Thinking inside the box

2006, Mazda, Mazda5

I think the aggregate level of pain over rising fuel costs is starting to pinch our collective nerve endings and elicit a very public "Ouch!" The rational, national mindset is finally acceding to compromise in the face of budget-rationing prices at the fuel pump. It's a lesson many of our first-world peers have embraced for themselves-and offered, hesitatingly, to us-for lo these many years. Small vehicles and unorthodox designs are the norm in Europe, the U.K. and Asia. Those folks can't imagine how or why we drive bedrooms-on-wheels whose "SUV" designation they interpret as "Supremely Unreasonable Vehicle."

Until recently, we North Americans have generally assumed that the relative cheapness of our fuel is an implicit measure of relative worthlessness-so why not waste it? (Our "exorbitant" $3.00 per gallon still pales, for example, against the U.K.'s $9.00 for same.) But now scarcity is colluding with price to whisper, "You'll miss me when I'm gone." We may be slow to take the point, but we're not stupid; so the vehicles which, five years ago, might have inflamed our intolerance for the unorthodox are today starting to tickle our fancies.

Chevrolet's Malibu Maxx and the new Mazda5 are representative of this new thinking. Both models have their respective manufacturers crossing corporate fingers for success. But both Chevrolet and Mazda have hedged their bets. The Maxx is a niche version of the mass-market Malibu sedan, and the Mazda5 is built upon architecture for the Mazda3 subcompact. If the time for the Maxx and Mazda5 still isn't quite ripe, the carmakers can simply reprioritize their production strategies until today's groan over inconvenient fuel prices becomes a shriek over unaffordable ones.

To insist that the six-passenger Mazda5 is a new vehicle is to reinforce the U.S. national habit for fooling ourselves. Rather, it's a popular mini-minivan that Europe and Asia have already fallen in love with but that Mazda has considered unready for prime time in North America until 2006. Even today, it may be a hard sell for no fault of Mazda's or the Mazda5's. Mazda5 is attractive; it's sporty; it's reasonably frugal to buy and to operate ($20,410 as-tested); it seats six; and it stows from about 10 to 44 cubic feet of cargo. So what's to restrain a mad dash to the Mazda dealership?

That depends upon whether a buyer interprets "pint-size" to mean the glass is half full or half empty. Because Mazda5 is most assuredly pint-size. And Mazda has made a virtue of this fact by thinking inside the box to devise new ways for extracting maximum versatility from minimum space. So, yes, the rear seat for two is tight on legroom, but there are still six seatbelts in a vehicle many other manufacturers would have installed with five or even four. And six airbags, comprising front, side and head protection, blanket all occupants with a welcome measure of safety.

Underhood is a perky 2.3-liter inline-four boasting twin cams and variable valve timing. This engine is but one key to the sporty popularity of the Mazda3 subcompact. In the Mazda5, however, it will become the naysayers' focal point. For a 3,389-pound vehicle, 157 horsepower is pretty meager by North American standards; and when the Mazda5 is full of people and things, 157 hp may elicit sneers.

But North American standards miss the point. The motor, the (optional) four-speed automatic transmission, fully independent suspension and four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes work fantastically well together. Mazda5 stops on a dime, parks in tiny spaces and lavishes occupants with audio, climate and convenience features. In Mazda5 beats the heart of a sports car. With ratings of 21 mg/city, 26 mpg/highway, Mazda5 also manages its fuel cravings tolerably well.

Mazda5 is a smart solution for an ambiguous time. Will fuel prices continue to rise? Almost certainly. Will North Americans acknowledge as much by their vehicle preferences? Sales of the "new" Mazda5 will provide an insight into whether we will or we won't.

If the Mazda5 can be considered a bellwether for our accommodations to the higher costs of operating vehicles, Chevrolet's Malibu Maxx can represent how an apparently accidental afterthought suddenly appears to be a flash of brilliance.

Amidst the hoopla of the Malibu's return to the Chevy fold last year, most of the public's attention was drawn to the fresh styling and nimble performance of the mainstay compact sedan. The hatchback Maxx version was mostly dismissed as, virtually, a step-cousin, once-removed.

But not by all. In this very space, Maxx was championed as a courageous reinterpretation of the sedan, the wagon, whatever. If Maxx defied orthodox classification, it compensated with unorthodox versatility. Combined with seating for five is maximum cargo storage for 44 cubic feet. A shelf-and-hook system in the hold addresses a variety of packing challenges; and for tailgating, the shelf transforms into an impromptu picnic table.

Sharing basic engineering with the Saab/GM "Epsilon" platform, Malibu Maxx is sporty enough with all-independent suspension and V6 power. For 2006, moreover, a Maxx SS model appears wearing GM's new 3.9-liter, 240-hp, narrow-angle and variable-valve V6. The extra power is as appealing as it is counter-intuitive. For the 80 extra horses more than Mazda5, mileage is amazingly similar at 18 mpg/city, 26 mpg/highway.

Maxx only seats five; and although Maxx SS boasts four-wheel discs, standard brakes are curiously retro with front discs, rear drums. Six airbags and 18-inch wheels are also standard on the SS, as is an interesting fixed rear sunroof. As-tested pricing, though, reveals a nearly $5,000 premium for the Chevy ($25,015) over the Mazda. But for once, performance and pricing aren't all that matters. Today, the point is that Chevy is playing with ideas that only look funky when you're convinced that nothing ever changes.

4-door, 5-pass.; 3.9-liter OHV V6 w/ vvt; FWD, 4-sp. auto; 240 hp/241 ft.-lbs.; 18 mpg/city, 26 mpg/hwy w/ regular; cargo: 22.8-41 cu. ft.; std. equipment: 4-wheel ind. suspension & ABS disc brakes, auto-HVAC, AM/FM/6CD/XM audio, OnStar, 18-in. wheels, remote start, fixed rear sunroof, cargo shelf/picnic table; base: $24,065; as-tested: $25,015

4-door, 6-pass.; 2.3-liter DOHC inline-4 w/ vvt; FWD, 4-sp. auto; 157 hp/148 ft.-lbs.; 21 mpg/city, 26 mpg/hwy w/ regular; cargo: 10 (est.)-44.4 cu. ft.; std. equipment: 4-wheel ind. suspension & ABS disc brakes, auto-HVAC, AM/FM/6CD audio, 17-in. wheels, 50/50 split rear seatbacks, power moonroof; base price: $18,950; as-tested: $20,410

By Marc Stengel

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