Mazda 5 1.6D Venture

Can style and sharp handling make the difference for the Mazda 5?

Special-edition Venture model has lots of kit for the money, but the dated 1.6 diesel engine is thirsty. The 5 is pretty sharp to drive compared to its rivals here, yet the interior looks dated, the rear seats aren’t as spacious and there’s less boot space.

Until the introduction of the Ford Grand C-MAX two years ago, the Mazda 5 had a unique feature in the compact MPV class: sliding doors. They’re still a useful addition, as they provide easy access to the back seats, and Mazda has done a good job of integrating the door mechanism into the bodywork.

Less successful are the lines that swoop from the front wheelarches back along the bodywork. Mazda should be applauded for trying something different, but these lines disappear in most light conditions, leaving the 5 looking slab-sided – something that’s not helped by small 16-inch alloy wheels. And the gaping front grille seems like a comical update of the one on the Mazda 3 hatchback.

Things don’t improve inside. Even though the Mazda 5 was only launched three years ago, its cabin is remarkably dated. There are hard black plastics everywhere, the heater controls are clunky and the digital display on top of the centre console has old-fashioned orange lighting. The soft velour fabrics leave a lot to be desired, too, which is a real shame, as the seats themselves are comfortable.

The 5 is long and narrow, and it falls behind its rivals for interior space. Even Mazda says it should be considered as a six-plus-one rather than a full seven-seater: the centre seat in the middle row is only suitable for short trips. The rearmost seats are on the tight side, too, but there’s enough room for two kids at least.

If you don’t need the centre seat, it can be folded away and replaced by a netted storage bin with a plastic lid, while the fold-down seatback trays have a more pronounced lip compared to the trays in the other cars here.

The boot is wider than the Verso’s, and it’s longer with the seats moved forward, too. Sadly, there’s a gap between the end of the boot floor and the seats: it’s only useful for carrying long items that hang over that gap.

Fire up the 1.6-litre diesel, and it’s quieter than the Renault’s ageing engine, but not as smooth as the Toyota’s. Considering its power deficit, the Mazda kept the Verso honest in our acceleration tests, while sharp steering and a smooth-shifting gearbox encourage you to make progress. The 5 is at home in corners, too, with lots of grip and not much body roll – few MPVs are as much fun to drive.

Where the Mazda loses out is running costs. It’s currently only available in special-edition Venture trim, and the £21,290 diesel tested here undercuts both rivals. It comes with lots of goodies, too – including sat-nav, climate and cruise control, Bluetooth, privacy glass and a reversing camera – but the rest of the financial package isn’t as attractive.

The diesel engine is relatively dirty for its size, and 38.1mpg on-test economy was well behind the Toyota’s. Add higher servicing costs plus a less versatile, dated interior, and the Mazda’s chances of victory look slim.

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