Mazda's MPV has everything you'd expect to
find in a minivan, and more. One of its most innovative features, called Side-by-Slide,
lets you slide the two middle row bucket seats together to form a two person bench like in
a traditional minivan cabin. It makes getting to the back seat even easier.
So why buy it? It has the best combination of handling,
acceleration, braking and steering among minivans, making it easy to park and fairly fun
to drive. It also has great safety ratings from the U.S. government. While the
concept of a nimble minivan isn't so strange, you've got to admit it's funny to hear Mazda
say its MPV "Boldly goes where no minivan has gone before - to the race track."
O.K. So the folks at Mazda are a little overly enthusiastic, but can
you blame them? They're staking their reputation on a lineup of sporty, driver oriented
vehicles in an attempt to become a sort of Japanese Sport Car supplier, which has worked
well for cars like the Miata, Mazda 6, and the upcoming RX-8. But a minivan designed for
crisp handling and driving fun, this we had to see, and drive to believe.
It turns out the MPV is no Ferrari beater, but it does have
surprisingly good performance for a minivan. Acceleration, braking, handling, and steering
are all superb, and we'll admit a slight, naughty temptation to do some handbrake turns
just for thrills.
MPV is also among the narrowest and shortest minivans on the market,
which is great for parking and handling. It's not so good for those of us who are, what's
the politically correct term, horizontally challenged?
And in a weird way, Mazda is right when it says the MPV has
"the body of a minivan and soul of a sports car," as odd as it may seem. While
it feels about as much fun as a large sports sedan, it doesn't sacrifice any family
friendly minivan attributes, like dual sliding doors and lots of room for kids.
At its heart is a stunning 200-horsepower, 3.0-liter engine. It's
among one of the best engines you can buy in a minivan because it delivers such smooth,
seamless power no matter when you step on the throttle, making it a far cry from the
wheezy power plants stuffed under minivan hoods just a few years ago.
Working in concert with this terrific engine is a noteworthy
five-speed automatic transmission. Engineers carefully selected each gear ratio to fit the
MPV's sporty character, Mazda says, while also making sure each shift is super smooth. It
seems to work perfectly, and sometimes the only way to tell when it shifts is to watch the
Mazda keeps up with the competition by offering a built-in DVD
player this year to keep the kids happy. MPV also offers exclusive power windows on its
sliding doors, though they only lower down about two thirds of the way.
Inside, the MPV doesn't disappoint. Fit and finish of interior
materials is outstanding, with the exception of a tad too much hard plastic on the dash.
As in every Mazda, controls are well placed and logical.
Mazda has good reason to brag about the MPV's safety record, as it
earned top ratings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's frontal crash
test. It also previously won a five-star rating for side-impact collisions.
All in all, Mazda goes a little too far in calling the MPV a racecar
for the family. But it is easy to drive and can be fun on twisty roads, something you
can't say about many family haulers.