All Dolled Up, but Still a Minivan
By Warren Brown

Mazda introduced its MPV family vehicle in 1988 in a bid to have it taken seriously as a minivan.

That was four years after Chrysler Corp. created the minivan market in the United States with the introduction of its Caravan and Voyager models.

Minivans were popular then. Sport-utility vehicles were few. Station wagons seemed nonexistent.

But popularity often is a predecessor to contempt; and in due time, minivans became contemptible to many auto buyers for reasons having nothing to do with their intrinsic value.

SUVs eventually supplanted the tubular vans as favored family haulers; but SUVs also became successful enough to engender public enmity. Station wagons, at least as a vehicle category, died in the energy crises of the 1970s and never quite rose from that grave.

Thus, the term "station wagon" joined the list of opprobrious automotive nomenclature along with "SUV" and "minivan."

But although fashions change, basic transportation needs seldom do. People still have families. Families still consist of children and adults. Children and adults still have a need to transport themselves and their things, often in large numbers.

The tested 2004 Mazda MPV does all of those things quite well. But competence is no guarantor of sales. Favorable public perception is needed for retail glory. That is why Mazda is begging consumers to think of its new MPV as anything but a minivan, SUV or ordinary station wagon.

"The Mazda MPV would be more accurately called a large sport wagon with seating for seven than a run-of-the-mill, grocery-carting minivan," the company says in its MPV press materials.

Mazda has a point, at least in contending that its new MPV is not "run-of-the-mill."

With its restyled headlights, new hood, more muscular front fenders and new, more aggressive-looking grille, the 2004 Mazda MPV looks less like a minivan than previous models do. Other cosmetic surgery, including new bumpers and backlights, give the MPV's rear end a tight, sporty look. Myriad interior changes -- including new fabrics, new headrests, a more ergonomically designed instrument panel and the addition of a standard rear air conditioner -- also support the illusion that the new MPV is something more glamorous than a minivan.

But illusion is illusion, even when it comes with sporty 17-inch wheels (on the tested MPV ES), or attractive 16-inch wheels on the LX model.

Beneath all of that puffery is a healthy helping of traditional minivan practicality including multiple cup holders and storage spaces, manual folding bench third-row seats, power sliding side doors granting easy mid- and rear-cabin access for children and grandparents, and that good ol', telltale minivan rear hatch.

And if "sporty" implies brisk speed and crisp handling, well then, it remains a b it of a stretch to apply the term to the MPV ES.

That is not to say that the MPV ES is a slug. The front-wheel-drive vehicle's 200-horsepower, V-6 engine is more than competent for highway travel, especially in the flatlands. But in the highlands that engine develops a bit of a whine relieved only by dropping its five-speed, overdrive automatic transmission into third or second gear.

Handling is also good. There was little difficulty turning the MPV ES around in tight spots in the Allegheny Mountains. But its wide body rendered it kite-like in high winds, thereby requiring a bit of a struggle at the steering wheel to keep it on the straight and narrow.

Verdict: The 2004 MPV ES is a minivan. As presently constructed, even with all of its changes, it will remain a minivan. If that bothers you, buy something else that isn't.

Nuts & Bolts

Downside: Minor, arguable picks, really. Like, I wish the MPV ES had a 250-horsepower engine to help move its considerable weight of 3,812 pounds.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Good in all three categories. There is nothing special here, but what exists is certainly more than adequate for sensible drivers.

Head-turning quotient: It is a minivan. It attracted attention only from people in other minivans.

Body style, layout: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, four side doors with rear hatch.

Capacities: The MPV ES has seating for seven people. Maximum cargo capacity is 128 cubic feet. It can be equipped to tow up to 3,000 pounds. Fuel capacity is 19.8 gallons of gasoline. Regular unleaded is okay.

Engine/transmission: The MPV ES is equipped with a 3-liter, V-6 engine that develops 200 horsepower at 6,200 revolutions per minute and 200 foot-pounds of torque at 3,000 rpm. The engine is linked to a five-speed automatic transmission.

Mileage: I averaged 22 miles per gallon in mostly highway travel.

Safety: Side bags, traction control, four-wheel anti-lock brakes.

Price: Base price is $28,230. Dealer invoice price on base model is $26,080. Price as tested is $29,230, including $1,000 in options and a $520 destination charge.

Purse-strings note: A good van, competitively priced, surrounded by competition including the Toyota Sienna, Ford Freestar, Honda Odyssey, Nissan Quest, Chrysler Town & Country.