More nimble than your average minivan.
by John Rettie
Base Price (MSRP) $20,675
As Tested (MSRP) $25,730
Mazda's MPV isn't anything like it used to be, and that's just as well. Some history: Mazda launched the MPV nameplate in 1989 as its Multi-Purpose Vehicle. It was an important, innovative vehicle because it offered minivan roominess with rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, and with a single rear door that opened outward, like a car's. It was enjoyable to drive and had enough guts to pull trailers.
Today's Mazda MPV, totally redesigned and re-engineered last year, comes with front-wheel drive and dual sliding doors. That sounds like just about every one minivan being sold today, yet this latest MPV is smaller and more nimble than most competing vans. It drives more like a tall car. The glass in its rear doors is powered and rolls down like a car's, an industry first. It also features a hiding third-row seat, similar in design to the Honda Odyssey's, that can also flip around for tailgate parties and picnics.
Compared with other minivans, Mazda's MPV handles better on the road, and maneuvers better in tight confines. It offers a unique alternative for buyers who like the versatility of a minivan but who do not need the ultimate passenger or cargo capacity of the larger minivans.
This new-generation MPV rolls into 2001 with a few additions to its standard-equipment list but no other significant changes.
Three trim levels are available: DX, LX and ES.
DX prices start at $20,675 and include air conditioning, automatic transmission, front airbags, variable-assist power steering and other features one expects on a decently equipped vehicle.
In order to get power windows and cruise control, however, you have to order the Power Package for $1,325; or move up to the $22,800 LX model. LX also adds ABS, privacy glass, heated outside mirrors and other interior appointments. For 2001, Mazda has added keyless illuminated entry and a “3-in-1” AM/FM/CD/cassette stereo with full-logic auto-reverse.
The top-of-the-line ES ($26,280) boasts leather seating surfaces, “wood tone” interior trim, bigger 16-inch alloy wheels, an upgraded sound system, separate front and rear air conditioning units and side-impact airbags for the front seats.
An $1,855 Touring Package adds the 16-inch wheels with all season tires, side-impact airbags, wood-tone trim and premium sound system to the mid-range LX.
The MPV might not win any awards for styling; even compared to other, slicker minivans it looks slab-sided and chunky. But MPV does have a neat appearance, with a purposeful nose that almost suggests a large station wagon more than a minivan. The grille blends in well with the aerodynamic headlight covers that lead in turn to the body creases. Following the lead of other minivans, the sliding doors' guide tracks are hidden along the lower edge of the rear side windows.
LX buyers can make a stronger visual statement with the $895 GFX option, which adds front and rear under-bumper spoilers, side-sill extensions, and with 16-inch alloy wheels.
The interior of a minivan is obviously its most important asset, and here the MPV shines. The hindmost bench seat can be folded down into a well in the floor, freeing up 17 cubic feet of storage space. This is a very useful feature (also found on the Honda Odyssey), and much easier than trying to remove the rear seats. With the seat in its regular position, the empty well serves as a useful storage bin for stuff that you don't want sliding around on the floor. The same seat can also tip back, so that it can serve as picnic seat at a tailgate party.
The individual center seats can be folded down, and can slide forward and back a few inches to optimize rear leg space. What's more, they can also be moved sideways (another industry first, which Mazda calls Slide-by-Slide [TM] seating) to create a bench seat and improve access to the rear seats. They can easily be removed, as they weigh only 37 pounds each.
Ultimately, the MPV offers variations on seating for two, four, five, six, or seven, depending on a family's needs for cargo or passenger capacity. The comfort of the seats tends to diminish as one moves from the front buckets through to the rear bench, which is a bit hard and upright for comfort on a long journey. Tall passengers, however, will find leg and head room adequate throughout. Rear air conditioning (standard or ES, optional on DX and LX) can be controlled individually by each passenger.
Access to the MPV is not quite as convenient as in bigger minivans, as the doors are smaller and the step-in is slightly higher. The sliding side doors operate manually, with no power option available.
The dashboard has a pleasantly smooth finish that is more reminiscent of a car, flowing as it does across the width of the vehicle in a single non-reflective arc. On the Touring-Package LX we tested, the dash was accented with a wood-grain finish, giving it an almost luxurious look. The instrument pod is nicely situated, with a large speedometer set directly in front of the steering wheel and a smaller tachometer to the right.
The radio and climate controls are placed high up in the center, leaving plenty of space for a couple of storage bins underneath. However, the big gearshift lever, once shifted into Drive, obscures some of the buttons for the radio. Talking of storage, however, there are several bins and plenty of cupholders to ease the long hours inevitably spent in a minivan. An auxiliary 12-volt outlet in the rear side panel provides power for electric accessories.
The MPV may be smaller than other minivans, but so is its 2.5-liter engine. It was no ball of fire last year, and for 2001 it has surrendered 10 horsepower to achieve NLEV (national low emission vehicle) status. In short, acceleration is not as strong as it might be. The little V6 lacks low-end torque, which means it needs to rev high when passing, or entering a freeway onramp. Having said that, the MPV will keep up with traffic in most situations, especially when not fully laden. At cruising speeds the vehicle is quiet, with little wind noise.
MPV handles somewhat better than most minivans, especially when it is fitted with the 16-inch wheels and tires. The difference shows most on the highway, where the Mazda takes curves without a murmur, although there is inevitably some body roll. The ride is firm without being harsh. The rack-and-pinion steering returns a precision feel to the driver, although its assistance varies with engine speed, and is not as precise on the freeways as it might be. But again, while the MPV might not perform or handle like a sporty station wagon, it is still much better than an SUV.
Even after their children have left home, more and more people are finding it hard to give up the carrying capacity and convenience of a minivan. The Mazda MPV is perhaps the ideal sort of minivan for so-called empty nesters. It offers a more refined ride, and its smaller overall size makes it easier to handle. The power roll-down windows in the side doors are what an adult rear-seat passenger expects. The tumbledown rear seat is really convenient, both for increasing cargo space and as a rear-facing bench for a tailgate party.
The MPV is also a logical step up from a station wagon for someone who wants more interior space and greater ride height, without the harsh ride and poor handling of a SUV.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.