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Martha Hindes


At a time when women usually wore skirts, there were ones known as "mini" and "maxi." Maxi, of course, was longer while its counterpart mini was sometimes barely there. Mini, as in minivan, originally had a similar meaning. But during 20-plus years as an American staple, some have evolved to a more maxi size, leaving smaller scale vans a memory.

Enter the front-drive Mazda5, a two-model minivan on a much smaller level, that promises to deliver a more agile, fun-oriented performance drive (if not heavily loaded) while retaining a minivan's many morphing attributes. Rather than a more standard minivan appearance, Mazda5's wedge-shaped design sports a no-apologies look of fun, riding on 17" alloy wheels. A steep sloping hood flows back over the roofline, and a sharply upward angled beltline screams "speed." Both lines converge at spoiler-topped taillamps that frame the liftgate's upper glass.

The smaller Mazda5 is a six-seater, instead of today's popular seven. It also pales in size compared with Mazda's time-tested, multi-purpose MPV van. In addition to the Sport model features including AM/FM/CD stereo, Touring adds such amenities as power moonroof, spoiler, side skirts and front fog lamps. Despite its diminutive size, Mazda5 yawns with the best of them. Side sliding doors give lots of extra clearance for loading people or things and fold-down seats provide ample flat-floored cargo space. (A hidden second row toy box can keep clutter out of the way.)

Power comes from the same 2.3-liter, inline four (157-HP) with variable valve timing that powers the compact five-door Mazda3. A five-speed manual or four-speed auto with manual mode kick it into gear. Among safety features are brake assist, a rigid safety cage with side-impact door beams and a full contingent of airbags.

Mazda5 is based at $17,435 (manual) or $18,950 (automatic), with the Touring's nav system at $2,000 the priciest option. And as expected, its smaller size equates to better gas mileage at a time North American gas pumps are ratcheting up to unprecedented pricing levels. The manual is rated at 22 city/27 highway, and the automatic gets 21/26. With no sign of cheaper fuel on the horizon, we think Mazda's multi-activity "driver's" van is a very good idea in a small package.