Still a great minivan. by Sue Mead
Base Price $21,965
As Tested $31,460
Mazda's rugged MPV minivan has been around for awhile, but it's still a great vehicle and still looks fresh. Seven people can ride in comfort and the MPV can easily tow up to 4500 pounds.
Most MPVs sold nowadays are four-wheel-drive All-Sport models. Four-wheel drive gives the MPV the traction capabilities of a sport-utility vehicles with the people-carrying abilities of a minivan. In comparison, the two-wheel-drive models cost less, ride a little smoother, and are a couple of inches closer to the ground, making it easier to climb aboard.
Mazda has sold nearly a quarter-million MPVs since introducing the 1989 model. This popularity can be traced to the performance, handling and reliability the MPV offers. Nearly 99 percent of them are still on the road.
Last year's redesign brought dual airbags, a revised instrument panel and more flexible seating, all welcome improvements. For 1998, there are no real changes to the MPV. A CD player is now standard equipment and Mazda is sticking a new badge on all of its vehicles this year, an oval with a stylized flying M.
Two trim levels are available: LX and the more luxurious ES. Each offers a choice between two- and four-wheel drive.
All come with Mazda's powerful 3.0-liter, 18-valve V-6. This engine produces 155 horsepower and 169 pound-feet of torque. A four-speed automatic transmission is standard equipment.
Now one year old, the MPV's All-Sport package has been very successful. The MPV brought muscular styling and a sporty appearance to the world of minivans and it still looks good. The All-Sport package complements the MPV's design with an outdoorsy, rugged look; this was accomplished with specially designed trim pieces, including the grille guard, stone guard, fog lights, fender flares, rear bumper guard, roof rack, five-spoke alloy wheels and two-tone paint.
The MPV remains a paradigm of practicality. Hinged doors on each side swing open 90 degrees. Many owners feel these are easier to open and close than the sliding doors found on most minivans. Cars aside, look at the number of hinged doors in our daily lives compared with the number of sliding doors. Mazda now mounts the rear passenger doors on both sides of the MPV, eliminating the annoyance of having to run around to the other side of the car to tend to a baby or unbuckle a child.
The back door is a single lift gate designed to make loading easier.
All MPVs come with dual airbags, steel door beams, energy absorbing crumple zones and four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes. Two-wheel-drive models ride on P215/65R-15 all-season tires while the 4WD models get wider, more aggressive P225/70R-15 mud-and-snow tires.
An optional four seasons package adds a separate heater for back seat riders, a larger capacity windshield washer tank and a heavy-duty battery.
Our $31,460 test vehicle was loaded with the $1200 power moonroof and the $2250 ES preferred equipment group, which includes dual air conditioning, carpeted floor mats, keyless entry system and privacy glass.
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 all 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 slides out and is handy for keeping mail and other small odds and ends from sliding around the cabin.
New for 1998 is an AM/FM/CD stereo with four speakers that comes standard on all trim levels. An optional cassette player is useful for those who enjoy books on tape or already have a big cassette collection.
Other standard MPV features include power windows, locks and outside mirrors, cruise control, tilt steering column, power steering, a digital clock, 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.
One of the most important considerations when ordering an MPV 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 prefer the seven-passenger layout. A pair of captains chairs replace the middle row bench. The captains chairs are more comfortable than the bench seat. More important, they make it easier to get to the back row.
LX (cloth) models come standard with eight-passenger seating, but seven-passenger seating is optional. ES (leather) models come standard with seven-passenger seating.
With either layout, the third-row bench seat can be folded forward to provide more cargo space or it can be removed completely. The MPV does not offer as much cargo space as a sport-utility vehicle -- 42 cubic feet compared with a Ford Explorer's 81 cubic feet -- but it does a much better job of hauling seven people in comfort.
Ride & Drive
In its own way, the MPV is fun to drive on a winding road. It handles better than a sport-utility vehicle. Ride quality is better as well, whether on pavement and smooth dirt roads. Rough dirt roads are easily handled by the MPV as long as speeds are kept to reasonable levels. Thrash away like you're trying to win the Baja 1000 and the suspension begins to bottom out.
On slippery surfaces, the four-wheel-drive system improves traction and handling. We climbed a steep, silty hill in Southern California that would have left a sedan choking in the dust. We later drove it through the snow and ice of a New England winter with no worries.
The 4WD system automatically splits power between the front and rear wheels as needed, improving traction in the snow. When the going gets really sloppy, the driver can push a button that locks the center differential. This splits traction equally between the front and rear wheels, which helps when driving up a steep slope of mud, snow or ice.
Even with four-wheel drive and those rugged-looking All-Sport trim pieces, the MPV is not ready for rock climbing. It lacks the long suspension travel and low-range set of gears found on many sport-utility vehicles. So knowing its limits and slowing down for big obstacles is important in the backcountry.
Plenty of power is on tap and the V-6 engine complements the four-speed automatic. Steering is light and precise. The four-wheel disc brakes instill confidence. At high speeds, the MPV is stable, a benefit of its independent A-arm front suspension and five-link live rear axle. Anti-roll bars at both ends minimize body lean in corners, adding to that fun-to-drive quotient.
Our experience is that the MPV is 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. 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 watercraft, canoes, small boats and other light loads. It's a stretch, but we've used it to pull light race car trailers.
Mazda's MPV All-Sport should appeal to buyers who need a minivan but want four-wheel-drive traction. The All-Sport is capable of getting down the worst roads. Its best feature is its performance and handling on the pavement.
When it comes to moving people around the MPV is far more capable than a sport-utility vehicle. These traits make the Mazda MPV a practical alternative for families with a gaggle of kids who make occasional forays into the woods.
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