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Nashville Scene Shaken... and Stirred

MPV reborn as Mazda's minivan alternative

By Marc Stengel

AUGUST 23, 1999:  Mazda is so determined to shake up the minivan market with the new-for-2000 MPV that they're pulling out all the stops. How else to explain the little designer earthquake, registering 3.1 Richter, that welcomed journalists to the MPV's media debut at Dana Point, Calif., last week? That kind of attention to detail surely says something about the high-stakes game Mazda is playing. After a year's retreat from the cutthroat minivan wars, Mazda is back with a blank-sheet-of-paper design that is vital to the company's efforts at reinforcing both its sporty image and its profitability.

Moreover, Mazda is placing a shrewdly calculated bet that its clever new MPV can best capture customers by attacking the soft underbelly of the mature minivan category with base prices starting under $20,000. In other words, here is a way to purchase seven-passenger capacity and impressive cargo space at prices far lower than such arch-rivals as Honda Odyssey, Dodge Caravan, Nissan Quest, and Toyota Sienna.

Let it be said early and loud that MPV's gamble is predicated upon a grand illusion. Not a deceitful illusion, mind you, but one of which Mazda's engineers are justifiably proud. By a clever sleight they call the OptiSpace design principle, they have transformed a vehicle that looks almost too small into a multitalented hauler that acts plenty huge. Indeed, within the dimensional "footprint" equal to Mazda's trim 626 midsize sedan, the new MPV can seat seven adults in relative comfort, leaving over 17 cubic feet for loot. By comparison, a Dodge Caravan's rear cargo space is about 13 cubic feet--despite a longer wheelbase and greater overall width. Especially nice is the MPV's theater seating, which gradually elevates second- and third-row occupants into clear views out the front windshield. As the MPV's chief marketing boss Jim Sailer would have it, this may be a sociological "first" for the automotive world: "It's a way to get kids looking out the windows," he suggested, "instead of staring at the door panels and becoming dysfunctional."

The MPV's finesse with interior space is even more apparent in the way its cargo capacity can expand, progressively, from 17 cubic feet with all seats in use to nearly 55 cubes with the disappearing rear seat folded flat into the floor. Then, if that's still not enough, the twin captain's chairs in the second row are each light enough to remove with one hand, resulting in up to 127 cavernous cubic feet of boxy, uncluttered space that can swallow three bicycles upright. Those second-row seats are also noteworthy for the way the right one can slide sideways next to the left one, creating a mini-bench seat in the process. Not to be outdone, the rear bench can reverse-fold into a tailgate "bleacher" for watching the kiddies' sporting events under the shade of the open rear hatch.

The Mazda's spatial permutations are truly an inspired example of automotive origami. The one caution to bear in mind is that the empty cargo hold is studded with metal brackets, albeit mounted flush in the floor. In addition, there are two D-shaped metal loops that project from the rear wheel wells for securing the third-row bench. Without a heavy furniture blanket, Murphy's Law virtually guarantees snagging that favorite walnut credenza if you're not paying attention.

Just the same, Mazda has obviously been paying attention both to the competition and to its prospective customer pool. In conscious reaction to the prevailing sneer that even the idea of a minivan elicits among the young and the stressless, Mazda has literally "fashioned" an alternative approach with the new MPV. Gone is the box-on-box design of the tired and retired original MPV, which debuted in '89 as a rear-drive minivan with hinged rear doors. The 2000 model is a front-driver with twin rear-sliding doors and a runway model's jaunty poise. The "five-point" grill, with its matte black louvers and chrome bellybutton of a logo, in fact, managed to remind more than one visiting journalist of Mercedes-Benz's ML320 minivan/SUV hybrid. Particularly with the snappy GFX package of optional spoilers and side skirts, the new MPV successfully wears Mazda's mantle of sporting prowess as exemplified by the Miata roadster and the dear, departed RX-7.

It pays to listen carefully to Mazda's particular definition of "responsive handling and performance," as engineer Ruben Archilla describes it. "This means stability, handling, and braking," he pointed out during the MPV's press debut. And indeed a drive through nearly 200 miles of Southern California's foothills endorsed Mazda's claim. The MPV corners almost sports-car flat, and a nimble rack-and-pinion steering gear combines with the minivan category's lowest curb weight (3,700 lbs.) to yield remarkably deft handling. Brakes, too, are sure-footed and responsive, even though the layout is front disks, rear drums. Much of the braking stability, in fact, derives from the electronic brake force distribution (EBFD) circuitry that accompanies optional ABS. Depending on both load in the MPV and conditions on the road, EBFD and ABS instantaneously proportion appropriate braking pressure at each corner to optimize slowing and stopping power.

It is important to note, however, the absence of any reference to acceleration and engine performance in the MPV's sporting characterization. That's because the 170-horsepower, 2.5-liter twin-cam V6 is more bit player than star performer. This is the same Duratec V6 found in Ford's Contour sedan in the U.S. and Mondeo overseas, and it's an engineering jewel, with a swift-revving twin-cam valve train and decent efficiency at 18 miles-per-gallon/city, 23/highway. But the two tons of loaded MPV is a lot of heft to haul, and in this model the Duratec trots rather than canters. In the foothills, moreover, the auto transmission's programming is fairly febrile in its nervous search for torque, resulting in repeated--but not always expected--downshifts.

It is a measure of Mazda's thorough creativity that the MPV's overall personality of perkiness and fun outpaces its own powertrain. In effect, the MPV succeeds as a sum of many innovative ideas--like its unique roll-down windows in the sliding rear doors, and the outstanding "jukebox" dash design that combines stereo and HVAC in a five-sided pod reminiscent of the grille design. Audiophiles, in particular, will love the optional six-CD in-dash magazine.

Ironically, as the Minivan-Not-For-Me movement continues to dog this category as a whole, Mazda's new MPV represents a timely innovation that should appeal both to jaded carpoolers and to driving enthusiasts. In its bid to shake the minivan category out of its complacency, MPV suddenly reappears on the scene as a stirring alternative.

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