Cashing in on the current sport-utility craze, Mazda is marketing its All-Sport MPV as a sport-utility van, available with four-wheel drive and decorated with rugged exterior features.The front-engine, rear-drive All-Sport sits tall and looks rugged. Be sure to specify the 4WD package for all-weather traction and the ability to do some modest off-roading. That is the model I drove, and I found it to be stable and secure in pouring rain. Aside from four-wheel-drive, the All-Sport package is mostly cosmetic, consisting of a grille guard, roof rack, fender flares, polished wheels and a rear bumper guard. Leather upholstery, dual airbags, anti-lock brakes and a whole host of convenience equipment completes the offering. It is standard on the four-wheel-drive (4WD) and the two-wheel-drive ES. The MPV's short overall length and maneuverability makes it appealing to active folks for camping, biking and such like, but don't expect it to clamber around the outback like an SUV because the four-wheel-drive system doesn't have a transfer case that would give it an extra-low gear. It does, however, have a locking differential for extra traction when the going gets really nasty. Rear-wheel drive makes it excellent for towing. Equipped with the Load Leveling Package, the two-wheel-drive can tow 4,500 pounds (4,200 pounds for 4WD). The MPV's 3.0-liter V6 engine is a single-overhead-cam unit with three valves per cylinder. It has 155 horsepower, but the mid-range power is a bit soft and it requires a deliberate kick-down of the transmission when climbing steep hills or passing slower traffic. The shift lever for the automatic transmission is mounted on the steering column, and it contains buttons for shifting out of overdrive and engaging four-wheel drive. The lack of a floor console opens up front legroom and gives space for items between the front seats. Four-door minivans are the rage today, and the Mazda is so equipped. The rear doors open out 90 degrees which facillitates getting into the back seat. Getting to the third seat is a different story. It requires climbing behind the second row of captain's chairs, an exercise best left to agile youngsters, which is how the third seat of most minivans is generally used. Legroom in the third seat is also minimal. The MPV's 110.4-inch wheelbase and 183.5-inch overall length is shorter than the standard Dodge Caravan. Consequently, there is not much luggage space behind the third seat. The third seat folds forward to create a load space, or it can be removed completely. Access is simplified by a large tailgate hinged at the top. Up front, the bucket seats are wide and accommodating. The cabin of our test unit was as cozy as a passenger car, and just as well equipped. Getting in and out takes a bit of a step, but no more so than most SUVs. Ergonomically, the dashboard is showing its age. Instruments are simple and clear, but the sliding-bar heater controls and buttons for rear wiper and differential lock are all fairly far from the driver. I noted the lack of a central button for unlocking the doors. Price The base price of our test car was $28,895, and that included power windows, power locks, air conditioning, AM/FM stereo cassette, power steering, cruise control, tilt wheel and power mirrors. The only options were rear air conditioning, floor mats and keyless entry system. The sticker price was $30,770. Warranty The standard warranty is for three years or 50,000 miles. Vehicles for The Star's week-long test drives are supplied by the auto manufacturers. Point: The MPV All-Sport offers four doors, four-wheel-drive and a rugged look intended for people with active lifestyles. Counterpoint: The small overall size limits the effectiveness of its cargo-carrying, and ergonomically it could use some updating. SPECIFICATIONS: ENGINE: 3.0-l er, V6 TRANSMISSION: automatic WHEELBASE: 110.4 inches CURB WEIGHT: 4,105 lbs. BASE PRICE: $28,895 PRICE AS DRIVEN: $30,770 MPG RATING: 15 city, 19 hwy.
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