By Alex Taylor III
April 19, 2011

Cars and trucks — not just Detroit’s but the imports’ too — are afflicted by a case of giantism. It is as if they are all juicing with growth hormones like a baseball player with 26-inch biceps.

For evidence, consider the Chrysler minivan. The 2011 version is more than two feet longer, nine inches wider, and three quarters of a ton heavier than the original that was introduced 28 years ago

All that new mass puts a strain on scarce natural resources. The 2011 maxi-van is powered by a 283 horsepower V-6 and is rated at just 12 miles per gallon city, 18 mpg highway. The 1984 model got along with just 101 horsepower, and managed to get 20 mpg city/23 mpg highway.

If your tastes run to extra-large, better get your orders in soon. The age of the dinosaurs is coming to an end, and you won’t have to wait for a meteor to see it happen. In an era of $4 per gallon gas and looming government fuel economy regulations, manufacturers simply can’t afford to make such inefficient vehicles.

For a view of what the future holds, take a look at the Mazda5 microvan. First introduced in the U.S. in 2005, it has gotten a makeover for 2011. The new version has gotten a standing “O” from Consumer Reports, which ranks it first in its eight-vehicle segment, above stalwarts like the Subaru Outback. With a manufacturer’s suggested retail price of $23,805, it is also the least expensive; it is priced $19,000 less than its costliest competitor.

Mazda managed to take most of the minivan’s best attributes and pack them into a smaller space. The 5 provides command seating in captain’s chairs, easy access through two sliding doors, and comfortable accommodations for four adults and two smaller people.

The 5 hasn’t entirely escaped the growth imperative. Despite its status as the smallest van on the market, it is actually five and a half inches longer and 700 pounds heavier than the original 1984 Chrysler. Thanks to advances in engine technology, however, the 5 is rated at 21 mpg city/28 mpg highway. That makes it relevant for the rest of this decade anyway.

My Liquid Silver test car arrived in Grand Touring trim, and the only options were satellite radio (free) and a rear bumper guard ($50), bringing the as-tested price to $24, 720. The list of standard equipment includes items like dynamic stability control, Bluetooth, and three-row side-curtain airbags that would have been unavailable at any price in a car of this class a few years ago.

Style is usually last of the attributes that buyers look for in a van but it too comes standard with the 5. Sliding-door tracks have been cleverly integrated with the taillamps, making them less obtrusive. The side-body panels have been stamped with a sophisticated process that leaves small channels or waves in the metal. The effect is subtle and timeless and enlivens what is typically a dead space.

The 5 has another important quality not traditionally found in minivans: sportiness. The 5 is a driver’s van: light to the touch, sure on the curves, and easy to steer and brake. I didn’t fill all four of the adult seats with adults, but it ran just fine with two aboard.

The 5 has something to offer value shoppers, too. In 1983, the base price of $8,700 brought you a Plymouth Caravan that was basically a breadbox on wheels. Even such fundamental features as a sliding door on the driver’s side were omitted to improve structural rigidity and reduce cost. A driver-side airbag wasn’t standard until 1991 and adjustable cupholders didn’t come along until 1996.

In inflation-adjusted 2010 dollars, that primitive, stripped down vehicle cost $18,791. For another six thousand dollars today, you get a vehicle that is stylish, sporty, and safe. The Mazda5 demonstrates that good things come in small packages — and you don’t necessarily need a second mortgage to be able to afford them.

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