SEE ALSO: Mazda Buyer's Guide
Classification of motor vehicles can be tricky these days. It used to be obvious. Cars used to be cars and trucks were trucks. The twain did not meet. Then came minivans. They looked like small vans - a type of truck - but were mostly based on car platforms, and used for car purposes. Adding to the confusion, utility panel trucks got civilized, mutated into sport-utility vehicles, and began to be used as cars more than as trucks. Then, some cars started copying sport-utility function and styling. Now, there is a minivan that looks and acts like a sport-utility. It is the Mazda MPV All-Sport.
Mazda's entry in the minivan field has always been rather unique. If any minivan is likely to approach SUV status, the MPV is it. Its MPV designation stands for "multipurpose vehicle", and rings true. Unlike most other minivans, the MPV is basically a rear-wheel drive vehicle. Four-wheel drive versions have been available nearly since the MPV's introduction, so it has always been closer to sport-utility status than other minivans. It is Japanese in origin, so a left-hand passenger door was not a major structural change. Right-hand drive home-market models have had four hinged doors for a while. With 4-wheel drive and 4 doors, all Mazda had to do was add SUV styling cues and, voila! The first sport-utility minivan. The MPV All-Sport was introduced as a package option during the 1996 model year. This year, all 4-wheel drive and upscale 2-wheel drive MPVs get the All-Sport treatment as standard equipment.
During the time I spent with a 4-wheel drive All-Sport ES, I found it to be a comfortable, quiet, and useful vehicle. Multipurpose, in fact. It could do all of the tasks sport-utilities actually do in the real world, and combined minivan space-efficiency with unique style.
APPEARANCE: How to make a minivan look like a sport-utility: add contrasting lower body cladding, a grille guard, eyebrow fender flares, matte black mirrors, window trim, and roof rack, and larger, more aggressive wheels and tires. It works successfully on the MPV, helped in no small amount by the MPV's two-box styling with relatively long hood, distinct passenger cabin, and four hinged doors. From some angles, the MPV All-Sport really does look more like a sport-utility than a minivan. The lower body cladding is functionally protective, and the larger tires add ground clearance and lessen the impact of bad road surfaces. Just don't try anything serious with the grille guard - it's strictly cosmetic.
COMFORT: Like a sport-utility vehicle, the MPV has 4 hinged doors with functional windows. Like a minivan, it uses space well, with plenty of room for 7 people. The MPV has more interior room than any comparably-sized sport-utility, and access is as easy as in any minivan or SUV. The floor is flat and reasonably low. The first two rows of seats are very comfortable reclining captain's chairs, and all have fore-and-aft adjustability. The third-row bench can be folded or removed for extra cargo space. Leather upholstery is standard on the ES trim level, as is a leather-wrapped tilt-adjustable steering wheel. Control and instrument placement is generally good, although the instrument panel is busy. The climate control system is wonderful, with optional rear-seat control and very fast warm or cool air throughout the large cabin area. There are useful storage spaces throughout the cabin, including a sliding tray under the front passenger seat. A one-piece liftgate at the rear helps ease the loading or unloading of cargo. An optional power moonroof gives safari-view ambiance.
SAFETY: The Mazda MPV has standard safety equipment that includes dual air bags, crumple zones, side-impact protection door beams, and 4-wheel antilock vented disc brakes.
ROADABILITY: The MPV All-Sport is comfortable and quiet on the road. Surprisingly, considering its boxy shape, it is very stable in crosswinds. The independent front, solid axle rear suspension gives a smooth ride, and variable power-assisted rack and pinion steering makes maneuvering easy. The MPV is not too big to park easily. A high seating position gives a good view of the road. Automatic load- leveling is standard on the ES trim level. The All-Sport's 4-wheel drive system is designed for use in slow-to-medium speed, low-traction conditions and includes a locking center differential to help maximize traction in steep or slippery situations. It's not a wilderness machine, but can be just the ticket for the snow country.
PERFORMANCE: No power shortages here. The MPV is no rocket ship, but its 3.0-liter V6 has enough power for all daily activities. City and highway traffic and steep hills present no problems. The MPV can tow over 4000 lbs., quite a bit more than most minivans and more than some similarly-sized sport-utilities.
CONCLUSIONS: The Mazda MPV has always been a little different from other minivans. With 4-wheel drive in All-Sport trim it combines sport-utility looks and abilities with minivan space and usefulness.
SPECIFICATIONS 1997 Mazda MPV All-Sport ES Base Price $ 28,895 Price As Tested $ 32,320 Engine Type V6, single overhead cam, 18 valves Engine Size 3.0 liters / 180 cu. in. Horsepower 155 @ 5000 Torque (lb-ft) 169 @ 4000 Transmission 4-speed electronically-controlled automatic Wheelbase / Length 110.4 in. / 183.5 in. Curb Weight 4105 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 26.5 Fuel Capacity 19.8 gal. Fuel Requirement unleaded regular Tires 215/70 R15 B. F. Goodrich Touring T/A m+s Brakes, front/rear vented disc / vented disc Suspension, front/rear independent strut / live axle with coil springs Ground clearance 7.2 inches. Drivetrain front engine, part-time four-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 15/19/16 Towing capacity 4,200 lbs. 0 to 60 mph est. 11 sec