- The Washington Times - Friday, September 6, 2002

Minivans aren't fashionable anymore. But don't tell Mazda.

In 2002, its compact-sized MPV van is more spirited than ever to drive and styling is updated for a more sporty look. That's right, sporty.

"Moses did not come down from the mountain and say, 'Minivans must be boring,'" said Charlie Hughes, president and chief executive officer of Mazda North American Operations, explaining the MPV changes.

Specifically, there's a new, more powerful V-6 in the MPV this year, first-ever five-speed automatic transmission for this Mazda van, revised suspension, slight exterior and interior appearance improvements and safety upgrades. Also new for the MPV: power sliding rear doors, a feature that other vans have had for years.

A recommended buy of Consumer Reports magazine with better than average reliability rating, the 2002 MPV got top marks in U.S. government crash tests.

In the frontal test, the MPV received five out of five stars for driver and front passenger crash protection.

In the side crash, the MPV received five out of five stars for front- and rear-seat passenger protection.

It's easy to overlook the MPV. It's a short-in-length minivan with an overall length of 187.8 inches and a wheelbase of 111.8 inches.

This compares with 189.3 and 113.3 inches, respectively, for a Dodge Caravan with regular wheelbase and 201.2 and 118.1 inches, respectively, for a Honda Odyssey. Even Kia's Sedona is longer than the MPV.

But this doesn't mean the MPV is tiny or cramped. Front-seat headroom of 41 inches rivals the 41.2 inches in the Odyssey, and third-row legroom of 35.6 inches beats the 32.8 inches in the Sedona.

With 17.2 cubic feet of room behind the third-row seats, the test MPV held a lot of home-construction items even tall ones with ease.

In fact, this rear-most cargo room is more than the 15.3 cubic feet behind the third-row seats in the Caravan and is almost equal to the 17.6 cubic feet in a Grand Caravan, which has an extended wheelbase.

The reason? The MPV's rear hollowed-out floor is like that in the Odyssey, where it doubles as a holding bay for the third-row bench when the bench is folded down.

This allows a flat cargo floor and doesn't require that you take out and haul away the awkward and heavy rear seat.

The MPV's bench has a third position, too. Kept open for seating, it can be unlocked and flipped backward, coming to rest at the opening of the liftgate.

This provided a dandy and cushioned spot for a summertime tailgate gathering during my test drive.

Second-row seats in the seven-passenger MPV are bucket seats, but like those in the Odyssey, they can slide sideways on a track to form a bench if needed.

The MPV buckets also can slide forward and back as much as 5 inches to aid rear-seat legroom or can be removed.

But note that each bucket weighs about 34 pounds, and it took a bit of maneuvering for me to get them out of the vehicle.

With second-row seats removed and third row folded, the MPV's cargo volume lags that of the competition.

Maximum cargo space in the MPV is 127 cubic feet. This is 0.5 cubic foot less than the Sedona's. But the Odyssey and Grand Caravan offer more than 146 and 167 cubic feet of cargo room, respectively.

Still, the MPV is impressive with its peppy nature. I didn't have to coax this minivan into traffic. It was ready as soon as the light turned green.

The new, 3-liter, double-overhead cam, 60-degree V-6 mated to the five-speed automatic can generate 200 horsepower and 200 foot-pounds of torque at 3,000 rpm.

But more than 90 percent of the torque is available over a longer range from 1,800 through 5,500 rpm so the MPV feels quickly responsive.

It got me up to highway speeds on merge ramps easily and gave me flexibility in passing other vehicles.

Overall, the new MPV seems lightweight and eager to run compared with larger, heavier vans.

It also was easy to park in my garage and left room all the way around.

Greater body rigidity, new front springs, repositioned front stabilizer bar attachment and increased rear spring rates are among the changes that give the MPV a flatter feel in the corners and less body roll. It's not on a par with a sports car, but the more controlled motions are noticeable.

Tires and wheel sizes go all the way up to 17 inches this year and add not only to the improved handling but also make the MPV, with new front end, fog lights and taillights, look sportier.

I'm pleased Mazda retained second-row windows that open and close, even as the sliding rear doors were motorized. The MPV is the only minivan with windows that open on these doors.

But the power doors can be a pain to pull on manually if you want them to close quickly, and the middle person in the MPV's rearmost bench has only a lap belt.

In addition, the transmission in the tester didn't always shift smoothly.

Mazda did away with its entry-level DX model for 2002, so the base van now is the LX with a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $22,770.

The 2002 Kia Sedona starts at $19,590, while the 2002 Odyssey starts at $24,710.

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