Karl Brauer, Editor in Chief
In a world where SUVs continue to gobble up market share (as well as manufacturing resources and gasoline), it's amazing that the minivan has not only survived, but thrived. Current estimates put the total minivan tally at approximately 1.2 million units a year. While this figure does not represent substantial growth in the market, it does indicate a solid, enduring demand for these vehicles that wise automakers have chosen to address, rather than ignore.
During 1999 we saw the introduction of three completely redesigned people movers: the Nissan Quest, Ford Windstar and Honda Odyssey. Each of these models contributed at least one unique and innovative feature to the minivan class, ranging from an adjustable cargo shelf to a conversation mirror to a disappearing third-row seat. Now comes the 2000 Mazda MPV, another completely redesigned model that wants to play in this increasingly competitive field.
Back in 1988, when the MPV was first introduced as a 1989 model, it distinguished itself from the burgeoning minivan field with features like a right-side rear-hinged door (as opposed to sliding) and optional four-wheel drive with a planetary-geared center differential. Over the next 10 years, Mazda fitted its MPV with a left-side rear door (still hinged), standard ABS, a standard V6 engine, and a removable third-row seat. In 1997 the company created an All-Sport model that included special body cladding, distinctive graphics and alloy wheels. Without an SUV of its own, this was Mazda's closest offering to the hot-selling Ford Explorer.
By 1998, however, the MPV's "uniqueness" had worn thin, as the sales numbers confirmed. With the Chrysler minis continuing to lead market share, and more capable versions coming from Ford and Honda, it was time to retire the original MPV and start over from scratch.
Enter the 2000 MPV, which is much more conventional than the version it replaces. However, it still boasts a few innovations of its own, not the least of which are roll-down windows in each of the sliding doors (Unfortunately, power sliding doors are not available on the MPV, even as an option.). The Mazda also utilizes a "tumble-under" third-row seat, similar to that offered in the Honda Odyssey, as well as a tailgate function that lets the rear seat tilt backward for comfortable, reverse-facing lounging amid open-air activities.
In addition to its functional seating and window design, the MPV features an optional 180-watt, nine-speaker Super Sound system that includes a six-disc, in-dash CD player. The head unit in this system can accept and store up to six CDs through a single slot in the dash instead of depleting half of the glove box's space on a CD changer. The quality of sound produced by this system is truly concert hall-like, giving the MPV a clear victory in terms of minivan audio quality.
Drivetrain quality, however, is another matter. At 170 horsepower (160 in LEV states) and 165 foot-pounds of torque, the MPV's 2.5-liter V6 is insufficient at motivating this minivan with authority. This is basically the same engine that you'll find in the Mercury Cougar, with only a slightly smaller displacement due to a shorter stroke. This change has no effect on advertised engine size, horsepower or torque. That's too bad because low-end torque is a particular problem that makes standing starts frustrating and merges with high-speed traffic a white-knuckle experience. There's also a disconcerting whine, as well as plenty of vibration, when the engine goes above 4,000 rpm.
While the engine seems a bit underdeveloped, the transmission is downright primordial. At full-throttle it upshifts around 4,500 rpm (well ahead of the 6,250-rpm horsepower peak) from first to second. Not only does the shift come too soon, it has all the passion of Al Gore on Valium. Even more amazing is how Mazda managed to create an automatic that lumbers from first to second gear, yet bangs when going from second to third. Company officials suggested that transmission tweaks are likely before the final production models come to market, but no amount of tweaking is going to fix the van's inherent lack of power or refinement with regard to its drivetrain.
It's especially unfortunate that Mazda missed with the drivetrain because the MPV's steering, suspension, visibility and seat comfort are right on the money. Feedback through the steering wheel is better than in either the Windstar or Odyssey, putting the MPV on par with Chrysler's minivans in terms of class-leading road feel. Suspension calibration is also a pleasant mix of control and comfort, though true luxury fanatics might find it a bit harsh. With the comfortable and highly adjustable (though non-powered) driver's seat, plus a high seating position and wide windshield, the MPV is a pleasure to drive...as long as you aren't looking for rapid acceleration.
Sized larger than Mazda's 626 and smaller than its Millenia, the MPV sits on an all-new "triple H" structure that offers protection from front, rear and side impacts. This design creates a more rigid body than the previous model while also weighing less and transmitting reduced noise, vibration and harshness. Dual de-powered airbags are standard with side-impact airbags optional for front-seat passengers.
Mazda scores additional points for the overall interior design and layout. Big buttons on the radio and logical, clearly labeled dials in the climate-control center make for easy interior adjustments. There's also a unique "side-by-slide" design to the second-row seating that allows for fore and aft as well as sideways adjustments while remaining seated. This means you can go from captain's chairs to bench seating without stopping to reconfigure the seats (not possible in the Honda Odyssey). These seats can also be quickly removed and weigh only 37 pounds (compared to the Odyssey's captain's chairs that weigh almost 50 pounds). A lack of wind or road noise and a rattle-free interior give the MPV all-day livability with little or no fatigue.
Although layout and design is not an issue, total interior space might be for some customers. The MPV is not as large, inside or out, as an Odyssey, Windstar or big Chrysler minivan. This is because Mazda wants to sell the same basic vehicle in Asia, Europe and America. The result? A body size that has to fit on Japan's narrow roads while still satisfying America's somewhat large cargo needs. Mazda calls it "smart-sized" and refers to the interior design as "OptiSpace." We have to give Mazda credit for accomplishing both goals as well as it did. Seating in the second and third row is tight, but not cramped or uncomfortable for a full-sized adult male. Total interior volume is 151.8 cubic feet and they managed to get 17.2 cubic feet of storage from behind the third-row seat. This is in comparison to 19 feet for the larger Grand Caravan and 13 feet for the similarly sized Caravan. If you want to judge a minivan solely on how efficiently it utilizes its available interior space, the MPV scores high.
While the new MPV appears ready to take on the future, we wonder if Mazda gave up too much of its past. The van now uses a front-wheel-drive platform, just like everything else on the market, and plans for a four-wheel-drive version are doubtful, at least for now. That means no more "All-Sport" edition for buyers who liked the idea of going off-road in their MPVs.
The base DX model does include such niceties as the removable second-row seats and tumble-under third-row seat, plus an AM/FM/CD player and air conditioning. The midlevel LX gets standard ABS, body-color bumpers and door handles, dual heated remote mirrors, privacy glass for rear passengers, power windows and an adjustable driver's seat height and cushion angle. Pop for the top-line ES trim and you also get 16-inch alloy wheels, the aforementioned side airbags, leather upholstery, remote keyless entry, rear air conditioning, and that sweet-sounding nine-speaker stereo system. If you truly want to dress up your MPV, the optional GFX Package comes with front fog lights, front spoiler, side sill extensions and a rear under-spoiler. It's no "All Sport" replacement in terms of off-road capability, but it does add to the MPV's "minivan with attitude" personality that will be the cornerstone of Mazda's marketing effort. If all goes well, the company hopes to sell 18,000 MPVs by the end of 1999 and 35-40,000 during model-year 2000.
When going up against the likes of Ford, Chrysler and Honda, it takes a pretty stellar product just to compete, let alone win. The MPV is an excellent effort that would have been a benchmark minivan just 18 months ago. Now, however, with Ford and Honda getting serious about the minivan market, Mazda seems to have been slightly outgunned. At $19,995 for a base model DX and $25,550 for the top-of-the-line ES model, Mazda can still play the value card. If the engine had more power and less vibration, it would even be a trump card.
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