The world's first sport-utility van. by Sue Mead
Not long ago, station wagons were the preferred choice for hauling people, pets and parcels. Then came minivans that could do everything wagons could do and more.
Now we've got sport-utility vehicles. Outfitted with four-wheel drive and a tough, go-anywhere image, it seems everyone wants one. Recognizing an opportunity, manufacturers are putting the sport-utility label on everything from trucks to mid-size station wagons to compact cars.
Mazda has been missing the sport-utility bandwagon ever since it stopped selling the Navajo. Not content to stand on the sidelines any longer, Mazda dressed up its competent MPV minivan with a sporty package that combines rugged looks, proven mechanicals, a huge people-carrying capacity and four-wheel drive.
Though this latest incarnation looks fresh, the MPV is not new. More than 230,000 of them have been sold since its introduction as a 1989 model. This popularity can be traced to the performance, handling and reliability that the MPV offers. Nearly 99 percent of them are still on the road.
Mazda figures the MPV All-Sport will attract buyers who need a minivan to haul people, but want a sport-utility vehicle with four-wheel drive and a rugged, outdoorsy appearance.
Subaru successfully used a similar approach with its Legacy Outback, a four-wheel drive mid-size station wagon with off-road performance and styling cues. Pontiac is also trying this approach, calling its '97 TransSport Montana a sport-utility van. The Montana has a somewhat rugged appearance, but it lacks four-wheel drive.
MPV sales are up, so Mazda's strategy must be working.
The MPV was updated last year with a fourth door, redesigned instrument panel, dual airbags and more flexible seating, all of which were welcome improvements.
Two trim levels are available this year, the LX and the more luxurious ES. Each comes as either a two- or four-wheel drive model. All come with a 3.0-liter, 18-valve V-6 that produces 155 horsepower and 169 lb-ft torque mated to a four-speed automatic transmission.
Introduced as an option at the end of 1996, the All-Sport package is now standard on all MPVs except the base 2WD LX, where it's optional.
Muscular styling gives the MPV a sporty appearance, made more rugged by the All-Sport's grille guard, stone guard, fog lights, fender flares, rear bumper guard, roof rack, five-spoke alloy wheels and two-tone paint.
The MPV is now a paradigm of practicality: hinged doors on each side swing open 90 degrees. Hinged doors are more convenient than the sliding doors on many minivans. Having them on both sides eliminates having to run around to the other side of the car to install a baby seat. In back, a single door lifts to make loading easy.
All MPVs come with dual airbags, steel door beams, energy absorbing crumple zones and four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes. Two-wheel drive All-Sports ride on P215/65R-15 tires while the 4WD models get more aggressive P225/70R-15 mud-and-snow tires. An optional Four Seasons package adds a rear area heater, a larger capacity windshield washer tank and a heavy duty battery.
With its compact disc player ($860), power moonroof ($1,200) and ES preferred equipment group (dual air conditioning, carpeted floor mats, keyless entry system and privacy glass for $2250), our test vehicle totaled $32,320.
The Inside Story
Mazda's attention to detail shows inside. The speedometer and tachometer are housed in a rounded instrument panel. Ventilation and audio controls, cupholders and storage for small items are located front and center for easy access. A sporty four-spoke leather-wrapped steering wheel houses the driver-side airbag, while the passenger-side airbag is above the glove box. A rear air conditioning blower with separate controls adds to the comfort of passengers in the back rows. A storage tray under the front passenger seat is a thoughtful touch.
Other standard MPV features include power windows, doors and outside mirrors, cruise control, tilt steering column, power steering, AM/FM/cassette sound system with digital clock and four speakers, rear wiper/washer/defroster, dual vanity mirrors and remote fuel door release.
All MPVs come with reclining front bucket seats. LX models are upholstered in nice velour cloth, while ES models come with leather seating surfaces.
A key MPV consideration is choosing between seven- and eight-passenger seating. Eight-passenger models use a second and third row of bench seats that hold three passengers each. Both rows can be folded flat to carry cargo and the middle bench reclines and adjusts fore and aft. It looks good on paper, but the width of the middle bench makes getting to the third-row bench seat difficult.
We don't want to sway you, but seven-passenger seating is the preferred layout in the MPV. A pair of captain's chairs replace the middle row bench. The captain's chairs are more comfortable than the bench seat and they make it easier to get to the back row. ES models come standard with seven-passenger seating and it's an option on the LX models.
Either way, the third row can be folded forward to provide more cargo space or removed completely. The MPV does not offer nearly as much cargo space as a sport-utility, but it does a superior job of hauling seven humans.
Ride & Drive
The MPV is fun to drive on a winding road. It handles much better than a sport-utility vehicle. Ride quality is also superior on pavement and on smooth dirt roads.
Rough dirt roads pose few problems for the All-Sport as long as speeds are kept to reasonable levels. The four-wheel drive system works well on slippery surfaces and handling is predictable. Our MPV climbed a steep, silty hill that would have left a sedan in the dust, and it cut through snow and ice with no worries. The 4WD system automatically splits power between the front and rear wheels as needed. When the going gets really sloppy, the center differential can be locked by pushing a button. This locks the traction split equally between the front and rear wheels, which helps when driving up a steep slope of mud, snow or ice.
All-Sport or not, a 4WD MPV is not designed for trekking along the Continental Divide. It lacks the suspension travel, tires and the low-range set of gears found on most sport-utility vehicles, so knowing its limits and slowing down for big obstacles is important.
Plenty of power is on tap and the V-6 engine works well with the four-speed automatic transmission. Steering is light and precise and the disc brakes instill confidence. With its independent A-arm front suspension and five-link live rear axle, the MPV is stable at high speeds. Anti-roll bars at both ends minimize body lean in corners.
We found the MPV to be a stable vehicle for pulling light trailers. Based on a rear-wheel drive platform, the MPV is far superior for towing than the front-wheel drive minivans comprising the majority of the market. An optional load leveling package allows the MPV to tow up to 4500 pounds. This makes it a good choice for pulling ATVs, motorcycles, snowmobiles, personal watercrafts, canoes, small boats and other light loads. It's a stretch, but we've even used it to pull light car trailers.
The MPV All-Sport should appeal to buyers who need a minivan but want the four-wheel-drive traction and outdoorsy image of a sport-utility vehicle.
The All-Sport is capable of getting down the worst roads, but its best feature is its car-like performance and handling. And when it comes to moving people around the MPV is far more capable than a sport-utility vehicle.
These traits make the MPV a practical alternative for families with a gaggle of kids who make occasional forays into the woods.
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