When Mazda’s second-generation MPV appeared as a ‘99 model, it was both appreciably better than its predecessor and disappointingly conventional. The original MPV (‘89 to ’98) was a bull-nosed eccentric; powered by a longitudinally-mounted 3.0-liter V-6 in front, powering either the rear wheels or all the wheels with a big solid axle in the back, it had regular swinging rear doors on regular hinges with windows that rolled down. It was out of the mainstream, built like a bridge girder, and oddly compelling – things its successor is not.
The current MPV seemed so ordinary then, and is still pretty ordinary now. The styling is generic, the V-6 is planted transversely to drive the front wheels and the rear side doors slide. There are some saving graces such as the Odyssey-like third-row bench seat that tumbles into its own well and disappears to produce a flat floor, the side windows still roll down, it’s a smaller package than other, increasingly un-mini, minivans and it’s the only minivan sold here that’s assembled in Japan. But there were some frustrations as well; and in ’99 that was most particularly the weak 160-horsepower output of the 2.5-liter V-6 – an engine so Pokey it could be made of clay and ridden by Gumby – and the lack of power operation for the side doors.
Entering its fourth year of production, Mazda has tweaked the Gen II MPV to ameliorate some of the frustrations with a new 200-horsepower engine, five-speed automatic transmission, optional electric motors hooked to the side doors and a few other modifications. It’s a better van, but it still lacks eccentricity.
“Quirky” is probably a pretty crummy marketing plan anyhow.
Taurus heart, Jag tranny
As Mazda becomes ever more enmeshed in Ford’s engineering web, it’s hardly a surprise to find that the “new” engine in the 2002 MPV is in fact a familiar Ford component. Produced in the United States by Ford, the MPV’s 3.0-liter, DOHC, 24-valve V-6 is, with a slightly modified intake, the same Duratec engine used in the Ford Escape and Mazda Tribute small SUVs and first seen in the engine bay of the Taurus. The Duratec is now the workhorse of Ford’s fleet, with various versions showing up not only in those previously mentioned vehicles but in the Lincoln LS, Europe’s Ford Mondeo and the Jaguar X- and S-Types. Doubled, it’s even the engine upon which the V-12 in the Aston Martin Vanquish is based.
The MPV’s Duratec (though Mazda doesn’t call it a Duratec) is rated at 200 horsepower at 6200 rpm and 200 lb-ft of peak torque at 3000 rpm. That’s the same horsepower number Mazda claims for V-6 in the Tribute, but 200 rpm higher in the rev range, and the same peak torque number, but a full 1750 rpm earlier. Mazda further claims that fully 90 percent of the maximum torque is available from 1800 rpm through 5500 rpm, thanks to technologies like a connecting passage between the two halves of the intake manifold over each bank of cylinders that can be open or closed to vary plenum volume, and despite the absence of any sort of variable valve-timing scheme.
Compared to the 240 horsepower the Honda Odyssey’s 3.5-liter V-6 produces, the MPV’s 200-horsepower output looks modest. However Mazda points out that their van is carrying significantly less bulk than behemoth Honda. In fact, a base MPV LX weighs in at 3794 pounds while a base Odyssey LX punishes the planet with 4299 pounds of bulk. Do a little math and it turns out that each of the Mazda’s 200 ponies is lugging 18.97 pounds, while the 240 aboard the Honda have to haul 17.91 pounds. That’s still a power-to-weight advantage for the Honda, but the Mazda doesn’t have a fuel economy advantage. In fact, the MPV is rated at 18 mpg in the city and 24 mpg on the highway by the EPA, while the Odyssey’s numbers are 18 and 25 respectively – even though both vehicles have five-speed automatic transmissions.
That five-speed automatic is new to Mazda, but again not new to the Ford family of fine cars – it’s the same transmission used in Jag’s smallest sedan, the X-Type. A small switch at the end of the electronically controlled transmission selector lever allows the driver to keep the transmission from selecting the overdrive fifth gear, but fourth is a very shallow overdrive itself (0.935:1).
Fun-sized or just too small?
In the minivan class right now, the Odyssey is the standard setter and when it comes to the size of the shadows they cast, the MPV looks pretty puny. The external dimensions of the MPV LX (187.6 inches long, 72.1 inches wide and 68.7 inches tall) would make a box about 89 percent the size of an Odyssey box (201.2 inches long, 75.6 inches wide and 68.5 inches tall). For those of us with crammed garages, the idea of a slightly smaller minivan has some inherent advantages. The problem is whether we can make do with a slightly smaller interior.
The Odyssey has about a three-inch advantage in second- and third-row seating leg room over the MPV and a smaller advantage in shoulder and hip room throughout the van. But the big edge the Odyssey’s size gives it is in cargo volume with the third row seat up and total cargo volume with all the rearward seats stowed or removed. Honda claims the Odyssey can haul 38.1 cubic feet of stuff back there, while in comparison Mazda claims less than half that, just 17.2-cubic feet, for the MPV. That’s a serious difference if you have three kids, a lot of toys and a lot of groceries to haul. In dedicated-to-cargo configuration, the difference isn’t so profound but still significant; the Odyssey can haul 146.1 cubic feet, the MPV 127.0.
Is the convenience of the MPV’s more compact package a net positive? Do more people crave the nimble size than cringe at the reduced interior volume? Mazda probably knows the answer to that question. And that answer will become manifest in the third-generation MPV whenever it appears.
Zoom zoom instead of room room
Now that it’s firmly within Ford, Mazda doesn’t need to play the all-things-to-all-buyers game. Let Honda and Toyota try and make everyone happy, Mazda can now be the “soul of a sports car” company. Considering the enormous success of such enthusiast-oriented Mazdas as the Protégé5, MP3 and, of course, the always wonderful Miata, the MPV should be the fun-to-drive minivan.
With a crisply styled interior and comfortable driving position, the MPV has the driver prepared for a solid driving experience. The up-market ES steering wheel, with perforated leather covering its bottom two-thirds, is particularly attractive and satisfying to the touch. The dark phony wood trim around the ES dash is attractive, all the controls easy to find and use, the plastic is well-grained and high-quality and there are enough cupholders strewn about to hold a municipal reservoir full of Mountain Dew. The rear-control air conditioning is not only convenient, it’s actually effective at cooling the rear. And even if the A/C didn’t work back there, the rear windows still roll down (even on the ES models with their power-operated doors).
The MPV proves to drive pretty much like a, well, minivan. It’s too much to expect Miata-like responsiveness from a family hauler, but there’s little of the “zoom-zoom” Mazda promises in the MPV’s manners. The 3.0-liter engine pulls well enough, but it can be thrashy at its top end. It’s a huge improvement over the old 2.5-liter V-6, but now the MPV is just adequately powered as opposed to underpowered. The 17-inch wheels and P215/60R17 all-season radials of the ES seem to offer a bit quicker reflexes than other minivans, but only modest gains in absolute roadholding. The rack-and-pinion steering is the best feeling among minivans, but only marginally so. The MacPherson strut front and torsion beam rear suspension is tuned as more for comfort and cargo hauling as cornering but it doesn’t feel deeply compromised. The structure is impressively stiff and that helps keep everything both quiet and composed.
Maybe a fun minivan is an impossibility. But one gets the feeling that this MPV is caught between the realities of the old Mazda and the promise of the emerging enthusiast-oriented Mazda.
As a stopgap, the 2002 MPV is a solid update. The revised grille and new wheels make it look more sporting, the new engine and transmission are a real improvement and it retains the goodness of the basic (and smaller) design. With the full resources and parts bin of Ford at its disposal, Mazda’s products are among the most rapidly improving in the industry. Mazda can afford to be eccentric again and maybe the next MPV will be.
Mazda MPV ES
Base price: $27,192
Engine: 3.0-liter V-6, 200 hp
Drivetrain: Five-speed manual transmission, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 187.8 x 72.1 x 69.1 in
Wheelbase: 111.8 in
Curb weight: 3812 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 18/24 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front and side impact airbags, four-wheel anti-lock brakes
Major standard equipment: Power windows, cruise control, keyless entry, dual power sliding doors
Warranty: Three years/50,000 miles