Keeping the mini in minivan.
The Mazda MPV doesn't quite measure up to its competitors, but for some buyers, this is a good thing. It's significantly shorter and narrower than the ruling elite among minivans, namely, the Honda Odyssey, the Chrysler Town & Country, and the Toyota Sienna. But it also weighs less, and it still seats as many as seven people, carries up to 127 cubic feet of cargo, and tows as much as 3000 pounds. Nimble handling and peppy acceleration reward the driver. Meanwhile, the MPV is easy to park on the street and slides into the garage without fuss.
Mazda introduced the MPV way back in 1988, becoming one of the first Japanese automakers to compete in the minivan category. The current generation MPV made its debut as a 2000 model; among its notable achievements was the offering of sliding side doors with retractable windows. Today's aluminum-alloy, 3.0-liter DOHC V-6 was slipped under the hood in 2002. This engine produces 200 hp at 6200 rpm and 200 lb-feet of torque at 3000 rpm. Other minivans may have more powerful engines, but their tonnage is far greater than the MPV's modest 3772 pounds. The MPV achieves an EPA fuel economy rating of 18/25 mpg.
Completing the MPV's refined powertrain is a five-speed automatic transmission with electronically controlled overdrive. (A button integrated into the end of the shift lever lets the driver change to fourth gear for better performance in highway passing maneuvers.) Mazda's "Slope Control" keeps the transmission in the choicest ratio during runs through the mountains. Four-wheel disc brakes with antilock are standard. The front-wheel-drive chassis was subject to a faint amount of torque steer when we hurried away from a dead stop while keeping the steering wheel turned. With an independent coil-over-strut front suspension and a torsion beam with coil springs at the rear-and stabilizer bars at both ends-the MPV can be driven quite briskly with confidence. Progressive understeer characterizes the handling, and even the deepest Michigan frost heaves couldn't throw the minivan off course or discommode the occupants.
In 2004, the MPV received styling changes that make it one of the better-looking minivans. The front end's mesh-type grille establishes a clear link to those performance-oriented cars from Mazda's showroom. Sculpted headlights and taillights are also attractive, and good-looking alloy wheels complete the statement. However, while these elements suggest sportiness, the MPV's boxy shape and relatively narrow stance say otherwise. Imagine, for the sake of comparison, a gentleman who's slipped into a dashing waistcoast but squeezes into too-tight knickers and then accessorizes with a ploughman's cap.
Despite the MPV's relatively dainty external dimensions, there remains plenty of space inside. The first thing we noticed was an enormous shelf, which is in fact the upper dashboard. It's reminiscent of General Motors's notorious "Dustbuster" minivans of the late-1980s. (This substantial acreage could be put to good use as greenhouse space for sprouting flats of seeds!) Once we quit marveling at this aspect of the interior's design, we found the ambience to be generally all right, if a little gray. We tested the nicely tailored LX model, which met our expectations for high-quality fit and finish and was rattle-free. The fabrics were plush enough, and plastic surfaces managed not to be too egregious. Cupholders are plentiful (although some competitors have more), and the center stack offers a nice assortment of cubbies and bins for such items as wallet, cell phone, and CDs. An overhead console provides storage for sunglasses and the garage opener. Some minivans now offer twin glove boxes, but the MPV makes do with one (and that's always been enough for us).
Ergonomically, the MPV is handicapped by one big flaw: the steering-column-mounted gear selector that extends to a point where it interferes with controls for the radio and the climate system. Otherwise, the layout makes perfect sense, and all of the buttons, readouts, and gauges are first-rate. Seat cushions are a little on the skinny side, but the overall comfort level is quite high, with good legroom in the second row, where the captain's chairs slide fore and aft. Unfortunately, the seatbacks lack the molded plastic hooks that are perfect keepers for plastic grocery bags. Mazda's "Side-by-Slide" feature allows these second-row chairs to easily join together, creating a second-row bench. Both second-row chairs lift out when the MPV is called upon for cargo or limousine duties. By pulling on its release straps, the third row bench seat easily folds and drops backward into the cargo well for a flat load surface, but it doesn't split 60/40, as many of the competitors' seats do. The cargo area is outfitted with a 12-volt power plug. Although electrically operated sliding side doors are available, a power liftgate is not yet found in the MPV's portfolio.
As a new feature for 2005, the retractable ignition key jackknifes into its fob for more convenient storage. As before, the model range starts with the LX-SV, priced at $22,665 (including destination). Rear air-conditioning is a stand-alone option for the base model. We rate the mid-level LX as a good value at $23,500, especially because it has the excellent powertrain, with traction control and front-seat side air bags available as options. And it's impressively well-built. Unfortunately, the MPV lacks available head curtain air bags and stability control, two safety features we look for first.
The All-Sport package adds larger, seventeen-inch wheels and tires, a power driver's seat, a nine-speaker sound system with six-disc changer, and the automatically dimming rear-view mirror that includes a directional and ambient temperature displays. These features are included in the ES, which rings in at $29,065. That price bumps up to $32,000 when the box is checked for such options as a sunroof, rear DVD system, Sirius satellite radio, and Mazda's 4-Seasons and Towing Package.
The story of the MPV really is what it hasn't. Size, feature content, and price are all slightly less than the leading competition's. But the MPV asserts its own sporty personality. (It is even equipped with a handbrake, which is unusual for this category.) Meanwhile the basic performance is quite satisfying; we'd say the LX, in particular, aptly fills the bill for certain buyers-those who say, "Enough, already!"