Thursday, May 04, 2006

Great for the babe AND the baby!

Not long after we had Erich, we discovered that my Acura Integra hatchback might be a "great car for the babe but not so great for the baby". We had tried several times unsuccessfully to fit our infant car seat in the back. About the only way you can get the car seat in is through the trunk, and even when it is in place, the front passenger is left with virtually no leg room. So, we decided we needed to look for a new car.

We had several requirements which helped us to narrow down our selections:

  • Preferably 6+ seats: We wanted to have a car with room to expand; but more importantly for the short term to be able to haul both our family and Kat's (Karen's sister) family in one car. Great for carrying around grandparents too!
  • Easy in, easy out: Having driven cars of several different types (vans, station wagons, hatchbacks and sedans) we liked the sliding doors of the vans, the comfort of the sedan and the ease of getting things in and out of the station wagon. Would there be a vehicle that might combine many of these features?
  • Low on gas consumption: With gasoline prices climbing higher and higher with no end in sight, we needed bigger vehicle that didn't break the bank. So, SUVs and most vans were out of the question.
  • Manual transmission: Practically speaking of course this goes hand in hand with the "low on gas consumption" requirement. But from a usability point of view Karen and I have always been a fan of manual transmission as it gives you that much more control over your driving. Personally I believe manual drivers are better drivers as the constant shifting forces you to focus more on the driving and less on the distractions to driving.
  • Esthetics: Some cars are really practical but look hideous! We particularly loathe the new CUVs which seem like some sort of odd hybrid between a car and an SUV. Proportionate wheel base and body help to balance the overall look.
Given all of these requirements we found several vehicles that might fit: Right-hand drive Japanese domestic imports, European vehicles that aren't available in North America, and the new Mazda5. It seemed that whenever we found a vehicle that might fit one of our needs (6+ passengers) another requirement would not fit (manual transmission & gas consumption). In particular we were rather annoyed to find that they don't make minivans in manual transmission anymore!

After our trip to the UK in 2003, we were thoroughly impressed with the six and seven-seater passenger cars they had over there, but alas the selection in North America is completely different.

One of the options we seriously considered to bridge the "European" gap was to import a 15 year old Japanese domestic vehicle. These vehicles available through specialty dealers such as Japanoid and JCruiser's Auto Sales run great on fuel (mostly diesel based), use manual transmission, and most of the vans are able to accomodate 7-8 passengers comfortably. Moreover, their mileage is usually unbelievably good (less than 100,000 km for a 15 year old car) and the price is reasonable (usually under $10,000). The only drawback is that you are required to drive on the right hand side of the vehicle but more importantly the passenger sliding door would be traffic facing. A traffic facing exit is not exactly optimal for a family with a baby.

All seemed to be lost until we stumbled across the new Mazda5. We knew it (and many of its cousins) had been around in Europe and Asia for several years now which is why we were very excited when Mazda decided to sell it in North America. It boasts dual sliding doors, 6 passenger seating and lots of room to put TWO infant car seats. The Mazda5 uses a 2.3L 4-cylinder engine (great on gas) and comes with manual transmission. With a look similar to the Toyota Matrix, it doesn't look like some sort of odd squashed minivan. Getting one, though, was tougher than we thought. Apparently, Mazda had a big shortage of them and lots of demand, due in part to an early recall in production which created a bit of a back log. Nevertheless, after some pursuit and through the recommendation of a few people, we bought one (on cancellation!) through Morrey Mazda of Vancouver.

We've driven it around now for a few months and below I've listed some things we like and dislike about the vehicle:
  • Easy to drive. I've probably never had an easier transition from my Integra to this car. Apart from being higher off the ground, the car is surprisingly easy to drive considering its perceived size. It also handles with relative ease considering it is not a sports car. The clutch is amazingly forgiving which tends to lead to a very smooth ride even when your left leg is tired. We have driven the car both in city traffic as well as highway and the ride is smooth in both.
  • Clear console. Mazda must have put a lot of thought into the design of the console down to the nitty gritty details. Everything is within easy reach, and both volume and cruise control settings are available right on the steering wheel. I did find however that it took a bit of getting used to these controls as I would often instinctively put my thumb over them thinking it was the horn activation button. (This is how it was on our other two cars!)
  • Sliding doors. If there was one feature my wife and I admire the most, it would be the dual sliding doors. Although not really a van, this feature makes it very easy to get the baby and yourself in and out. The back edge of the sliding doors on the Mazda5 slide past the back of the vehicle when open giving you access to most of the cabin.
  • Hidden storage spaces. There are several of these spaces - two underneath the middle row seats, a center table, under the third row seats, a tray in the trunk and side compartments in the trunk. This is great when you're parked in a public place and you really don't want everybody to see what you've got in your vehicle. Because most of these compartments are not obvious, things stored can be made to look pretty inconspicuous.
  • Lack of big spaces. One drawback is that many of these spaces are relatively small (good for day to day stuff) but bigger contiguous spaces tend to be lacking particularly with all six seats in use. Both the middle and back row seats can be folded down to make a flat surface for this purpose, but then one loses passenger space.
  • Lots of cup holders. We were laughing about this feature. One of the common complaints about the Integra is the lack of decent cup holders. It almost seems ironic that this car is now overflowing with cup holders. On the GT model, there are count'em 8 in total. Yes, that is more than the number of seats! There are two in the front between the passenger and driver seats, one toward the back of the middle console for the middle passengers, another fold out one also at the back of the middle console. There are two on the fold out table, and two for the third row passengers. We'll drink to that!
  • Visible lights. One of my driving pet peeves is when drivers fail to signal. With this car, they can be sure they'll never miss one of my signals! They are high up, bright and definitely visible. The European style repeater lights on the side are a bonus too.
  • Anti-lock brakes and Electronic brake distribution. I've never had a vehicle with anti-lock brakes, and although I was trained on how to use them, have never really felt the need for them. (Both Karen and I are trained in threshold braking.) But this came in handy one rainy day on the way to work when proceeding through a traffic circle, another vehicle approached and decided not to look before speeding through the intersection. I slammed on the brakes, invoked the ABS system and felt the car come to a complete, short but not abrupt stop. I was impressed!
  • Baby latches everywhere. Each seat has safety features designed for infants including latch systems, locking seatbelts and even a weigh scale on the front seat should you be stupid enough to put your infant there; the front seat requires a minimum weight before the passenger airbag is activated. This is so that you don't kill your infant with the airbag.
  • Baby friendly. Apart from the obvious safety features, we have found that the third row seat is great for breastfeeding. The bench style is surprisingly comfortable and the rear row seat windows are relatively small so you are assured privacy.
All in all, we are quite happy with our vehicle. Of course, we won't know what the long term performance is like for another few years, but for our list of requirements, the Mazda5 meets them pretty well. Now if anyone wants to buy a 1996 Acura Integra in very good condition, it's for sale! See our photos of the Integra.

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