Two Segment-Busting Six-Seaters


Two Segment-Busting Six-Seaters

Mazda's and Mercedes-Benz's latest offerings that are neither SUV nor minivan aren't flying off dealers' lots, but they're worth a look.

With hundreds of new models to choose from, every new-car shopper should be able to find a perfect match. Carmakers are doing their part by designing vehicles for ever-narrower niches.

For the 2006 model year, two new, segment-busting vehicles are worth noting. In a way, they share a niche because they both seat six, and they're both quick to deflect the minivan and SUV labels. In terms of sales, both have been a little slow to gain momentum. But that's where the similarities end.

Mazda's euro-van

What is the Mazda5? It's short but tall. It has third-row bucket seats. There are no hinges on the rear doors; they slide open. It looks a little out of place on American roadways, but the rest of the world is no stranger to this type of vehicle -- in fact, the Mazda5 was sold in Europe before it came to the States.

So is this a mini minivan? Maybe. Mazda, of course, has its own label: a multi-activity vehicle. EPA classifies it as a station wagon. Whatever you call it, it's a nice alternative to the minivan and the SUV. It's affordable, practical, fuel-efficient and roomy, yet small enough to take downtown.


Sticker price starts at $17,995 (including destination charge) for the Sport model. You pay $19,510 for the Touring model, which includes such standard equipment as a moonroof, six-disc CD changer and second-row fold-out table and cargo bin. Six airbags are standard in both models. Electronic stability control, which helps prevent skids, isn't available.

Both models pack a 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine with 157 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque. Although the engine could use a little more pep, the standard five-speed manual does a good job of moving the car. The four-speed automatic transmission ($900) is a little sluggish revving up to high speeds.

For a vehicle four inches shorter than an Audi A4, the Mazda5 packs a lot of utility. The roof height ensures that fully grown third-row occupants won't have to duck their heads. Cargo room behind the second-row seats is a roomy 44 cubic feet. The steering wheel telescopes as well as tilts.

Fuel economy beats most SUVs and minivans, too. The manual delivers 22 mpg in the city and 27 mpg highway. With the automatic, expect about 1 mpg less.


Mercedes-Benz's luxe-wagon

Another import from Europe, the R-Class is just starting to catch on with luxury-car buyers. As you might expect from Mercedes, seating six in style doesn't come cheap. The R350, with a 268-hp 3.5-liter V6, starts at $48,775. The tony R500, with a 302-hp 5-liter V8, starts at $56,275.

Let's get all the unpleasantness out of the way: Gas mileage is 16 mpg city/21 mpg highway for the V6. For the V8, it's an atrocious 13 city/18 highway. A fill-up at recent premium gas prices would cost nearly $80.

But despite a nagging feeling of environmental guilt, I put many miles on my smooth-as-silk R500 tester. The car was "chill" with the six teenagers I had to pick up from a distant suburban party -- especially the DVD entertainment system with seatback screens. (I never mastered the iPod integration kit.)

I also picked up a new living room chair, which fit nicely in the back with the third-row seats folded flat (cargo room behind the second-row seats is 42 cubic feet -- less than the Mazda5 because the roof is lower).


On the road, it's fast (the R500 goes zero to 60 in an impressive 6.5 seconds) and maneuverable, with a lower center of granity than most SUVs. Six airbags and electronic stability control are standard.

My only quibble, besides potential pump shock, is the electronic shift knob on the right side of the steering column. True, it opens up space in the center column. But when a vehicle this big and bold has a Prius-like shifter, something is out of whack.

The R-Class is more than two feet longer than the Mazda5 -- about the same as most minivans. That allows third-row legroom of 32 inches (about two inches more than in the Mazda5). The sense of open space is enhanced by the $2,390 panoramic sunroof. Every seat has its own reading light, armrests, air vents and cup holders.