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FIRST DRIVE

Minivan with guts

'The soul of a sports car' promised by the TV ads may be an exaggeration, but Mazda's MPV indeed is a solid little machine.

June 04, 2003|Jim Mateja | Chicago Tribune

When it comes to describing the MPV, Mazda spares no hyperbole in boasting that it "has the body of a minivan, the soul of a sports car."

Sure, and after dropping the rugrats off at the field, soccer moms bond by spending the day auto-crossing in their MPVs.

Although it's a bit of an exaggeration to say the MPV has been blessed with the soul of a sports car, I must acknowledge that it isn't your ho-hum minivan.

I tested the 2003 Mazda MPV ES. The thing has some guts, thanks to replacement of the old 2.5-liter, 170-horsepower V-6 with a 3.0-liter, 200-horsepower V-6 from Ford Motor Co., which owns 33% of the Japanese automaker.

Kick the pedal, and the V-6 responds with energy. No hesitation, no dawdling at the light. And it's quiet. Minivan cabins often serve as tunnels that allow noise to filter fore and aft. The MPV isn't a victim of that racket. You don't spend your travel time with the folks in back asking the folks in front, "What did you say?"

In addition to lively performance, the V-6 delivers 18 miles per gallon in the city and 25 mpg on the highway.

Unlike with most minivans, the MPV's suspension has been engineered to resist body roll in cornering and to lean during sharp turns, like those sport coupes with soul. A solid little machine.

A switch from 15-inch to 16-inch all-season radial tires as standard on the base LX and from 16 to 17 inches on the top-of-the-line ES has had the desired effect of delivering car-like handling in a tall, slab-sided family hauler.

But despite its quickness, quiet and above-average road manners, the MPV is a van, so attention must be paid to getting the family and its junk into and out of it.

The MPV does that well, offering seating for seven (two, two, three) and two ways to reach the third-row seat, thanks to what Mazda calls its side-by-slide seating system in the second row, which has two bucket seats.

You can slide the passenger-side bucket against the driver-side bucket to form a single bench seat that allows access to the third row via an aisle on the passenger side. Or you can slide the passenger-side bucket toward the door to create an aisle between the two bucket seats to get to the third row. However, the second-row bucket seats come with armrests that, when down, hinder passage to that third row.

Once you reach the third row, you're treated to surprisingly ample head, leg and arm room. The MPV's third row will carry adults and isn't limited, like that of many rival minivans, to holding small kids.

If you don't need the seat for people but could use more cargo space, the third-row bench folds flat into the floor. And you thought only the Honda Odyssey's third seat did that.

One other benefit for third-row occupants for '03: You can opt for a $1,200 DVD entertainment system with a 7-inch-wide fold-down screen. You also get headphones so the kids won't disturb their parents upfront.

The MPV offers manual slide-open doors on the driver and passenger sides, but for $800 you can relax and push the button on the key fob and enjoy power slide-open doors on each side. That's a new option on the LX.

Another nice feature of the ES is a flip-up table top between the driver and passenger seats with cup and coin holders.

One gripe is that there's no all-wheel-drive model for all-season security. The front-wheel-drive MPV does offer anti-lock brakes as standard and traction control as a $400 option on the LX or ES. But to get the $400 traction control in the LX, you also must buy rear-seat air conditioning at $595. What air conditioning has to do with traction control is unclear, other than it puts $595 in the till that might not have got there without it.

The ES has a base price of $26,090. Standard equipment includes power windows, door locks and mirrors; cruise control; remote key-less entry; carpeted mats; rear-window wiper-washer and tinted glass.

The test vehicle I drove came with the DVD system plus a dash-mounted six-disc CD player at $450; power moon roof at $700; four-seasons package with rear heater, heavy-duty battery, power heated mirrors and larger windshield washer tank and radiator at $425; alarm, fog lamps and auto-dimming mirror with temperature and compass readings at $730; and front and rear spoilers and side door sill extensions at $345.

Oddly, Mazda insists that one reason for the MPV's success has been its size and the fact it is offered in one version, not regular and extended length. "The MPV is smaller than either a Toyota Sienna or the most popular version of the Dodge, the Grand Caravan," said Mazda spokesman Jeremy Barnes.

The MPV is built on a 111.8-inch wheelbase and is 187.8 inches long overall. By comparison, the Sienna is built on a 114.2-inch wheelbase and is 194.1 inches long, and the Grand Caravan is built on a 119.3-inch wheelbase and is 200.5 inches long.

In the end, the MPV offers ample room in an economy-size package that's not only easy to maneuver but, in the ES, a pleasure to maneuver.

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