Ann Arbor - Automobile Magazine's Four Seasons Mazda MPV arrived in the waning days of our year with the beloved Honda Odyssey. As the four-and-a-half-star Odyssey departed 120 East Liberty Street in a shower of rose petals, our gaze turned to the new guy--smaller, less powerful, and wearing a particularly cocky coat of red paint.Early comments in the MPV's logbook read like a surly stepchild's assessment of Dad's new wife. But the minivan from Hiroshima worked hard to endear itself and quickly earned the affection of most on the Automobile Magazine staff. In truth, however, despite the inevitable comparisons, the MPV and the Odyssey really are courting different buyers. The Mazda butts heads with mini-minivans such as the Nissan Quest and the Toyota Sienna, while the Honda is hunting bigger game--Ford Windstars and Dodge Grand Caravans.
Smaller does have its virtues. Unlike the maxi-minis, the MPV encourages more spirited driving, with nimbleness and road feel that belie its 3677 pounds and high center of gravity. In fact, no one here bemoaned the Mazda's tidy dimensions during its twelve months, suggesting perhaps that the Odyssey and its ilk are more van than most people really need.
One aspect of the MPV that provoked some grousing, however, was the drivetrain. Parent company Ford's DOHC 2.5-liter V-6, which is also available in the Mercury Cougar, produced an acceptable-on-paper 170 horsepower and 165 pound-feet of torque. Trouble is, the MPV is a good deal more portly than the Cougar, and that's before you add a full complement of people and their paraphernalia. Under heavy throttle, the frantic four-speed automatic bounces up and down the gears, rallying every last pound-foot of torque. The effort gets tiring.
Executive editor Mark "Redline" Gillies chided complaining staffers early on. "It's not that the engine has no power," said he, "it's just that you have to rev the bollocks off it to find the power." Maybe so, but conventional wisdom tells us that the MPV's target buyer is unlikely to rev the bollocks off his or her minivan on a daily basis. Suffice it to say that our MPV had all the around-town moxie of the Staten Island Ferry. (For model year 2001, Mazda actually has detuned the engine to 160 horsepower in an effort to give the MPV National Low Emissions Vehicle status; a more powerful, 3.0-liter V-6 is due in 2002.)
Once at highway speeds, we found the 2.5-liter engine to be a model of decorum. Having traversed the contiguous forty-eight on more than one occasion, our MPV proved itself a grade A people mover. Comfy seats and a near-ideal driving position, combined with sedanlike directional stability, gave the Mazda a glutton's appetite for highway miles, although some staffers were put off by surprisingly high levels of wind and road noise. Our top-trim ES model's leather upholstery and rear air conditioner went a long way toward brightening even the bleakest stretches of Interstate.
Most of us were charmed by the packaging of the MPV's spacious, elegant interior, which was guided by what Mazda calls the OptiSpace design philosophy. Further keeping Mazda's trademark lawyers in clover, the MPV sports Side-by-Slide second-row seats, which go from separate captain's chairs to a single bench seat with one quick shove, and a Tumble-Under third-row bench seat, which does a tuck-and-roll maneuver not unlike that of Honda's similarly trademarked Magic Seat. We were also amused by the MPV's surfeit of storage compartments and cup holders (ten each) and by the unique roll-down windows in the dual sliding rear doors; only one among us lamented the loss of the original MPV's front-hinged rear doors.
We would be remiss not to mention our van's rear-seat entertainment system at this point, a $1595 option that includes a videocassette player, a headliner-mounted flip-down liquid-crystal display, and a wee-bitty remote control. To say that the setup--which prompted pages of unprintable comments in the logbook--seemed like an afterthought is to do a disservice to the term afterthought, which at least implies that some thinking took place. To wit: Despite the MPV's easily removable Side-by-Slide chairs and disappearing Tumble-Under bench, Mazda saw fit to screw down the video player--roughly the size of a toaster oven--right in the center of the floor, thereby not only putting the unit at risk for damage but also compromising what might have been a really useful flat load surface. Better have Sears deliver that washer and dryer after all.
In its defense, the entertainment system handily pacified passengers who otherwise might have spent the duration of a long voyage whining and kicking the back of the driver's seat. Shove a tape into the player, be it Barney or Braveheart, and drive in peace. And, to be fair, Mazda states that the videocassette player is merely thumb-screwed to the floor and, therefore, conceivably removable. Duly noted, but there are better options nonetheless; a similar system, available in the Oldsmobile Silhouette, the Pontiac Montana, and the Chevrolet Venture, positions the player in the lower portion of the instrument panel, where it's out of danger, out of the way, and out of sight. A premium product like the MPV deserves that kind of solution.
Our MPV certainly was premium-priced. In fact, at $28,675, it was a significant $2300 pricier than our Four Seasons Odyssey EX. Liberal optioning played a role--not the first time that's happened around here. The inclusion of the rear-seat entertainment system, a 180-watt premium audio system with six-disc in-dash CD changer, foglamps, and a roof rack added a hefty $2645 to the bottom line. Still, the 2001 MPV DX starts at a reasonable $21,155, including the destination charge; the '01 Odyssey won't move for less than $24,340.
Our MPV was twice the victim of what looked like execution-style shootings--grisly underhood scenes of splashed and oozing engine oil. Fortunately, both times the situation looked a lot more grave than it actually was. On the first occasion, it turned out that the oil filter had been tightened inadequately during a routine service at the dealership. The result, a mile down the road, was a big mess and a tow back to the dealership. The service technician, apparently less than giddy to see our whacked MPV pushed back into his bay, this time overtightened the oil filter, cracking its housing. The result, once again, was a big mess and a tow back to the dealership--a different dealership.
The MPV's remotely operated fuel door gave us some trouble, too. First, it became stubborn about opening, requiring a simultaneous tug on the remote-release lever and on the flap itself. Picture a single person attempting the feat, and you'll understand the venomous comments in the logbook. The reason for the flap failure was that the rubber grommets that spring the fuel door open when a plunger is unplunged via the remote release had fallen out. Simple enough.
Well, said rubber grommets had to be special-ordered by our Mazda dealership's crack service department. By the time they arrived and were installed, a nameless staffer with perhaps one cup of coffee too many in him had already employed violent measures to get the fuel flap open, breaking the aforementioned plunger. Now (sigh) the flap wouldn't stay closed. The service department then ordered a new plunger mechanism, installed it (a shockingly elaborate process that necessitated the removal of the minivan's entire rear quarter-panel), and finally put an end to the fuel flap saga, some four months after it had begun.
And that was it. Over twelve months and 33,445 hard-run miles, our fire-engine-red MPV remained admirably reliable. Fuel consumption was an acceptable 19 mpg overall--slightly under par for this class but likely attributable to the Auto-mobile Magazine staff's congenitally heavy right feet.
Although perhaps not the seven-passenger Miata that Mazda's "Zoom-Zoom" advertising campaign would have you believe it is, the MPV does offer a spry compromise between a sporty wagon and a long-wheelbase minivan. It's spacious enough for most tasks yet trim enough to thread through traffic. The Ford Motor Company has shown unexpected skill at preserving the identity of its brands; this is certainly true in Mazda's case. Foibles and all, the MPV is every inch a Mazda-- full of character, easy to own, and engaging to drive.