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Is the largest minivan always the best choice? Add to ...

One compact car-sized footprint, two power-sliding rear doors, three rows of seats and a fuel-efficient four-cylinder diesel engine added up to a five-star family hauler on a recent European work trip. Well, work for me, vacation for my wife and two young boys, who marvelled at what we soon dubbed dolphin town.

In Setubal, a city half an hour south of Lisbon – home to a huge Volkswagen plant that builds the Eos and the two-door Scirocco among others – dolphins are a local treasure. They frolic in the bay and by the ferries that regularly transport beach-goers and vehicles across the bay. Wacky painted ones seemingly jumping up on poles adorn Setubal’s waterside restaurant strip, their life-size artfulness reminding one of Toronto’s short-lived moose campaign – except that dolphins actually live in the vicinity of town.

Here, downtown landmarks have large stone monuments honouring the playful leapers in public fountains, and closely tracked dolphins having babies near this coastal city makes the local news. Even city maintenance hole covers are stamped with dolphins.

For our own children, upon first hopping into the Mazda5, the first thing that impressed them were the airplane-style trays. Folding up from the front seatbacks, all of a sudden, toys now had a playing surface, which somehow made them much more fun, with real cup holders moulded into the trays as well. Unfortunately, those trays aren’t offered in Canada, though the top-line Mazda5 GT does offer a useful second-row fold-out table that can also be used as a cargo bin.

Up front, the driver and passenger are welcomed into comfortable, armrest-equipped seats, leather-lined and heated on Luxury-package equipped models, with a manual height adjustment on the driver’s seat to help shorter drivers find a comfortable seating position. It’s not a grandiose interior by any means, with expanses of decent quality but still black plastic. But standard equipment that includes niceties such as automatic climate control, auto on headlights and wipers, plus steering-wheel-mounted stereo controls are a nice surprise at the Mazda5’s $21,795 starting MSRP, before its $1,595 freight charge and taxes.

Plus all of the Mazda5’s safety gear is standard too, which it should be for vehicles aimed at often super-protective parents. This includes ABS, electronic stability control, low-speed traction control, active front headrests, front row side bags as well as full-length air curtain airbags. Nothing unexpected or glitzy here, but it’s worth noting that there are larger vehicles available for a similar amount of money in North America.

In Europe, just as in busy downtown Canadian neighbourhoods, the Mazda5’s smaller footprint is a blessing. When you’re squeezing down a small side street and then see a large delivery truck coming your way, you don’t want to be in a full-size anything. Granted, that’s a lot more common in smaller countries such as Japan or Portugal than the second-largest country in the world. But in any busy city, it’s still easier to park a Mazda5 rather than a full-sized North American minivan.

Even at an as-tested price of $27,780 for a loaded manual GT, including the luxury package that includes leather and a sunroof but not the $1,200 automatic transmission, it’s incredible how much pricier a similar Mazda5 is in Portugal. Yes, hefty 23 per cent taxes are included in the top Mazda5’s listed €32,566 price. By the time you’re talking Canadian dollars, you’re at $44,373.

How does anyone afford to drive here?

For comparison’s sake, in the U.K., a fully loaded Mazda5 converts to a much more reasonable 35 grand Canadian, although that’s with a smaller-then-ours 2.0-litre gasoline engine. The 2.5-litre four-cylinder that’s the only available engine in North America makes a stout 157 hp and 163 lb-ft of torque. Of course, “stout” is a relative term: compared to most V-6-powered minivans and crossovers in Canada, that’s still a relative weakling, though it should be noted that full-size minivans and three-row crossovers tend to be a lot heavier than the Mazda5.

No, that 2.5-litre engine is most impressive power-wise when put up against the 1.6-litre diesel I drove, which generated a truly meek 115 hp – this mill wasn’t inheriting anything any time soon. Its 199 lb-ft of torque sounds reasonable on paper, until you’re going up a steep hill with a fully loaded car, and you have to downshift to first to make it.

Luckily, the manual six-speed transmission helps it feel responsive and, again, it’s one of the few in this segment (in the new world) to offer such a sporty option. Mazda suggests a 13.7-second figure for its 0-100 km/h time with this diesel engine, compared to about nine seconds flat here.

Where the North American Mazda5 can’t compare to the smaller diesel is in fuel economy, unsurprisingly. The gas-powered 2.5 averages 9.7 litres/100 km in the city here, and 6.8 on the highway, compared to the Euro diesel’s 1.6-litre engine at 6.4 city/4.6 highway on the European cycle.

In the end, one can’t help the feeling that the Mazda5 is more properly sized for Europe or Japan, where it’s considered a large vehicle, rather than as a microvan here. North Americans have long been accustomed to choosing the largest vehicle our budget will net us, especially in family segments such as this where practicality is king, since waist sizes and parking spots are relatively large and plentiful. And there’s no doubt that you can buy a bigger vehicle for about the same money as a Mazda5.

But with the introduction of true compact competitors such as the Chevrolet Orlando this fall and the Ford C-Max early next year, perhaps families living in ever-more-crowded cities are realizing that they don’t need a huge SUV or minivan to tote around the kids, or the painful fuel bills that have also traditionally come with them.

Tech specs

2011 Mazda5 (Euro version)

Type: Compact, six-seat, three-row mini-minivan

Base price: GT (in Canada) $25,990; (in Portugal) €32,566 ($44,374)

Engine: 1.6-litre, four-cylinder diesel

Horsepower/torque: 115 hp/199 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed manual

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 6.4 city/4.6 highway; diesel fuel

Alternatives: Chevrolet Orlando, Dodge Grand Caravan or Journey, Kia Rondo, Mitsubishi Outlander

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