Brent Romans, Senior Automotive Editor
The American minivan is like hemorrhoids. A lot of people have them, but nobody wants to admit it.
Now don't take offense at this. I'm not saying your poor minivan needs a dose of Preparation H. It's just that nobody I've ever met is proud that he or she owns a minivan. Really, who is going to get all hot and bothered over the purchase of a new Toyota Sienna? These days, having a minivan is like saying you hang out with Al Gore. Boorriinngg.
But your neighbor who just bought a new Ford Excursion, you can bet he's proud. Yes sir, he's got the biggest, baddest SUV on the planet. Get out of his way! He's active lifestyle man! Wish him luck as he rumbles off in his 12-mpg vehicle to get a box of Twinkies at 7-Eleven. Hope and pray that he doesn't crash into the rear of a Pinto on his way there.
Oops, sorry, cynicism seeping through again. Hate when that happens. But if you, the minivan owner, can find solace in my comments, there might be something new you'd be interested in. It's the 2000 Mazda MPV. It's a minivan, but it's different. You'd be proud to have this vehicle in your garage. In fact, there'd be no need to hide it. Yell out with authority, "I am a minivan owner and I'm proud to be one! Power to the people!"
Err, maybe that's too extreme. Say this out loud, and your kids will have you institutionalized. The MPV is still a minivan, after all. But it's a good minivan. Good enough, in fact, to be one of the top minivans on the market.
The previous MPV was a bit of a plugger. Mazda tried to make it both an SUV and a minivan. Too bad it wasn't very good at being either. The optional all-wheel drive was nice, but it was painfully slow and didn't have sliding rear doors. Oh, it also looked like a half-gallon milk carton on wheels.
The 2000 MPV's styling is considerably improved. All four of Mazda's styling centers (Irvine, Calif., Frankfurt, Germany, and Yokohama and Hiroshima, Japan) contributed. The MPV looks tight and muscular, courtesy of a relatively short front overhang, slanted D-pillars, sculpted fender flares and crisp body panel lines. Our test vehicle was fitted with optional 16-inch wheels. Minivan manufacturers should learn from Mazda; image is important.
If the MPV looks smaller to you than most other minivans, that's because it is. Minivans like Ford's Windstar, Chrysler's Town &Country and Honda's Odyssey have a wheelbase of around 119 inches and an overall length of around 200 inches. In comparison, the MPV has a 111.8-inch wheelbase and a 187-inch overall length. Mazda hasn't figured out how to escape the rules of physics yet, so if you're looking for maximum cargo capacity, you'll have to look elsewhere. The MPV's smaller exterior dimensions translate to less room inside. Maximum cargo volume is 127 cubic feet, about 20 less than the Odyssey.
But Mazda has been able to change the rules of minivan interior design. The shortage of cargo space is well compensated by unique features. Like the seats, for instance. Yes, let me tell you about the seats. The MPV comes standard with three rows of seating. Nothing special about that. But both the second and third rows can be configured for different seating arrangements. The second row features two comfortable captain's chairs that have their own flip-up armrests. The real trick part is that the right-side second-row chair can be released by a handle, allowing it to be moved along tracks to meet up with the other second-row chair. Instant bench seat! The seats also slide fore/aft and can be removed. We found all of these seat functions easy to perform. Legroom and headroom for adults sitting in the second row is quite good.
The third-row bench seat has less legroom, but it does fold into the floor (like the Odyssey's). This operation is fairly intuitive and easy. Another nice touch is that the third-row seat can be flipped around to face backwards when the tailgate is open. Configured so, it makes an excellent seat for a tailgate party. There are also two other seating configurations we found useful. The second-row seats can be folded to create mini-tables, or they can be extended and matched up with the front-row seats (also extended) to form two relatively flat sleeping areas.
The rest of the interior is well-configured. We liked the front seats (they also have flip-up armrests), and there is plenty of foot space, thanks to a center console that narrows as it meets the floor. Both the radio and climate controls are large and easy to operate (though the column shifter blocks access to some of the radio preset buttons when it's placed in "drive"). The glove box and storage bins are large, and there are convenient storage bins underneath the front seats. An overhead bin can hold sunglasses and a garage-door opener. Cupholders? Of course, my dear. Front passengers get two adjustable holders, though they are a bit shallow. Passengers in both the second and third rows also get drink storage. The most noticeable negative with the MPV's interior is the quality of interior materials. Even if our test vehicle was fitted with leather (the only way to get leather is to order the MPV in ES trim), we'd still think things were on the cheap side. The headliner is merely foam covered by nylon, and the dash is, as one our editors put it, "really plasticky." (Plasticky is an official auto journalist word. Feel free to use it in your own conversations.)
As opposed to the previous MPV, both sides of the van now have sliding doors. As a bonus, they both have power-operated windows. However, the doors themselves are not power-operated. They are easy to open thanks to the pull-type handles, but having power-operated sliding doors can be very beneficial in certain situations. Otherwise, loading people and cargo is easy from all doors, including the tailgate. Visibility from the cabin is very good, especially over the hood.
Under the hood is a new 2.5-liter V6. Uh, well, make that new for the MPV. This is pretty much the same V6 you'll find in the Ford Contour. It generates exactly as much power, too. Mazda lists it at 170 horsepower and 165 foot-pounds of torque. This output might be fine for a four-door sedan, but it is overwhelmed in a minivan that weighs about 1,000 pounds more. And if it felt slow to us around town, just imagine what it would be like full of kids and kit while driving over the Rocky Mountains. Ugh. The Mazda transmission (it has different gear ratios than the Contour's) does its best to compensate for the lack of power, but there's only so much it can do. Basically, ask the MPV to hustle and the transmission responds by shifting a lot. Some of us didn't mind, others thought the transmission was schizophrenic.
The MPV responds better to being hustled through corners. Thanks to its smaller size and well-sorted suspension, the MPV has no problem taking corners as fast as a car. MacPherson struts are used up front, and a torsion beam-axle suspension is located in the rear. Yes, the MPV has a soft ride, but body roll is kept to a minimum. The 215/60R16 Dunlop SP Sport 4000 A/S tires on our test vehicle provided good grip without complaining. The rack-and-pinion steering is also good for a minivan. Power assist is variable and is adjusted according to engine speed. All of our editors thought the MPV had a solid brake pedal feel despite its use of rear drum brakes. The ABS system (not available on the base model) incorporates a new electronic brake force distribution system that modifies the braking force of the rear brakes. The amount of force applied is determined by measurements of vehicle load, road conditions and vehicle speed. The benefit should be shorter stopping distances when fully loaded, though we were unable to verify the functionality of this feature. Regardless, it's nice to know it exists.
For additional safety, side airbags are available on the ES model. Government crash testing hadn't been performed yet when this road test was written (expect results in January 2000), but previous MPVs have done well. Mazda covers its minivan with a basic three-year, 50,000-mile warranty and a five-year, unlimited-mileage corrosion protection. Both of the mileage figures are above average for this class.
The Mazda MPV is a very agreeable minivan. It has gone from being a bit player in 1999 to a full-fledged big dog in 2000. Depending on what you're looking for in a minivan, the MPV could very easily be your top choice. Its smaller size might be a detriment to some people, but the positive benefits of improved parking, visibility, and handling are definitely things to consider. So is the sporty styling and unique interior. Pricing starts at under $20,000, but we would recommend at least the LX version because of the ABS and side airbags. Order the ES, and you'll get the leather seats and rear air/con with separate controls. Pricing for both is competitive. The MPV's lackluster engine is a bummer, and no doubt Mazda isn't thrilled watching the already-popular Odyssey get an optional navigation system in 2000. But don't let that stop you from considering an MPV purchase. Let your neighbor enjoy his Excursion (or typical minivan, for that matter) all he wants, but you'll be smug in knowing that your MPV looks better, handles better, is more versatile, sucks less gas, and still hauls a decent amount of cargo.
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