For 2012, the Mazda5 gets its most complete makeover since its '05 introduction.

American waistlines aren’t the only things getting bigger and bigger by the year.  Perhaps fittingly, our automobiles have steadily grown in size, so many models that once fit comfortably into the compact category are now classified midsize – or even larger.

That’s especially true when it comes to minivans, today’s models having grown to such massive proportions that the modifier, mini, no longer accurately applies.

Parked side-by-side, Mazda’s newly redesigned Mazda5 seems downright puny compared to industry mainstays like the Honda Odyssey or Dodge Grand Caravan.  But, in reality, the 2012 Mazda5 remake is a full four inches longer than the original 1984 Caravan and just one inch narrower.  And like those early minivans, Mazda’s offering makes surprisingly good use of its seemingly limited space.

Packing in three rows of seats, and plenty of cargo – including some trick storage beneath the sliding center row seats – the Mazda5 puts a premium on flexibility.  But it also emphasizes styling in a segment where form usually takes a back seat to functionality.

The 2012 Mazda5 makes the most striking use of the maker's Nagare styling theme yet.

The first significant update of a model that first appeared on the American market in 2005, the 2012 Mazda5 adapts what the Japanese maker has dubbed its Nagare design language.  The term, in Japanese, means “flow,” and Mazda designers suggest it’s meant to imply the way wind shapes sand in the desert – an image the maker has translated into sheet metal.

That’s most apparent from the side profile, where the Mazda5’s big front wheel arches flow into undulating forms that move, like a wave, down the side of the van.  The nose of the people mover features an almost smile-like blackened grille that’s surrounded by a pair of clear headlamp forms flowing into the front quarter panels.  Maintaining that wave-like theme is a coupe-style roofline that descends just behind the third row of seats.

Despite its relatively diminutive size, the Mazda5 makes great use of space.

Mazda has long tried to push the design envelope, using a series of Nagare-based concept vehicles and several newer offerings that take the look in a new direction.  While we have seen these styling themes subtly influence production models, such as the newest Mazda3 and Mazda6, before, this is the most aggressive migration from concept to production – and the most controversial.

To some, the look might be a bit fussy and overwrought.  Others will likely be drawn to something that tries to be more than just the typical, slab-sided minivan.

The cabin is well-executed, with nice chrome details, though some materials are a bit spartan.

But what will likely win over potential buyers is the Mazda5’s mix of functionality and pricing – the 2012 minivan starting at just under $20,000 for the Sport model – before adding in destination charges – a good $10,000 less than you’ll shell out for the most stripped-down version of the Odyssey.

(Yes, it’s tiny, but check out the absolutely lilliputian Ford B-Max, making its debut at the Geneva Motor Show. Click Here for the story.)

The Sport comes standard with a pleasantly smooth 6-speed manual gearbox.  That’s also likely to enhance its appeal for those who want a little more driving pleasure.  But in reality, Mazda expects 95% of Mazda5 buyers will opt for the 5-speed automatic transmission.  And opting for that will nudge you just over the $21,000 mark.  A fully-loaded Mazda5 Grand Touring edition will get you into the mid-$20,000 range.

Open wide...the 6-seat Mazda5 delivers easy ingress and egress for all three rows.

The topline model delivers a variety of upscale features, including heated leather seats, Bluetooth for hands-free calling, even rain-sensing wipers.  Surprisingly, what’s absent is a built-in navigation system.  Mazda officials insist the “take rate” for the old Mazda5 was barely 5%, not surprising considering the hefty premium the maker was commanding, so it left the technology out of the 2012 offering.

Mazda dealers do offer some portable aftermarket navis, though you will probably find a better deal at the neighborhood Costco.

An upgraded 2.5-liter engine delivers surprising pep.

The lack of a navi underscores the Japanese maker’s emphasis on holding down costs with the Mazda5.  There’s no question this is a high-value product.  But there are trade-offs, notably in terms of the relatively inexpensive plastics used for many parts of the interior.  We would have liked to see Mazda offer a little more soft-touch materials, especially on parts of the doors and instrument panel where buyers will likely make contact.

The seating is surprisingly comfortable, we were pleased to discover, and very supportive when driving aggressively.  The Nagare form is carried over, incidentally, with the pattern woven into the cloth seats.

The Mazda5 is the only entry in the microvan segment - until the launch of Ford's new C-Max.

The layout, by the way is 2+2+2.  The rear seats are definitely not a place to stick adult friends, not if you want to remain on speaking terms, but while head and legroom are compromised, kids can readily clamber in and out – either through the gap between the center-row captain’s chairs or by folding down one of the mid-row seats. You can also lift the cushion on the middle seats to discover a nice place to hide valuables.  And a small picnic table can be popped up between the two chairs.

Starting at just under $20,000, the Mazdfa5 has a distinct price advantage over bigger vans.

Mazda has invested a lot of time and effort into its “Zoom-Zoom” marketing theme, and has wisely made sure that this is more than just a meaningless slogan.  No, Mazda products typically aren’t the fastest in their segment, but they do have a certain spritely character that defines the brand, whether you’re talking about the MX-5, Mazda3 or even the newly updated Mazda5 minivan.

We spent a day driving through the mountains and canyons east of San Diego and found it easy to forget we were behind the wheel of a minivan.  No, you can’t flog it around like a Miata, but the new Mazda5 is a lot more fun to drive than your typical people mover.

Part of the credit goes to the newly updated powertrain.  Both of the gearboxes are paired with a new 2.5-liter, which replaces the older 2.3-liter inline-four.  The horsepower numbers only jump by 3, to 157, but torque increases by a more impressive 15 lb-ft, to a solid 163.  Add the fact that the Mazda5, overall, actually shed 22 pounds and now weighs in at 3,457 lbs, and you get a reasonably peppy package that will launch from 0 to 60 in about 9 seconds.

Fuel economy remains the same with either gearbox, surprisingly, at 21 City, 28 Highway, according to the EPA.

Overall, the new Mazda5 is an impressive package, especially if money is an object.  Sure, you can get that navi and a more lavishly-outfitted interior from Honda, Chrysler, Dodge or Toyota, but you’re going to pay a hefty premium.

Mazda, it seems, has what might be called the microvan market all to itself, now that the Kia Rondo has exited the market.  But not for long.  Ford will be weighing in soon with the new C-Max.  The two models actually share a bit of DNA, the U.S. and Japanese makers early on working together on the underlying platform – though most of the development work occurred after their programs split off.

The C-Max will deliver a 7-seat option, and a bit more lavishly-executed interior.  It will also integrate some trick features, such as a hands-free power liftgate system that can be triggered by wiggling a foot under the rear bumper.  (To check our review on the 2012 Ford C-Max, Click Here.) Mazda, on the other hand, skipped the power door and liftgate route to rein in costs.

“A rising tide floats all boats,” insists Robert Davis, Mazda’s U.S. product planning chief.  And he’s probably right that by an expanding microvan segment line-up will likely draw more buyers to any and all competitive entries.

The 2012 Mazda5 definitely qualifies.  It’s roomy, distinctive, functional and fun-to-drive.  When you add in a surprisingly affordable price, it could prove a serious alternative to more classic minivans.

Incidentally, there’s been some confusion about whether the updated Mazda van is an ’11 or ’12.  It is, in fact, the 2012 Mazda5.  The maker had no 2011 model.  The minivan started reaching dealers last month and should be available across country by now.

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