EXPERT REVIEW

chicagotribune.com's view

2002 Mazda MPV

Zoom. Zoom.

In a minivan?

Since 1999 the Mazda MPV minivan has labored with a 2.5-liter, 160-h.p. V-6 that lacked the muscle to cart seven passengers on flat roads, much less up a steep incline unless three got out and pushed.

Mazda would have liked a 3-liter, 200-h.p., dual-overhead cam V-6 rather than a 2.5-liter, 160-h.p., single-overhead cam V-6.

But both V-6s were the property of Ford Motor Co., which owns a controlling stake in the Japanese automaker, and Ford has a history of leaving ingredients out of recipes when passing them along to Mazda.

For example, Ford once gave Mazda a version of the Explorer sport-utility vehicle to sell when the Japanese automaker didn’t have one for the U.S. market. But Ford gave Mazda a two-door rather than the more popular four-door, and only the two-wheel-drive version, not the much more in-demand four-wheel-drive model. Mazda called it Navajo, but only for a short time until it called it gone.

The Villager minivan developed by Nissan for Mercury was better than the Windstar Ford developed on its own, and now the MPV developed by Mazda can make the same claim.

For 2002, thanks to Ford’s largess, Mazda has replaced the 2.5- with the 3-liter and a new 5-speed automatic transmission, and has given the MPV enough muscle to carry a crew of seven on flat surfaces or up inclines.

Mazda now even includes the MPV in its Zoom Zoom commercials, though Zoom Zoom seems a bit out of character for a vehicle supposedly designed to carry those who fill beverage holders with sippy cups.

“The love of driving isn’t something you grow out of just because your family has grown. Space limitations in most fun-to-drive vehicles have forced us to drive something rather stodgy. With the new MPV, you can have sports-car spirit and your family, too,” said Charlie Hughes, president of Mazda North America.

We tested the ’02 MPV ES version, and the ability to transport a number of people and pounds from one place to another is more important than the ability of Dad or Mom to lay a strip of radial-ply rubber on the pavement when the kids are gone.

The added power is nice, but there are a lot more noteworthy features: For the first time, there are power sliding doors on both sides for easy entry/exit. They come with glass windows that can be lowered into the body panels to circulate air in the cabin. “Side-by-slide” second row bucket seats, as the name implies, slide together to form a bench seat. A third-row seat folds flat into the floor to carry more cargo. It also flips rearward so you have a bench seat facing the back when parked for picnics or tailgating.

There’s also a tiny pop-up table between the driver/passenger seats to hold cellphones, cups or snacks for long-distance travel and a small, felt-lined storage compartment so items such as change or keys don’t rattle; hooks for backpacks, purses or grocery bags on th e backs of the second-row seats and larger hooks in the cargo area that can hold down bikes; and a 12-volt power outlet in the cargo hold.

Standard equipment on the top-of-the-line MPV ES includes four-wheel ABS with traction control to reduce wheel spin and prevent slippage in starts on wet surfaces; front/rear air conditioning; power windows/door locks; remote keyless entry; cruise control; tilt steering with audio controls on the wheel; 17-inch alloy wheels; leather-trimmed seats; dual front/side-impact air bags; and AM/FM/cassette/CD player.

Only option needed is power sunroof at $700. AWD would be nice, but Mazda says if you want all-season security, buy a 4WD Mazda Tribute SUV.

ES base price: $27,192.

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