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Second-hand: Mazda MPV

Auto enthusiasts turn up their noses at minivans in much the same way cats do at a generic brand tuna dinner. Shame, really.

Auto enthusiasts turn up their noses at minivans in much the same way cats do at a generic brand tuna dinner. Shame, really.

A contemporary front-drive minivan is an efficient people mover that doesn’t have to drive like a sled. Just ask this Mazda MPV owner: “It looks great and is fun to drive. Sometimes when you’re driving and rocking out on the great-sounding stereo, you’ve got to look back and remind yourself that you’re driving a minivan and you have your kids.” After a decade of selling a minivan based on an outdated rear-drive chassis, Mazda got with the program and launched a contemporary front-drive MPV for the 2000 model year.

To compete in a crowded minivan market, Mazda distinguished itself by imbuing the new-generation MPV with the frisky spirit of the world’s best-selling sports car, the Miata.

Smaller and lighter than the dominant nameplates, this MPV was to put Mazda back in the hunt.

CONFIGURATION

Despite its skinny Mary-Kate Olsen profile, engineers managed to scoop out a lot of useful space inside (big enough to swing a cat, as they used to say).

Distinctive features included a third-row bench that folded into the floor or flipped backward to serve as a tailgate party perch, dual sliding doors with windows that rolled down, and middle-row seats that acted as captain’s chairs or slid together to form a small bench seat.

Up front, driver and passenger faced a cleanly designed instrument panel with big buttons and well-labelled climate controls. Everything was mounted high to keep eyes close to the action outside.

Limited to one short-wheelbase configuration, buyers could choose from precisely one engine: an under-performing DOHC 2.5-litre V6 lifted from the late and unlamented Ford Contour.

(Mazda is partly owned by the Dearborn manufacturer.) Making 170 hp and 165 lb.-ft. of torque, the wee six was deemed too weak to move this minivan with any authority.

But with the Contour selling poorly in North America, stuffing it into a Japanese minivan seemed like a good way to get rid of stock.

With its competitors upping the horsepower ante, Mazda knew it had to do something about the widening power gap – and live up to its “zoom-zoom” marketing hype.

The MPV received a muscle transplant for 2002 in the form of a DOHC 3.0-litre V6, which made 200 hp and 200 lb.-ft. of torque, and was rated ULEV (ultra-low emissions).

A Jatco five-speed automatic transmission replaced the previous four-speed unit.

While they were at it, engineers revised the front struts with an offset axis to reduce friction, changed the rear shocks and specified more rigid bushings and a larger rear anti-roll bar, all adding up to a crisper-handling van.

The MPV’s styling was thoroughly updated for 2004, borrowing cues from its hot-selling Mazda3 and -6. Dual power sliding doors became widely available, a segment must-have.

ON THE ROAD

The 2000 and ’01 MPV were docile creatures that accelerated to 100 km/h in 11.3 seconds – leisurely performance that harked back to the primordial days of minivans.

While slow, at least it was manoeuvrable. Drivers appreciated the minivan’s tidy dimensions and ability to squeeze into tight spaces – including bicycle-clogged garages; spaces a Honda Odyssey dare not tread.

The 2002 and newer MPV benefited from the jolt of caffeine provided by the bigger V6, returning 0-to-96 km/h times of 9.4 seconds – mid-pack among popular vans.

Find an ES model and its big 17-inch alloy wheels and tires will generate 0.80 g of lateral grip, astounding performance from a tall minivan.

Yes, it leans like the USS Poseidon, but it will do a reasonable imitation of a sports sedan.

Proof? Owners noted on the Internet some of the vehicles they’d traded to move into a MPV, including a Honda Prelude, BMW M3 and Saab Aero.

“We had been pretty much anti-minivan until we found out that a third kid is on the way,” blogged one owner.

“Test drove the Oddy, Sienna, Quest and MPV. The MPV is the best handling and most manoeuvrable.” Owners are not grinning about their fuel usage, however. The MPV struggles to make 14 L/100 km in mixed driving.

WHAT OWNERS REPORTED

MPV owners are generally a happy lot, although a few problems have marred the experience for some.

The most common complaint has to do with a hard-shifting transmission in the newer models (’02 and up) between second and third gears. Owners mentioned software upgrades as a cure, but sometimes the problem would recur.

Some got a new TCM (transmission control module) or a complete slushbox. The 2000 and ’01 four-speed transmissions were not entirely immune to shift problems, either.

The 2.5-litre models also had a starting problem that required excessive cranking, which one owner reported was traced back to inadequate fuel system pressure due to a stuck regulator.

“Not crazy about the marriage of Ford drivetrain with this van,” summed up one owner.

(Oddly, the MPV is the reverse doppelganger of the Mercury Villager, which used a Nissan powertrain.) Overall, the MPV is a smart-sized minivan that zigs while others zag. If you’re of the opinion less is more, this may very well be the minivan equivalent of catnip.

We would like to know about your ownership experience with the following models: Jeep Liberty, Toyota Echo and Econoline Van.

Send your comments to Mark Toljagic, P.O. Box 51541, RPO Beaches, Toronto ON M4E 3V7. E-mail: toljagic @ ca.inter.net.

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