Mazda continues to prove that it's possible to have your cake and eat it too - at least in terms of sport and practicality.

Unlike so many others, Mazda is not afraid of the minivan moniker. And with that, the company introduced its new Mazda5 minivan to the motoring press. A direct descendant of the zoom-zoomy Mazda3, it competes in a class of its own to surprising success here in North America.

A six-seater, the vehicle represents 9 percent of Mazd's overall sales. It is the brand's young family capture model, which hopefully will grab potential customers at the down low and keep them in the brand all the way up to the halo RX8. (Presumably when they are empty nesters!)

The Mazda5 uses the automaker's penultimate Nagare styling, which is the flowing design language from the firm's Hiroshima-based design studios. The automaker has since moved on to a new design language, which leaves its models less gleeful but perhaps more classic.

According to Mazda Vehicle line manager Tetsu Nakazawa, the 5 doesn't fit any traditional segments. It combines the best attributes of the C-segment, the Minivan, and van markets and as a result, "offers so much surprise and delight."

Other players as seen from the parking lot of the local Piggly Wiggly include Hond's CR-V, Toyot's RAV4 and the Honda Odyssey. In addition to these, we can soon add the newly introduced Ford C-Max, which also draws from the Mazda3 platform. Mazda says it looks forward to the introduction of the C-Max, which while directly related, will hopefully drum up excitement for the class.

Flame outInterior digs
We found the Mazda5 with its driver oriented cockpit-style interior to be well suited to the task of hauling around up to five others and their stuff. The interior is a mixture of hard and soft touch materials designed to a high level of quality and appropriate for the price. Gauge lighting is typical Mazda red, which lends itself back to that zoom-zoom mantra that the brand is known for. An eyelevel instrumentation pod gives the driver an update on vehicle functions. Curiously, there is no in-dash monitor for audio and navigation purposes. Nissan has managed to find a supplier who makes a unit for around $400 retail. We are almost certain there is a supplier willing to cut Mazda a deal like that, too.

The feeling of the controls are top shelf, and show a significant improvement in quality control. Numerous storage areas are found around the cabin including cubbyholes and under seat storage in the middle-row captain's chairs. By the way, with three rows of seats which move and fold, there are up to 16 different seating configurations. Our Grand Touring model featured black leather-trimmed seats with red accent piping. The front seats were not overly bolstered, but did offer good support during our four-hour drive through San Diego.

Other interior improvements include low-effort sliding doors that are more child-friendly and happen to be just the thing for tight parking areas. Armrests on the second row reclining captains chairs, and one touch walk-in feature with ample walk through are just a few of the other features built into this new design.

Go power
The Mazda5 sports the company's new MZR 2.5-liter inline four-cylinder engine, which it sh.ares with the Mazda3, Mazda6, and CX-7. In this guise, it produces 157 horsepower, and 163 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm. That's an improvement of five more horsepower and 15 more lb-ft of torque than the previous 2.3 engine. It can be had with a choice of an all-new six-speed manual transmission (only in the base Sport trim package) or the five-speed automatic transmission with manual shift control. Fuel consumption remains at 21 city and 28 highway.

Good luck finding another minivan with a stick in this market! Still, Mazda acknowledges that most buyers will stick with the automatic.

Mazd's Active Adaptive Shift protocol helps the engine find part-throttle downshifts for corner carving capabilities. When driven aggressively, it also allows for engine braking, which came in handy while cruising the twisties south east of San Diego.

An electric power assisted steering system showed particularly responsive steering and gave us good feedback while negotiating a variety of road surfaces. We noted an increase in road noise creeping into the interior when an adult was in the rear, but think that was more a result of rougher road surface than a change to more weight over the rear suspension. That suspension, by the way, is made up of MacPherson struts in front and a multi-link setup in rear, as it was in the outgoing Mazda 5 model. This time though, it has been modified with revised spring and damping rates as well as a different sway bar, which still allows it to corner as flat as the outgoing "?5 but gentler yaw motion.

Overall, it still gave us a sporty feel that caused us to enjoy the current Mazda5, but like Tina Turner in her version of "Proud Mary," sometimes we like it rough.

Why you would buy it:
Because you heard the Mazda5 is a sports car that doesn't know it's really a minivan.

Why you wouldn't:
You're from Detroit, and Chrysler's Town and Country is what you do.

Leftlane's bottom line
Mazda improves on their multi-activity-lifestyle-sports-vehicle (a.k.a., minivan) without cleansing it of its sporting nature. This is a kid hauler that you could also take to the autocross for a good time, if you so choose. In other words, it's our kind of minivan.

Pricing it at a point that is cheaper than you would expect will help to make it one of the brand's more visible offerings.

2012 Mazda Mazda5 base price range, $19,990 to $32,875.

Words and photos by Mark Elias.