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.