A classic blend of comfort, convenience and muscle
Not everyone rushes to buy the latest and greatest gadget on the market, whether it`s a portable phone, a videocamera or a minivan. As a matter of fact, there are some people who see considerable virtue in choosing a product that`s been around for a while, figuring that the manufacturer has, at some point, ironed out most of the bugs. A case in point is the Mazda MPV.
There are plenty of minivans to choose from, more than were available when Mazda introduced its people mover a few seasons back. Today, the MPV faces the likes of the Nissan Quest/
Mercury Villager twins as well as powerhouses such as the Chrysler minis, Ford Wind-star and several General Motors vans. All are formidable competitors, yet the MPV still has strong appeal, as it has since introduction day.
The MPV`s primary attraction may be that it is a genuinely pleasant van to drive, an easy move upward from a compact sedan. Another plus for many buyers is its traditional rear-wheel-drive powertrain that allows the MPV to pull heavier trailers than front-wheel-drive vans can manage. In fact, a trailer-tow package - which includes automatic load-leveling and cooling system upgrades - gives the MPV the wherewithal to tow a 4500-lb. load.
It is safe to say the MPV has matured over the years. Some past features have been dropped - most notably the 4-cylinder engine that powered base MPVs until this year - and the model lineup has been reshuffled a bit, but the MPV is as good as ever. In many respects, it`s even better.
Few people will ever choose the MPV because it has cutting-edge styling. Frankly, it doesn`t. When parked among newer aero-look vans, the MPV seems a little pudgy and old-fashioned. But it does have clean, efficient lines that have aged well. Details - such as the subtly flared fenders - keep the MPV from looking bland.
The top-of-the-line LXE`s two-tone Bordeaux/Silver paint scheme, as on our test van, provides a touch of elegance.
It is more likely that buyers will be attracted to the generous interior access afforded by the three large doors and the tailgate. Mazda defied conventional van-building wisdom when it gave the MPV a normal hinged third (right side) door instead of the more common slide-back panel.
Some owners see this as a safety feature, and others appreciate its ease of operation and the wider opening it allows. The full-width tailgate is convenient for loading bulky items, though the high liftover is a bit of a nuisance if the items are heavy.
Another plus for the MPV is its relatively small size. It`s more than a foot shorter than the Nissan Quest, and nearly 2 ft. shorter than the GM minivans. For close-quarter maneuvering, every inch counts, and that makes the MPV a winner in at least one area.
With the demise of the puny base engine, all MPVs are now powered by a 155-hp V6, which drives the rear wheels through a 4-speed automatic transmission. The only powertrain option available is a shift-on-the-fly 4-wheel-drive system with a lockable center differential.
Few external features differentiate the three MPV trim levels. Only a body-color grille and rear license plate border set the LX apart from the base L, and the aforementioned two-tone paint scheme and alloy wheels are the only clues that the MPV you`re looking at is the upper-crust LXE. Other differences are only apparent from inside the MPV`s cabin.
When the MPV was introduced, testers praised its carlike interior. That`s still true today, though the design is now essentially seven years old.
As such, visitors to the MPV are greeted by a blocky dashboard that carries instruments and major controls in a pod perched on top, old-fashioned door panels with separate armrests, and details more functional than elegant. There is no sweeping sculptural design here.
That said, it should be noted that everything works exactly as it should, and the overall appearance is attractive and restrained. All materials and the workmanship are excellent, as in all Mazda vehicles. Depending on the model, seats are upholstered in either handsome velour (L and LX) or leather (LXE).
Mazda has configured the MPV for primary use as a passenger hauler, with cargo duties given lower priority. All MPVs provide space for seven on three comfortable seats. There`s room for two in front, two more in the center and three in back. Access to the rear seat is good.
With all seats in use, the MPV offers a mere 11.1 cu. ft. of storage space. Folding the center and rear seatbacks raises this number to 110 cu. ft. The center seat can also be re-moved completely, and the rear seat can be tilted forward. Other minis offer more cargo room, but are larger on the outside as well.
LX and LXE model MPVs raise the luxury quotient significantly, though some dress-up and convenience items can be applied to the L model through a comprehensive option list. Power assists for windows, mirrors and door locks are standard on upper-level versions.
Air conditioning is optional across the board, with a dual system that cools the rear-seat area available for LX and LXE. Various sound systems, a moonroof and a keyless entry system are also optional.
With the better part of two tons to haul around, the MPV`s V6 engine doesn`t exactly deliver supercar performance. It is adequately responsive, however, and goes about its duties without being rough or noisy. Those are the factors that count in everyday driving.
The transmission is well-matched to the engine, and is easy to operate via a steering column-mounted shift lever.
A button on the shift lever controls the 4WD system when that option is supplied. The system can be engaged on the move - at speeds up to 65 mph - and delivers an extra measure of traction on slippery pavement.
The downside is slightly reduced performance (due to mechanical drag and added weight) and a substantial drop in fuel mileage (down to 15 mpg in the city and 19 mpg on the highway).
For the driver, the MPV experience is a pleasant one. A high seating position and lots of windows ensure good visibility, the power steering (which varies its assist level depending on engine speed) is light but has good road feel and the supple suspension provides a smooth carlike ride.
When driven hard, the MPV signals its discomfort with lots of tire squeal and body roll, but there`s no reason to push it that far. Within its limits, the MPV is a model of comfort and stability.
In addition, 4-wheel disc brakes with rear anti-lock deliver plenty of stopping power.
Though the design may be old, the Mazda MPV draws far more praise than criticism. It`s a solid, well-designed package, beautifully built and full of the kind of thoughtful touches that please testers and owners alike.
If there`s a drawback to MPV ownership, it`s the price of ad-mission. Like most vehicles built in Japan, it has been hit hard by changes in the yen/dollar relationship - so much so that the price of a base MPV has risen by nearly $5000 since the beginning of the 1994 model year. A fully loaded 4WD LXE comes perilously close to breaking the $30,000 barrier.
But it is hard to beat the MPV for carpooling or hauling the family around.
Our best advice is to select a midrange 2WD model and pick an option or two that suit your specific needs. The result will be a $25,000 minivan that should provide plenty of years of satisfactory service.
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