Compact minivans: Less is more—much more - MoneySense

Compact minivans: Less is more—much more

Two new minivans win big by going small.

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While camping at our favorite provincial park this summer I noticed a new breed of family vehicles wedged between the massive SUVs and the block-like minivans. They were smaller than their neighbors, yet still capable of hauling up to seven people. They were—dare I say it—sporty?

That combination of size and style proved to be irresistible to John Manalo. “I didn’t want a minivan, but we needed something that was versatile and not thirsty on gas,” says the 42-year-old IT administrator at the University of Toronto. “There’s only my wife and our six-year-old son right now, but every now and then we have visitors and we are thinking about having another child down the road.”

The Manalo clan decided to buy the six-seater Mazda5, one of two new miniature minivans available in Canada. The alternate choice for anti-van families is the similarly styled Kia Rondo, which can seat five or seven passengers. Both vehicles are clamoring for the title of best compact minivan, so we let them slug it out in a side-by-side comparison.

MAZDA5 – $19,995 to $26,125: Introduced to Canadians two years ago, Mazda’s entry is the veteran in the field. An early recall hobbled this athletic wagon after its launch, but it has since proven to be a reliable family hauler. “This is the perfect car for a family of four,” says Mohamed Bouchama, executive director of the nonprofit Car Help Canada. “It’s good on fuel, it’s reliable and it’s not a bad price.”

Powered by the same 2.3-litre engine found in the sporty Mazda3 GT hatchback, the Mazda5 gets four-cylinder economy without feeling sluggish. It burns a modest 8.3 litres of regular fuel for every 100 km of highway driving or 11.2 litres of fuel per 100 km in the city.

What really sets this vehicle apart is its seating configuration. Open the sliding, minivan-style side doors and you’ll find bucket seats in the front and middle rows. The middle row is easy to step into, even for the booster-seat crowd, thanks to the low floor. A tall roof line offers welcome headroom for parents who have to lift in young ones and secure their seat belts. The third-row seats are accessed by a lever, which slides the second-row seats forward—a neat trick, although spending any time in the third row is best left to children because of the limited legroom.

When not in use, the third-row seats fold flat to create a generous cargo space. The second-row seats and even the front passenger seat can also perform the same fold-down trick, making the Mazda5 your best friend on those antiquing trips or visits to Home Depot. However, with all six seats in place there is only room in the trunk for a handful of grocery bags or a couple of small suitcases.

Though it may be dwarfed when parked beside full-sized minivans, the Mazda5 is still big on value. For prices starting at just under $20,000, you get standard features such as an AM/FM/CD player with steering-wheel-mounted audio controls, power doors and windows, keyless entry and an engine immobilizer. The GT model, starting at $22,895, adds fog lights, anti-theft alarm, larger 17-inch sport tires, power moonroof and, most importantly, side impact air bags and side curtain air bags for all passengers. A fourspeed automatic transmission and air conditioning are options costing an extra $2,100 on both the GS and GT models.

KIA RONDO – $19,995 to $25,995: The Mazda5 had no real rivals until this upstart burst onto to the scene for the 2007 model year. The Rondo is based on the mid-sized Hyundai Sonata platform and tops the Mazda5 in size, power and seating. In fact, the Rondo boasts more interior room than even some compact SUVs such as the Honda CR-V. However, nagging quality concerns and low resale value make this newcomer an uncertain bet, says Bouchama, the car expert. “Kia sells average cars with an above average warranty, but they depreciate like crazy,” he says. “If you buy the Kia you’d better plan to keep it for a long time.”

Two engine choices are available for the Rondo—a 2.4-litre, four-cylinder powerplant and the optional 2.7-litre V6. The four-cylinder engine is adequate for most uses, but anyone who plans on towing a trailer or carrying a full complement of passengers may want the bigger engine. Despite its heft and hauling ability, the Rondo still retains car-like manners, though it does feel bulkier than the Mazda5. Both engines offer comparable fuel economy to the Mazda5.

Inside the roomy cabin, a second-row bench accommodates up to three people, though the middle seat is tight for adults. Like the Mazda5, a single lever and a bit of muscle slide the second row forward so passengers can access the optional third row. But again, larger guests should not be assigned to the back row unless you are trying to dissuade them from coming along for the ride.

All Rondos come with standard air bags for the front and rear passengers, power doors and windows, ABS brakes, electronic stability control and an AM/FM/CD stereo. Upgrading to the EX four- or six-cylinder model adds a bunch of other features, including air conditioning, cruise control, car alarm, fog lights, roof rack, heated mirrors and heated seats. However, only the six-cylinder EX Premium and Luxury models offer the third row of seats. The V6 models, which start at $22,995, also add larger 17-inch alloy wheels, power moonroof, and leather seats.

CONCLUSION: Although the Rondo is shorter than the Mazda5, it does have more room for heads, legs and shoulders. And when it comes to cargo space, Kia claims to have double the room for your groceries and other gear. However, with its so-so reputation, rapid depreciation and the lack of a third row in all but the most expensive models, the Mazda5 overtakes the Rondo where it counts.

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