The Mazda MPV

Review Notes: Mazda MPV
Personality Agile sedan with seats for seven people
Quirks A minivan with a handbrake?
Unusual features Low floor; deep cargo area
Above Average: Handling, ease of entry and tying in infants, cargo area
Needs Work In: Rubbery automatic transmission
Gas Mileage: 18 city, 25 highway (EPA)
Scrape test Passed easily

It seems that to succeed in America, minivans have to imitate the original - the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth, now Chrysler, Voyager. The Honda Odyssey, Ford Windstar, and Chevrolet Venture have all boosted their sales by copying the Caravan/Voyager as directly as possible. Mazda, though, has gone out on its own, with some unique features along with the de rigeur minivan options.

First, the minivan checklist: DVD entertainment system, dual power sliding doors, rear hatch, movable and removable seats, stalk-operated automatic, compass and thermometer. Check, all there. The DVD system, with its roof-mounted screen, wireless headphones, and remote control runs $1,200, and the power sliding doors are $800, but they are all present and accounted for.

Now, the differentiators. The MPV is relatively low to the ground, with a floor height similar to the PT Cruiser. This means it's easier to get in and out, and much easier to put kids into child seats. Loading up cargo is also relatively easy.

The MPV has surprisingly good handling, feeling as agile as most good sedans, with the ability to out-handle most General Motors cars. It feels fine whipping around turns faster than a loaded minivan should. This is a fun daily driver for those who are used to sports cars but who need to haul around the kids in comfort on weekends and evenings. That may explain the unusual handbrake - which seems out of place when the shifter is on the column.

The Mazda MPV also has a five-speed automatic transmission, hooked up to a class-leading 200 horsepower V6. That sounds great on paper, but in reality the drivetrain is hampered by the sponginess of the automatic. We'd rather have a decisive four-speed than a five-speed which feels as though a giant rubber band is being stretched when you hit the gas - our colorful way of saying that our test vehicle had a rather long delay before downshifting. The engine itself is very strong but needs to rev high for power, which makes sprints easy but means it is not especially responsive on the highway. When in the appropriate gear and rpm range, the engine is zoomy indeed.

Visibility is excellent, with almost no obstructions except when the roof-mounted DVD player is in use. The huge front window is cleared by two massive wipers operating in Chrysler-style out-from-the-middle fashion. The washer spread quickly clears salt and dirt from the windshield, while powerful defrosters clear the front and front side windows. (Our model had an optional four seasons package which includes upgraded wipers and defrosters.)

The interior is nicely designed, simple and easy to live with. Though there is no covered center console - only a swingaway shelf with a change tray - there are pull0ut trays and bins in the center stack which serve the same purpose, and seem to be designed with daily use in mind. Front cupholders are in the center stack, middle-row in the doors and in pull-out racks in the sides of the seats, back-row molded into the side of the van. Both front doors, but not the sliding doors, have map pockets; the rear row has small compartments. An overhead console controls interior lighting and the large moonroof, with its conveniently separate tilt and slide controls.

The instrument panel is friendly and informative, with a large tach, gas gauge, and temperature gauge. A button on the gearshift shuts off overdrive, and there are 3rd and 2nd gear positions; it seems impossible to lock into first gear. A separate stalk controls the cruise, while large radio control paddles on the steering wheel make up for the fact that the gearshift gets in the way of the radio's volume control. The climate control is clear and sensible, and includes a rear fan control. The air conditioner light comes on when you have the system in defrost, to remind you that the compressor is working to dry the air.

The sliding doors are a nice feature, admittedly a bit pricey. While the doors have an automatic stop to avoid crushing people, they seem to require much more force to be stopped than the Dodge/Chrysler doors. In addition, unlike the Dodge/Chrysler versions, you cannot override the power assist simply by opening or closing the doors manually. If you try, the motor will take over anyway. There is also no power rear hatch, but that's a bit of an extravagance anyway.

The obligatory moving seats have an interesting twist. While the middle seats do not slide forward or backward, leaving the occupants with limited legroom, they do slide sideways, so that you can move a seat in to allow easier access to the rearmost row. The rearmost row, in turn, folds down into the cargo area for a large, flat surface. Both front and middle rows are "captain's chairs," with foldaway armrests on both sides (middle row) or in the middle (front row). The rearmost row has its own climate controls; the middle row is at the mercy of the front and rear, and is a bit close to the DVD screen (which is conveniently mounted in the ceiling.) There is no way to open up the rear hatch from the inside. The rear windows open a little, but with manual controls - you have to be there to do it.

The stereo is surprisingly good, with nine well-tuned speakers and controls for midrange as well as bass and treble. Our model had a 6-disc CD changer, but at $450 we'd advise people to settle for the single disc model. On the subject of options, we have to say the $200 spoiler and $345 appearance package (spoilers and side sills) are probably over the top, but the four seasons package, at $425, is worth it. That includes a heavy duty battery, larger radiator, oil cooler, heavy duty wiper and defroster, power dual heated mirrors, and, for some reason, a 3,000 pound towing capacity. The security package, at $730, provides the compass and thermometer in the autodimming mirror, along with fog lights and a security system. $700 buys a moonroof, at the cost of an overhead console. You can decide which is more important; we will note that the moonroof cover includes vents, so you can leave it open a little to vent hot air in summer without letting the sun in.

Standard features include front side airbags, an eight-way power driver's seat, leather, traction control, power windows, locks, and mirrors, cruise, map lights, rear wiper/washer, four-wheel ABS, and other items which once were found mainly on luxury cars. Also included is a class-leading four year, 50,000 mile full warranty with a loaner car program and roadside assistance. The base price is $26,090, which is competitive with similarly featured vans from other automakers; nicely loaded, our test vehicle was $31,450. Minivans range from around $18,000 to around $35,000, with similarly sized SUVs reaching up past $50,000. We found the MPV more likeable and more comfortable than the Lincoln Navigator or Cadillac Escalade, at about two-thirds the price, and with much better gas mileage. The best alternatives in this price range, with this space, are the Chrysler Voyager/Dodge Caravan and redesigned (2004+) Toyota Sienna.

The Mazda MPV is an unusual minivan. If you find most vans to be too hulking and big for your taste, or if you simply want to keep great handling while being able to move kids or cargo around, we urge you to give it a try. It's an excellent alternative to the plethora of SUVs running around, as well - with gas mileage that won't destroy the resale price if oil supplies tighten up.