Mazda wasn't the first to arrive at the modern minivan soiree in the 1980s -- that honor belongs to Chrysler. However, Mazda did shine (albeit briefly) as the guest that brought the most unusual gift to the party.
Introduced in 1989, the Mazda MPV did more than simply ape the competition. It was the first true minivan that was rough-weather-friendly, thanks to available all-wheel drive -- Mazda's marketing at the time played this up by calling the MPV the only "go anywhere" minivan on the market. It was also fairly compact and distinguished itself from the burgeoning minivan field with its right-side traditionally hinged rear door (as opposed to a sliding door). In addition, rear-wheel drive was standard. Powered by a four-cylinder or optional V6 engine, the MPV met with a warm response in its early years from both buyers and journalists. Its moment of glory was short-lived, however; by the mid-'90s, other minivans had sailed past the MPV in terms of handling, versatility and engine power.
A much-improved second generation of the Mazda MPV came in 2000. This van maintained its predecessor's bantam dimensions, but in almost every other respect, it was a new animal. Gone was the country-cousin awkwardness of the early MPV, replaced with a look that was more coiffed and urbane. The new minivan had a front-wheel-drive layout and more convenience features -- it also offered unique touches like roll-down windows in its sliding doors. These qualities won this Mazda a few new fans, but at the end of the day, the MPV still came up short in two areas that were of prime importance to most minivan buyers: power and interior room.
Waning sales made 2006 the end of the line for the Mazda MPV, but its "compact minivan" philosophy lives on (with better execution) in a recent addition to the Mazda fleet, the Mazda 5.
Most Recent Mazda MPV
By the time the turn of the century rolled around, the MPV needed help. Other vans like the Honda Odyssey had raised the bar in areas like feature content and performance, and Mazda's seven-passenger hauler was left lagging in the distance. The second-generation MPV was Mazda's effort to close the gap, and it went a long way toward making the minivan more competitive.
With this all-new, more attractive front wheel-drive MPV, Mazda discontinued the van's four-wheel-drive availability, and traded its hinged rear doors for sliding-door convenience. Its size remained constant, though, and the MPV continued to be the runt of the minivan litter; as a result, cargo capacity wasn't as generous as that of others in its class. However, the redesigned minivan made up for it with a wealth of unique features. Second-row captain's chairs were multiconfigurable, easily sliding fore and aft; they could also be positioned together for instant bench seating. The third-row bench seat could be readily folded into the floor. It could also be turned to face the tail end of the vehicle when the tailgate was up, in case its owner was ever invited to a soccer-mom tailgate party. It's worth noting, too, that the MPV's compact size had a silver lining -- it was one of the most maneuverable choices on the market.
Those who wanted the most affordable Mazda MPV could opt for the base DX trim, which offered 15-inch wheels, dual manual-sliding doors and a CD player. The next step up was the LX, which added full power accessories and cruise control, as well as center and overhead consoles. Keyless entry was yours to enjoy with the ES trim, along with leather upholstery, 16-inch wheels and heated mirrors. Options included rear air-conditioning, a power moonroof and a CD changer. Power sliding doors were not available, however.
Mazda took steps to address the first-generation MPV's lack of power by installing a standard 2.5-liter V6 good for 170 horsepower and 165 pound-feet of torque; this V6 was wedded to a four-speed transmission. This engine was an improvement, but Mazda hadn't gone far enough -- the MPV still felt underpowered relative to its rivals.
Mazda did its part to keep the van current, lavishing it with updates over the years. The MPV got a power upgrade in 2002 via a 3.0-liter 200-hp V6 and a five-speed automatic transmission. That year, MPV buyers could also enjoy the blissful convenience of the van's new power sliding doors; other 2002 upgrades included available 17-inch alloys, traction control, a refined braking system and revised suspension tuning. In addition, the DX trim was dropped that year, leaving just the LX and ES.
In 2003, a new base-model trim joined the lineup -- the LX-SV -- and a rear DVD entertainment system appeared on the options list. (A VHS-based system was offered in 2001 alone.) The LX-SV model disappeared (temporarily) in 2004. Also that year, the Mazda MPV also got revised front-end styling, a rear air-conditioner and four-wheel disc brakes.
In reviews, our editors agreed that the Mazda MPV was a stylish-looking vehicle and a respectable choice for small families who desired a vehicle that was bigger than most station wagons, yet still more maneuverable than larger competing minivans. Plus, the MPV had a coolness to it that other family haulers were hard-pressed to match: Get this youthful van side by side with its sedate competitors, and the contrast is what you'd see if a twentysomething crashed a party at a retirement home. And in more practical moments, the MPV's multiconfigurable seats lent it a great deal of versatility.
However, the van was stymied by its lack of power relative to the competition; our editors noted that minivans by Honda and Toyota easily managed freeway maneuvers that the MPV struggled to accomplish. Acceleration wasn't helped by the MPV's five-speed transmission, which had a tendency to upshift too quickly in certain situations. And though the MPV scored top marks in government crash tests, safety was an issue, since the van didn't offer common minivan features like stability control or side curtain airbags.
Past Mazda MPVs
The first-generation MPV lived from 1989-'98 and distinguished itself from its rivals with features like available all-wheel drive and slight dimensions. The model's traditionally hinged passenger-side rear door opened wide and helped give the vehicle a clean look, but it lacked the functionality of other minivans' sliding rear doors. Originally, Mazda offered a 2.6-liter, 121-hp four-cylinder engine with either a five-speed manual transmission or a four-speed automatic. Optional was a 150-hp 3.0-liter V6. The van had seating for up to seven passengers.
Mazda made a few upgrades over the years. In 1992, eight-passenger seating became available and the manual transmission was dropped. In 1993, a driver-side airbag was added; for '95, the V6 engine became standard. Versatility was enhanced for 1996 when Mazda added a driver-side rear door; the MPV was, in fact, one of the first minivans to have four doors.
Though always distinctive, this generation of the Mazda MPV was outclassed by the early '90s. Many shoppers at the time found the vans from Chrysler or Dodge more appealing due to their more useful interior designs and extra power and convenience features.