Rondo, and Ford will likely bring over the Focus C-Max from Europe, which aside from its conventinal front-hinged (though arguably functionally inferior) rear doors, shares a lot with its Japanese cousin. So I might not singlehandedly get every suburbanite out of their fuel-swilling SUVs, but no longer do I have to put on an elaborate dog-and-pony show to convince people of the merits of trimmer, more efficient vehicle options. The price at the pump is doing that job for me quite effectively.