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1996 Mazda MPV

Adding to the excitement created by all the striking new vehicles at February's Toronto car show was the buzz surrounding an eight-year-old minivan.

Dressed up for the show in a roof rack, gnarly tires and wheelwell lips, Mazda's 4WD MPV All-Sport drew crowds every day of the exposition.

The most popular import minivan has recently been faced with new and fearsome competition. While minor upgrades have kept the van in play, the time had come for more radical action.

Somewhat cashstrapped these days, Mazda could not afford to design and launch an all-new machine.

Thus, a reno job, the first major renovation for the MPV (Multi-Purpose Vehicle) since its intro in 1988 as an '89 model. Revisions to the body shape are immediately noticeable and there's now a fourth door.

Continuing to eschew the rear side-sliders common on most minivans, the MPV goes four-door with an additional swing-out on the driver's side. Both rear doors have operating windows for '96.

Shape changes were exacted on the nose, which has been extended to incorporate the "crush zone" mandated by U.S. federal law. The new snout is distinctive, bearing crisp lines that complement the body's contours — to my eye, better than its more softly executed predecessor.

As a side benefit, when the fenders were raised to meet the grille's height, they were also brought into the driver's sightline. The better to park you with, m'dear.

A longer beak plus new bumpers front and rear add a total of 19.5 cm (7.7 inches) to the MPV's overall length. No change in the vehicle's width or in the length of its wheelbase.

The '96 MPV stands taller by 20 mm on the 2WD and 16 mm on the 4WD chassis — the result of larger tires and revised suspension specifications.

Memory of previous MPV outings did not serve to discern any improvement in road dynamics, but that is no criticism. I've spent considerable time in the latest Ford Windstars and Chrysler Magicwagons, and the comparison was instructive.

The MPV set early standards for minivan ride and handling, and it was an eyeopener to realize just how competitive it remains. Smooth and quiet, but athletic enough if the situation warrants.

Slowing and stopping are accomplished via four-wheel disc brakes augmented by a four-wheel anti-lock system. The system is strong and easily modulated right up to wheel lock. Then the ABS does its thing with a minimum of drama. Again, the MPV's performance is as good or better than its "all-new" competitors.

If anything dated this hauler before the revamp, it was an interior design that lacked coherence and optimum space utilization — the non-removable rear-most bench and the cupholder stuck on a seat base were good examples. Plus, there were too many hard, slick surfaces, resulting in the nickname, Mostly Plastic Vehicle.

Gutting and redoing an interior is less costly than chassis or sheetmetal changes. Mazda has gone all out with a new dashboard, door panels and seats — still lots of plastic but with more textures and sculpting.

The dash incorporates an air bag for the passenger with another for the driver in the steering wheel. The new control area places lovely big analogue gauges in easy view and groups most of the switchgear in the centre of the dash along with a proper pull-out cupholder.

Included in anyone's complaints about the previous MPV were the lack of storage pockets, passenger area cupholders and the ridiculously minuscule glovebox.

The '96 doors feature big pockets, the glovebox will hold ski mitts, and there are what Mazda terms "a plethora" of places to set a drink.

The rear bench is now "easy to remove." Hmph! McRae's First Law of Minivans states: Rear benches are not easy to remove. The MPV's pew is no better or worse than the rest. But it does come out.

Another notable new feature is the availability of second row captain's chairs. Many couples and small families prefer the travel comfort and convenience of four buckets plus room for their gear. Family crowd scenes can still be accommodated by choosing two rear benches, which yields eight-passenger capacity.

Praiseworthy so far, but I have to break the positive mood with some reservations about the powertrain. The engine, actually. The four-speed automatic has always done a fine job.

Mazda says it has applied the sort of induction/exhaust plus computerized engine management technology to the MPV's 3-litre V6 that has garnered huge gains for other manufacturers' engines. New ratings of 155 horsepower and 169 poundfeet of torque, however, don't impress when we look back and see last year's numbers nearly identical at 150 and 169.

Perhaps a small increase in displacement should have accompanied the other engine mods. Chrysler gets 158 horsepower and a snappy 203 poundfeet of twist from its 3.3-litre minivan motor. Toyota's 3.4 litre 4Runner V6 makes a strikingly healthy 183 and 217.

The van's performance reflects the lack of improvement. In a word, slow. The engine is uncomplainingly smooth, but it simply does not have much snap. Fourteen placid seconds elapse before the needle reaches 100 km/h and 9.7 impatience-filled seconds are required to pull out at 90 and pass at 120.

The engine does gain in overall driveability. The delivery of power is predictable throughout the operating range without any flat spots and the presence of torque is noticeable at lower r.p.m.

The broadened power curve should assist the MPV in its role as a tow vehicle. The MPV's rear-wheel or four-wheel drive plus available rear load-levelling system make it ideal for towing rated as it is at up to 1950 kg.

Be aware, however, that progress with a load on behind will be unhurried at best. Towing fans will be pleased to know that Mazda has placed an overdrive lockout switch on the shift stalk.

Pricing on the MPV is a mite dear, starting at $27,000 for the 2WD model and $34,500 for the 4WD. The Mazda, however, comes well equipped, and those figures are competitive with the other imports and with comparably featured domestics.

Hey, dealer may sell for less.

Freelance journalist Cam McRae, who writes on light trucks and vans, prepared his assessment based on week-long driving experiences in a vehicle supplied by the manufacturer or importer.

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