My friends were laughing at me as I pulled up in the new Mazda MPV minivan.

"That doesn't look like you," they said with grins only slightly larger than my embarrassment.

But really, it's just because this is the type of vehicle that I find hard to love. I think it's because I'm not a soccer mom.

Even though I find minivan ardor hard to come by, one drive will be enough to convince you that the Mazda MPV is a terrific minivan, one of the best, in fact.

Yet Mazda has had a tough time getting to this point.

The first MPV was rear-wheel-drive and very truck-like. Then, Mazda hiked up the body and tried to make it into an SUV, but it fooled no one.

Mazda went back to the drawing board and did its own rendition of the vehicle perfected by Chrysler -- that means a front-wheel-drive car-based vehicle and three rows of seats. But Mazda still took a hit for making the MPV underpowered.

True enough.

But for 2002, they finally have it right.

There are two trim levels, LX and ES. Mazda provided an ES for testing.

This year sees an all-new 3-liter double-overhead-cam V-6 under the hood. This 24-valve engine boasts 200 horsepower, and is mated to an all-new five-speed automatic transmission. The transmission features "slope control" which helps avoid unnecessary shifts during hill climbs. But that's nothing compared to the healthy dollop of power that comes from tromping on the accelerator. This is one smooth driveline.

Body lean is about average for minivans, but overall handling feels quite nimble. Bumps make their presence known, and there is some road and tire noise.

The driving position is high and commanding, with a large dash that bulges in the center a la the Toyota Sienna. The seats could use a bit more thigh support, and leather seats without seat heaters is almost uncivilized. Cloth is better when seat heaters are unavailable.

A column-mounted shifter makes hitting the stereo a bit tricky, but the redundant steering wheel mounted stereo controls help in this regard. The climate controls are three sensible rotary dials, but their small markings make operating them difficult while moving.

Packaging is excellent.

There is a large compartmentalized bin at the base of the dash, as well as a small folding tray between the front bucket seats. The center row features two bucket seats that not only slide fore and aft, but also slide together to create a bench seat. The rear bench seat folds down into the rear floor to create a large flat cargo area.

It's all so practical.

There are even dual power sliding doors, a new feature for 2002.

What's also practical is the tidy size, which gives this vehicle less of the family bus feel that afflicts so many mammoth minivans.

Safety is top-notch as well. Four-wheel anti-lock front disc/ rear drum brakes are standard. The system features electronic brake force distribution to ensure safe stopping. There are dual front and side air bags and three point belts for all passengers.

The test vehicle supplied by Mazda started at a healthy $27,192. Options included fog lights, roof rack, in-dash CD changer and a "4 Seasons Package" that included a rear heater, heated windshield washer tank, larger radiator and heavy duty battery, heavy duty wiper and defroster and power mirrors. The bottom line came in at $29,037. But look at the options list; most would find them unnecessary.

While I'm not in love, I found plenty that impressed me about the MPV. Good handling, a nimble size and great accommodations.

It even has some zoom zoom.

Just don't ask me to buy one. I couldn't stand the comments.


Engine: 3-liter 24-valve DOHC V-6

Transmission: 5-speed automatic

Tires: P215 60R17

Wheelbase: 111.8 inches

Length: 187.8 inches

Width: 72.1 inches

Weight: 3,812 pounds

Cargo volume: 17.2 cubic ft. (seats up), 127 cubic ft., seats removed

Base price: $27,192

As tested: $29,037

EPA rating: 18 city, 24 highway

Test mileage: 19 mpg

Fuel type: Regular

Built in: Hiroshima, Japan