EXPERT REVIEW

AZCentral.com's view

It’s a good concept: Take a sturdy all-wheel-drive minivan and make it into a reasonable facsimile of a sport-utility vehicle.

And it’s similar to a scheme used by Subaru, a company that was reeling from losses until it turned the moribund all-wheel-drive Legacy station wagon into the (trumpets sound) Legacy Outback, a reasonable facsimile of a sport-utility vehicle.

Mazda, which has been suffering from the lack of a sport-utility vehicle ever since the Navajo (aka two-door Ford Explorer) went away, has applied the “Outback” treatment to its MPV minivan, only it is called the All Sport.

For 1997, the rugged-outdoors treatment is applied as standard equipment to all Mazda MPVs above the base two-wheel-drive model. That includes a grill guard, fender flairs, roof rack, polished alloy wheels, mud-and-snow tires, and All Sport graphics.

In many ways, the All Sport achieves the look and, in the all-wheel-drive format, some of the abilities of compact sport-utility vehicles. In some ways, it’s better. In others, it misses the mark.

The big plus is human-cargo capacity. With three rows of seats, the MPV can manage seven or eight passengers, depending on the seating configuration. That’s two or three people more than other compact sport-utility vehicles can fit, and it’s where the All Sport takes advantage of its minivan roots.

And while it doesn’t have the rock-climbing, trail-bashing abilities of heavy-duty four-wheel drive, it can tackle muddy roads and snowy conditions. But really, considering the well-known fact that hardly any sport-utility-vehicle owners ever get off the asphalt, that shouldn’t be a huge consideration.

What is huge is sport-utility image, the main selling point of this wildly popular class of vehicles. Muscular-looking, with big tires and raised suspensions, sport-utility vehicles have the air of outdoor adventure that has stolen sales from tamer passenger cars and minivans.

And therein lies the problem. The All Sport doesn’t quite capture the macho sport-ute allure that people find so appealing. It can’t escape that boxy minivan look that rouses visions of shopping malls rather than jeep trails.

Mazda designers did a decent job in beefing up its look, and it does work to a degree, but only so much could be done. At least one item doesn’t work at all: Those raised-white-letter tires may have been a sporty idea a decade ago, but nowadays, they just look tacky.

The Achilles’ heel of the All Sport is weak engine power, relative to the sport-ute competition, with a hard-working V-6 that delivers just 155 horsepower to motivate more than 2 tons of heft. In a world where automakers are stuffing V-8s into these vehicles or boosting V-6 horsepower to 200 or more, the Mazda’s power just doesn’t cut it.

And at a price of more than $32,000, the All Sport should have more muscle, at least as much as the competition.

On a trip up to Mogollon Rim country north of Payson, the Mazda struggled with many of the long mountain grades. The small engine also negates towing ability, one of the top draws of a rear-drive/all-wheel-drive minivan.

The four-speed automatic transmission could use some fine-tuning. It seems too slow both in upshifting and downshifting, and seems confused about shifting back and forth between third and overdrive.

The MPV also drives like a truck, which wouldn’t be bad except that the competition has evolved minivans and sport-utility vehicles to where they drive and handle like passenger cars.

Cornering’s not bad, feeling firm and stable in turns, and the overall comfort level is pretty high. In our decked-out ES version, leather seating and trim were attractive and comfortable, with supportive bucket seats in the first and second rows.

There are lots of cubbies and cupholders, though not as high a level as some other minivans tested recently, such as the Chevrolet Venture. The dashboard cupholders obscure access to the stereo.

The carli ke four-door configuration was highly appreciated. The rear doors swing out nearly perpendicular to the body, easing entry to and exit from this high-profile vehicle. The swing-up back door is huge and easy to operate, though cargo space behind the third seat is limited. The rear seat folds to boost carrying capacity.

Also appreciated was the huge moonroof, which mostly benefits the second row of passengers. One glitch here is that the motor continues grinding away if you leave your finger on the button after the roof is fully open or closed, which raises questions about durability.

The price for this option is also mighty steep: $1,200.

The all-wheel-drive system provided sure-footed traction in the muddy, snowy terrain we encountered. It engages with the click of a button, with the rear wheels providing the drive on the highway.

There are compromises in blending a minivan with a sport-utility vehicle, but other than the engine power, the All Sport concept should have enough appeal to attract buyers who appreciate the extra space for people and cargo.

As for boosting the macho image, how about borrowing the rhino bars from Range Rover?

1997 Mazda MPV

Vehicle type: Seven-passenger, four-door minivan, all-wheel-drive. Base price: $28,895. Price as tested: $32,320. Engine: 3-liter V-6, 155 horsepower at 5,000 rpm, 169 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm. Transmission: Four-speed automatic. Weight: 4,105 pounds. Length: 183.5 inches. Wheelbase: 110.4 inches. Safety features: Dual air bags, anti-lock brakes. EPA fuel economy: 15 mpg city, 19 mpg highway.

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