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The Mazda MPV: When Mazda's Minivan Was Actually an SUV

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author photo by Doug DeMuro January 2017

Here's how you know the 1990s were different from today: Back in the 1990s, Mazda had an SUV. But, in an effort to sell more, they told people it was a minivan. This is completely true.

Here's the situation: Mazda began selling the MPV "minivan" in the United States for the 1989 model year, with only one really weird quirk -- the doors. All minivans of the late 1980s and early 1990s had only one single sliding door, on the passenger side, and the MPV followed suit -- except it didn't have a sliding door. It had a normal, regular, front-hinged rear door. So the MPV had two normal doors up front, and one normal door in back, and no sliding doors. This made absolutely no sense.

By the 1996 model year, Mazda wised up and realized this was absolutely ridiculous, so they started installing four doors in these things. Which means Mazda now had a "minivan" with four opening doors, just like, say, the Ford Explorer. Or the Toyota 4Runner.

At the time, the Honda Odyssey also had four opening doors, and it was unquestionably a minivan. It wasn't so unquestionable with the MPV. While the Odyssey was front-wheel-drive, like most other vans, the MPV was rear-wheel-drive -- or, if you wanted, you could choose all-wheel drive. It also had tall, blocky styling and (by 1995) a standard V6 -- while the Odyssey was only a 4-cylinder.

In other words: Mazda was selling a 4-door, 3-row, rear- or all-wheel-drive vehicle with blocky styling and a V6. Does this remind you of anything? Perhaps ... an SUV?

Despite the obvious similarities -- and despite the fact that Mazda added an "All-Sport" package for 1996 which emphasized the MPV's SUVness -- Mazda continued selling this thing as a minivan through its inevitable cancellation after the 1999 model year. While this would've been an excellent time to retool the MPV and come out with a new 3-row, all-wheel-drive SUV, Mazda made the wrong choice: They instead decided to create a true minivan, dubbed the MPV, which found it difficult to compete with rivals from Toyota and Honda. After several years of poor sales, it was canceled.

Interestingly, Mazda was one of the first automakers in the 3-row-seating midsize SUV world -- a world that's now populated with popular vehicles like the Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander, Ford Explorer and Mazda's own CX-9. If only they had realized, way back in 1996, what they had started.

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The Mazda MPV: When Mazda's Minivan Was Actually an SUV - Autotrader