- The Washington Times - Friday, March 15, 2002

Carmel, Calif. Even though Mazda has put its name on the Laguna Seca racetrack and is dedicated to demonstrate that the spirit of "Zoom-Zoom" is alive throughout the product line, it is a bit of a stretch to apply these attributes to a minivan.

Well, Mazda is not giving up on that.

It's not unusual for a manufacturer known for its sports cars and advanced engineering to introduce a new vehicle that is fun to drive.

However, it comes as a surprise when that vehicle also has room for seven while still allowing a larger cargo area than large sedans.

President of Mazda North American Operations Charlie Hughes came from a long line of car companies, including debuting Range Rover in the United States, but now fits into the Mazda family as comfortably as in the better known division.

The vehicle he drives on a daily basis is an MPV with 18-inch wheels and a dual exhaust and some details he is kind of coy about.

He is a dedicated car nut and has enlisted a whole bunch of folks whose efforts are usually addressed to race cars, desert trucks and street-fun compacts.

Their efforts show you can have your fun and haul the cake and cookies too.

And in the auto show circuit they are showing us that the fun and excitement niche belongs to Mazda.

They have new sporty Mazda 6 and RX8 coming to keep the flame alive.

No longer are they intent on challenging Honda and Toyota for every sale, but they are going to concentrate on what they do best. Style, sporty, fun to drive, and value are key attributes of Mazda.

That was the position statement set forth in the early 1970s and it still carries its value today.

"Stylish, insightful and spirited" has become the redefinition of Mazda. According to Mr. Hughes, "We want people to wind up with a smile on their face after a drive without knowing why.

"Sports cars should be fast, fun and cool all in one breath," according to Kristen Simmons, marketing vice president. "We're going to eliminate the idea that minivans are boring. This needs to be a great minivan. MPV needs to have equipment and functionality that carries fun-to-drive aspects."

Miss Simmons wants to take the defining statement back to the roots with no exceptions to take the oxymoron out of the minivan for the new Mazda MPV.

The focus on children killed interest. Cool people were disconnected. Raw horsepower went against safety and sanity. But Mazda's message is founded on suspension, steering, braking. Elements that convey fun, but have safety as a key element.

Body of a minivan with the soul of a sports car will be the underlying message.

Yet that is exactly what Mazda has created with its new 2002 MPV. By combining a roomy interior, flexible seating arrangements and power sliding doors with a 200-horsepower engine, 17-inch alloy wheels and revised suspension settings, the MPV certainly has the spirit they are looking for.

When the MPV was completely redesigned two years ago, it was filled with many features that all other companies ignored or told us couldn't be done.

MPV comes with a total of four bucket seats so passengers can enjoy the experience too. The second side-by-slide row seats move not only fore and aft, but together as well, to create a bench seat when needed; a Mazda exclusive.

The third-row seat sports some tricks of its own.

The tumble-under third-row seat folds completely into the floor, creating enough room for a refrigerator to be hauled when the second row is removed.

Or the seat can also flip rearward when the liftgate is open to create a bench seat that's perfect for "tailgating."

And before most other minis they showed us that great grab handles on door exteriors made the vehicle useful to all people in all conditions in all weather.

Added this year is a multiadjustable seat with optional eight-way power controls, and the first CD single-slot juke box player.

There's also a new side table between the front seats that provides a convenient area for cell phones, cups or any other keep-'em-handy items.

For the rest of the occupants, from larger cup holders at every seating position, an optional rear air conditioning and heating system, to an optional rear entertainment system; it's ready for the "are we there yet?" crowd.

For 2002, the doors can be power operated, allowing them to be opened or closed with the remote entry system or by pressing convenient buttons.

Unlike every other minivan on the market, the MPV's sliding side-door windows can be lowered with a press of a button.

Assist grips on the backs of the front seat not only aid entry into the second-row area, they also include hooks for purses, backpacks or grocery bags.

Larger hooks in the cargo area are provided to allow bikes and bulky items to be tied down. There's even a convenient rear 12-volt power outlet.

It is several hundred pounds lighter than the competition and smaller outside, yet has similar interior space due to using Mazda's proprietary space-finding-development program, Optispace.

And it addresses passenger protection with side front bags available and insert and click ISOFIX latches incorporated in the second-row seats.

A cultural difference between the Japanese management and the American marketers was responsible for the smaller previous engine and the lack of power-operated components.

They have learned their lesson, and this is not likely to happen again.

Similar to the Tribute sport utility engine introduced to wide acclaim last year, the larger V-6 allows confident entry onto freeways, effortless passing ability, and a surprising ability to keep up with sport coupes.

Mazda engineers carefully selected each gear ratio in the new five-speed automatic transmission to fit the MPV's more sporting character, with the reduced bulk and smaller size allowing more responsive handling and one of the best power

Still it meets the tough ultra-low-emissions-vehicle standards while improving fuel economy compared with the previous less powerful vehicle.

In addition to its more streamlined size, Mazda's engineers set out to achieve an even more performance-oriented feel with reduced body lean without negatively affecting ride comfort.

The body and suspension mounting rigidity has been increased, there's a larger rear stabilizer bar and the 2002 MPV is one of just a few minivans available with 17-inch alloy wheels.

As a result, the cornering ability is improved while providing the driver with a more direct steering feel.

It isn't perfect yet, as the larger spoked alloy wheels expose the rear disc brakes, and there are larger engines in the bin if needed.

Mazda dealers can provide an Aero Kit as a stand-alone package, and aftermarket tuners are poised to meet any demand for exotic seats, trim and graphics.

It could be a great vehicle for the small race car and offroad vehicle set.

The new MPV is just now arriving in Mazda dealerships.

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