Clamoring for a hybrid minivan? Can’t wait any longer? You might consider the Mazda5—the number one most fuel-efficient minivan on the market.

A minivan one entire car class smaller than the stereotypical Dodge Caravan, the Mazda5 is almost unique in the American market. While it competes with many similarly sized entries in Europe and Asia, in the States it stands almost alone.

Compare the Mazda5!

If you’re thinking about buying a Mazda5, you might also consider a Scion xB or a Mini Cooper Clubman. Compare these vehicles.

For urban dwellers who need the load space and families who want something smaller than the two-ton-plus behemoths offered by market leaders Chrysler, Dodge, Toyota, and Honda, the Mazda5 is an option with almost no direct competitors. The seven-seat Kia Rondo is probably closest, though it doesn’t offer sliding rear doors.

According to published road tests, the handling lives up to Mazda’s “zoom zoom” image. And with prices starting around $18,000, the Mazda5 is considerably less expensive than full-size minivans. The Mazda5 was launched as a 2006 model, incidentally, so it should be showing up as a recent used car as well.

Four Cylinders, Five Speeds

It’s not only the compact size that makes the Mazda5 stand out. Few minivans offer a five-speed manual (standard on the base Sport model), in this case paired to a 153-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine. No V6 option is offered. A five-speed automatic is available on the Sport and standard on the midlevel Touring and high-line Grand Touring models, though several road tests deemed that combination sluggish. As tested by Car and Driver, acceleration from 0 to 60 mph is a leisurely 9.4 seconds.

The Mazda5 is based on the underpinnings of the sporty previous-generation Mazda3 subcompact, so its handling gets high marks despite being much larger and heavier. Its front suspension uses McPherson struts, but its rear axle is suspended with more precise multiple links rather than a simple beam. Reviews call the Mazda5 surprisingly nimble for what is, after all, a large box on four wheels, and steering feel in particular was cited as excellent.

Given how hard the engine has to work to move that box around, though, the fuel economy isn’t stellar—but it’s the number one most fuel-efficient minivan on the market. The EPA rates the manual version at 22 mpg city / 28 mpg highway, with the automatic down 1 mile per gallon in each rating, at 21 mpg city / 27 mpg highway.

Space and Features for Families

Starting with a subcompact limits body width, so the Mazda5’s six seats are arranged in three pairs. The rear seats are really only for children, though, but they’re easy to reach courtesy of a one-touch folding mechanism for the sliding second row. Both pairs of rear seats can be folded flat to create a surprisingly cavernous load floor for Home Depot or discount store hauling duties.

Second-row passengers fare well owing to the stadium-style seating, which raises the second row slightly above the front seats. Taller drivers may find the front row limited in its travel, though.

As with any family vehicle, safety equipment is lavish. The Mazda5 includes front and side-curtain airbags (for all three rows) as well as anti-lock disc brakes on all four wheels, with electronic brake force distribution standard. Some testers criticized the lack of electronic stability control, however.

Standard equipment includes power windows and locks, cruise control, and a CD stereo. Surprisingly for a minivan, air conditioning is optional, as are an alarm system, Bluetooth phone system, heated mirrors, remote starting, and rain-sensing wipers.

Buyers planning long family trips can choose from a raft of electronic and infotainment options. The family navigator’s job gets easier with the DVD navigation system, back-row riders can be sedated with an overhead DVD entertainment system, and everyone including the driver can enjoy Sirius Satellite Radio.

Just for Kicks

And keep this in mind. After years of swearing off hybrids as too expensive for the mainstream market, Mazda CEO Takashi Yamanouchi last month committed to producing hybrid gas-electric cars by 2015. Can you imagine a full-hybrid Mazda5 minivan that gets mileage in the mid-30s or higher—blowing away the competition for a fuel-efficient family hauler just in time for the return of skyrocketing gas prices? Is it likely to happen? No. But it’s an intriguing possibility.