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2000 Mazda MPV

In releasing a completely redesigned minivan, Mazda has gone mainstream, abandoning the front engine/rear drive layout it championed in the previous model for the front-wheel drive configuration found in other small vans.

Better late than never!

Have you been wondering, perhaps despairing, about Mazda's tardiness in releasing a replacement for the aged MPV? Delayed by the company's financial problems of a few years ago, relief has arrived in a form most minivan buyers should appreciate.

In releasing a completely redesigned minivan, Mazda has gone mainstream, abandoning the front engine/rear drive layout it championed in the previous model for the front-wheel drive configuration found in other small vans.

Doing so, the MPV loses its ability to provide stable rear-drive trailer towing and the Multi-Mode four-wheel drive system becomes history (an all-wheel drive new MPV is available in Japan, but it's unlikely that we'll see it.)

Traction control is another no-show.

Instead, MPV now offers the low, flat floor and acres of interior space that characterize its competition.

The efficient interior is achieved through careful design of the shape and thickness of the cabin walls, not by big-sizing the exterior dimensions.

In the all-important third seat/cargo area, the MPV folds its Tumble-Under rear bench into a well, like the Honda Odyssey.

With the seat in position, the well offers goodly room. Fold the seat easily away and the luggage capacity becomes vast. A single Pullman-sized suitcase is lost in the space.

Mazda has also been creative with the other amenities. The comfort and entertainment control panel is large and central.

Employing easy to use large dials and oversize buttons, it looks like a radio from the '30s.

Seating appears to be the usual minivan fare, but the MPV presents a SidebySlide pair of captain's chairs in the second row. They'll adjust fore and aft, plus the individual chairs will slide together to form a bench.

The front seats are well-shaped but a flat cushion angle gives the impression of skimpy under-thigh support. A quick turn of the adjustment knob fixed that for the driver, but the passenger's cushion doesn't adjust. Although power seats are not offered, the manual controls are fine. But they should appear on both sides.

The floor area between the front seats contains nothing but the parking brake. Anything you might put there clatters forward under braking. I had to resolve a conflict over who had rights to the accelerator pedal – my foot or my cell phone.

GM's purse net is the best idea anyone's had for this problem space.

From a respectful distance, the MPV's new look is quietly distinctive, thanks to a grille and fascia from the shovel-nosed concept van Mazda had on display at Toronto's auto show last winter.

The low and heavy-looking front bumper area gives the van a sense of being solid, connected with the ground.

The rest of the shape is generic. If the Mazda marketeers' intention was to bland, er, blend in with the rest of the pack, they've succeeded.

I drove the 2000 MPV through a lot of the Province during our test, including a long weekend of Sybaritic indulgence at the Inn at Manitou. Across all those kilometres, nobody noticed the van – and it is something I watch out for.

There could be a host of reasons for this lack of attention, but my hunch is that, in taking so long to arrive, the public forgot that it was coming. I also suspect that the bloom is off the minivan rose, that interest in family vans is waning.

For Mazda's sake, I hope the MPV is not too late.

That would be a shame, because the MPV breaks new ground in terms of minivan handling and ride.

Mazda has dialled this one in, as they say, right on the money. The steering is light and accurate, with no dead spots. The brakes are strong and easily modulated.

The suspension allows for smooth responses to bumps and other pavement irregularities; its compliance and geometry are such that the tires are always held in proper contact with the road.

Body lean is minimal. Moreover, none of this is controlled so sharply that passenger comfort is compromised and I'm not concerned about the vehicle's reactions in winter conditions.

As we zipped along curvy back roads, the MPV inspired rapid and skillful motoring and I enjoyed every minute of it.

With proper braking and turn-in the MPV can be induced to work its rear tires and settle in to a brief four-wheel drift.

That's unheard of in most front-drive minivans, which tend to steer like arrows.

For the everyday driver, these talents translate into a pleasant, confidence-inspiring experience. Faced with an emergency, the MPV will react safely and predictably.

Our top-line ES tester was shod with P215/60R16 Dunlop Sport 4000 tires, an apparent step up from the standard P205/65R15s. But their grip did not match the accuracy of the suspension and they tended to give up before the van did.

Any minivan can benefit from an upgrade to performance all-seasons and will love riding on four winter tires, come December. But the MPV has the potential to make use of good rubber.

Unfortunately, the engineers' choice of engine is not as satisfying. At 2.5 L and 170 hp, the V6 is small, but it could have been okay if it had been given appropriate torque characteristics.

As it is, the engine has that high-winding feel that brings happiness to drivers of sport sedans. Not surprising, as the source of this engine is found in the engine bay of the soon-to-be discontinued Ford Contour and Mercury Mystique. Yes, it's a Ford leftover.

There isn't enough power below 3500 rpm and the automatic transmission is forced into constant downshifts to provide adequate road performance.

Shifting smoothly, almost imperceptibly, it's in and out of overdrive all the time and will drop to second at the hint of increased demand. On occasion at lower speeds, the tranny even picks up first gear and allows the engine to scream for a moment before realising its mistake. (I hear the gearbox muttering: "Damn. I hate it when that happens.")

Acceleration is the slowest in its class – on good runs taking almost 13 seconds to get to 100 km/h from rest and almost nine to complete a 90-120 pass. That's with just skinny little me on board. Add a load of folks and gear and the times will increase.

However, with power peaking above 3500 rpm, the MPV takes off if you mat it at 120 km/h, and loves to cruise above 130 – more suited to a German Autobahn than an Ontario calming zone.

In my humble opinion, the cure for this is simple. At 81.7 mm and 79.5 mm, the MPV engine is over-square in its bore (size of pistons) and stroke (length of crankshaft throw). That is, the bore is larger than the stroke, a configuration that favours high rpm power output. Lengthening the stroke is a relatively inexpensive modification that would lower the torque peak and slightly increase the displacement.

With competing van engines in the 3.0 L-plus range producing gobs of torque and providing safe and spirited acceleration, Mazda will have to address this problem.

Power notwithstanding, the MPV 2000 takes the minivan another important step forward, away from the garage-able van's humble and inept K-car beginnings.

What do I want next? Stuff Honda's 210 hp V6 into the new MPV and equip it with a traction control system from either the Ford Windstar or Chevy's Venture, and I'll stop asking.

Freelance journalist Cam McRae prepared his assessment based on driving experiences in an MPV supplied by Mazda Canada.

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