What's New for 1998
A CD player is now standard.
The MPV is getting old. Nearly a decade ago, the MPV arrived in the United States as one of the first car-like minivans from Japan, taking a cue from Chrysler's popular minis rather than the ungainly Toyota, Nissan and Mitsubishi boxes-on-wheels that were on sale at the time. Truly, the MPV was a class-leader in the late '80s. Not so these days, when the only reason the MPV continues to exist is to fill a teensy tiny niche as a sport-utility minivan.
The MPV is the closest thing to an SUV that Mazda has to offer. The lineup consists of two trim levels: a well equipped LX and luxury ES. All MPVs with the exception of the LX 2WD come with All Sport decor (a grille guard, fender flares, rear bumper guard, stone guard, roof rack, special graphics and alloy wheels), which turns this Mom-mobile into a four-door van that looks like it can tackle any terrain. Combine this styling gimmick with shift-on-the-fly four-wheel drive, and the MPV serves reasonably well as a pseudo-Explorer. Four-wheel disc antilock brakes are standard on all models. The ES edition contains such pleasantries as leather seating surfaces and automatic load leveling.
Like Honda's Odyssey, the aged Mazda minivan does without sliding entry doors, matching the Odyssey by providing conventional rear doors on both sides. Mazda promises sedan-like comfort and ride qualities for up to eight passengers in the MPV. Front MacPherson struts and front/rear stabilizer bars help keep the minivan comfortable and on-course. Bucket seats hold the front occupants, while three each can fit on the middle and back seat. Optional on LX and standard on ES models are quad captain's chairs. Center-section legroom is less than great, but most riders aren't likely to complain. When fewer passengers are aboard, cargo space can reach 110 cubic feet.
Acceleration with the 155-horsepower, 18-valve, 3.0-liter V6 engine is sufficient. Four-wheel drive cuts into potential performance because of its sizable extra weight. Gas mileage also dips considerably with 4WD vans. A four-speed automatic with electronic controls is the sole transmission choice. With 4WD, a dashboard switch can lock the center differential, for peak low-speed traction.
Inside and out--especially up front--MPVs offer a distinctive appearance, not quite like most minivans. Styling was revised for 1996 and the MPV now sports a protruding, ungainly countenance in an effort to make it look more like a sport-utility. A contemporary instrument panel contains dual airbags. Visibility is terrific from the airy cabin.
The 1998 MPV is the equivalent of a Big Mac that's been sitting under the heating lamp too long. There's more to it, but it's old, loaded with fat, and costs more than many competitors. We liked the older MPV plenty for its crisp, clean looks and fun rear-wheel drive personality. This heavier, bulbous SUV-wannabe model leaves us cold. And with base stickers approaching $23,500 with destination charges, we can't recommend the MPV over most other minivans on the market.