Motoring: Road Test - An estate on the edge

Mazda's Premacy is a people-carrier designed to appeal to the sports car driver. By John Simister
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They are coming thick and fast now. Mini-MPVs, sized around the solar system of a nuclear family rather than the galaxy of, say, a Ford Galaxy. We all know about the Renault Megane Scenic, current favourite of trendy Continentals.

We know, too, about the Vauxhall Zafira - similar idea, two more seats cleverly stashed under the rear floor. That's the one to watch.

Why? The men from Mazda will explain. For the latest addition to this category of vital forward-looking family cars is a Mazda, called Premacy. Maybe they gave it that name so that a future souped-up one could be called Supremacy, but the fact is that this latest Scenic rival has, like the Scenic, only five seats. And the Mazda men are worried.

"We'll see how the market develops," says Martin Leach, Mazda's British head of R&D. "If necessary, we'll offer a seven-seater." Such a version already exists in Japan, with a rear bench seat just about big enough for two diminutive adults.

Leach is typical of the new breed of Mazda men. He was schooled at Ford, that's owned most of Mazda for some time and is now determined to lift it out of debt and into product-led respect. Everyone knows the Mazda MX-5, and Mazda has an innovative past, not least because it's the only car-maker to have persevered with the Wankel rotary engine.

Under Leach's guidance the sweet-spinning rotary is set for a revival, this time with efficiency and emissions to match the best piston engines. We'll see the first examples at October's Tokyo motor show, but a preview came at the recent Goodwood Festival of Speed, at which Leach drove Mazda's 1991 Le Mans-winning 787B racing car, the first rotary (and the first Japanese car) to win the 24-hour endurance race.

Meanwhile, there's the Premacy. This was originally going to be a Mazda 323 estate, and the world wouldn't have noticed. Leach steered the project in a new direction, using it as launch-pad for Mazda's pledged new image: "stylish, insightful, spirited". The new corporate car-face has a five- cornered radiator grille and slanty headlights.

It apes Ford's own "edge design" philosophy, but does make it possible to recall what the Premacy looks like. Try that with a 626. Difficult, isn't it? The side view is as sporty and wedgy as an MPV can reasonably be, the tail-lights are huge, vertical triangles, and the interior shows a focus of design and a lightness of touch quite alien to old Mazdas. The dashboard looks bespoke, and the cabin is a pleasant place to be.

Mazda has tried to make the Premacy as car-like as possible to drive, to attract people whose lives demand an MPV, but whose instincts remain with open roads and sweeping bends. This forces a compromise, specifically to the floor's topography. It's quite low, so when the three rear seats are removed, the load floor steps down from boot to floor level.

With just the centre seat removed, you can reposition the outer chairs and gain breathing space - or leave the centre seat in and fold it flat into a table. The car also has lots of secreted storage opportunities.

Three engines are offered, two 1.8s and a 2.0-litre direct-injection turbodiesel. The 1.8, the more powerful of the two at 115bhp instead of 100, is fitted to the grander GSi version, but even the cheaper GXi gets air-conditioning, anti-lock brakes, a complete airbag quota, electric front windows that spirit - and more.

On fast, open bends, the Premacy feels poised and confident, and on tighter terrain it moves with pleasing fluidity. This is less a proper Scenic rival, more an upwardly stretched estate car with removable rear seats and a sporty mien, but it's an interesting Mazda nevertheless.

Specifications

Model: Mazda Premacy GSi

Price: pounds 16,850

Engine: 1,840cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, 115bhp at 6,000rpm. Transmission: five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive. Performance: 112mph, 0-60 in 11.1sec, 29-34mpg

Rivals

Mitsubishi Colt Space Star 1.8 GDi GLS: pounds 15,335. Smaller; no removable seats; roomy "tall hatch" with economical engine.

Renault Megane Scenic 2.0 RT: pounds 15,205. Defines the breed, and is lively in 2.0-litre form. Versatile cargo-carrying options, face-lift imminent.

Toyota Picnic 2.0 GS: pounds 15,995. Seven seats, but less flexible seating plan. Sparsely equipped; wacky wrap-around rear window.

Vauxhall Zafira Comfort 1.8: pounds 16,250. Cleverest seat-plan yet, and a lively drive. Lacks the Mazda's composure over bumps.

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