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The redesigned 2012 Mazda5 minivan is the first production vehicle to incorporate the Nagare design ideas Mazda has been touting for years. It will also be the last, says Derek Jenkins, design director for Mazda North American Operations.

Oops. What happened?

Mazda has changed its design course after four years of hyping the curvy, fluid Nagare styling philosophy. Now the Japanese car maker is moving to a simpler, more upscale style embodied in design language seen in the Shinari concept car. The Shinari has the look of Mazda's future and the name of this styling approach is Kodo.

The Nagare language went out with global design director Laurens Van den Acker when he moved to Renault last year after a three-year stint with Mazda. Van den Acker's replacement, Ikuo Maeda, has his own ideas about Mazda's styling direction.

But the 2012 Mazda5, a true minivan, looks great and seats up to six in three rows of seating. And unlike vans such as Dodge Grand Caravan, Toyota Sienna and Honda Odyssey, the 5 is really and truly a minivan for a mini price.

How much? The '12 Mazda5 is sold in two trim grades: GS ($21,795) and top-of-the-line GT ($24,395). Let the record show that all versions come with a 2.5-litre, four-cylinder engine (157 horsepower and 163 lb-ft of torque). A new six-speed manual transmission is standard, with a five-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission optional ($1,200). Air conditioning, Dynamic Stability Control, Traction Control and dual front and side airbags for first-row passengers and side air curtains for all three rows are on every new Mazda5.

Aside from its nifty size (making it easy to park), the 5 most stands out for its handling. Based on the chassis of the Mazda3, a sporty compact car, the 5's steering, braking and cornering are surprisingly sharp. Yes, this minivan is engaging and responsive. I know, it's hard to believe those words. Believe them.

Now for the "buts." The hard plastic trim in the cabin is not great, not at all. Some potential buyers will walk away because Mazda doesn't offer the 5 with power sliding side doors or a power tailgate. Up-market types won't like that and that's their loss.

Truthfully, the manual doors and rear gate operate with a light and easy feel. Sure, the power option is useful when your hands are full, but the extra electric motors are also something destined to wear out and break down. Maybe you don't need power everything, after all.

For many Canadians, the Mazda5 might just prove right-sized. Large vans such as the Grand Caravan, Sienna and Odyssey are big and often a handful to park at a shopping mall or a hockey rink. The 5, on the other hand, is a snap to wheel around the urban jungle, yet it has room for kids and cargo.

Yes, the 5 has three rows of seats and room for six. That's true. What is also true is the rear two seats are for kids or small adults taking a short hop. The middle buckets have an aisle between them (for access to the rear) and both slide forward to make leg room for third-rowers.

Mazda has thoughtfully included compartments beneath the second-row seat cushions for keeping valuables hidden and stores. Vans like this need bins to store family gear and they're welcome here. The new seats are solid, though not brilliant, the instruments are clear and uncomplicated and the controls are simple and sensible.

Which brings me to power. The new 2.5-litre four-banger (replacing the 2.3-litre four of old) is peppy, though it gets coarse when pushed too hard. It gets about the same fuel economy as the old 2.3. The five-speed automatic never stood out one way or the other. If it had, I'd probably be whining about jerky shifts or some such thing.

Sadly, the Mazda5 is an overlooked family hauler and it shouldn't be. A true minivan, the 5 is economical, affordable, practical and something close to a "zoom zoom" ride. The first and last of the Nagare designs deserves more respect and more interest from family buyers.

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Tech specs

2012 Mazda5 GT

Type: Compact minivan

Price: $24,395 ($1,595 freight)

Engine: 2.5-litre, four-cylinder

Horsepower/torque: 157 hp/163 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed manual

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 9.7 city/6.8 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Toyota Sienna, Honda Odyssey, Dodge Grand Caravan


Correction: The 2012 Mazda5 uses regular gas. Incorrect Information appeared in the tech specs of this story.