Curbside Classic: 1989 Mazda MPV – A Flash In The Minivan Pan

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Free from its relationship with Ford, Mazda is forging ahead as an independent against unfavorable odds.  Perhaps it’s only natural for a carmaker born out of Hiroshima’s postwar ashes, but the company is more well-acquainted with struggle than many of its Japanese counterparts.  Unlike Honda, which never had to rely on incentives during its heyday, or Toyota and Nissan, who could move massive volumes of cars, Mazda was often in the unenviable position of importing the bulk of its cars from Japan and frequently offering discounts.

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Traditionally, the company has had one or two moderately strong-selling models to keep the money coming in; today it’s the Mazda3 and the CX-5, and during the early ’80s, the RX-7 and GLC were hot tickets, with the 1983 626 also finding many buyers.

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By the late ’80s, however, the 323 and 626 were not as popular as the company would have liked, with lower trim level cars selling due to competitive pricing while more exciting turbocharged top-of-the-line versions languished on dealer lots.  The profitable RX-7 also fell victim to a weak sports car market.  In the very late ’80s and early ’90s, the MPV minivan and later, the Miata, did their part to keep dealers busy.

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The MPV was never going to unseat Chrysler’s dominance of the marketplace, but compared to many other manufacturers’ efforts, it was well-accepted by the market.  Perhaps even more significantly, it provided an option for import-oriented buyers without much in the way of Japanese competition before Toyota’s characterful Previa hit the scene.  This earlier 4WD-equipped van was shot by Paul, who shares my affection for those vans which distinguish themselves as particularly rugged and suited to multipurpose use (and as we can see his white xB in the background, this was a spontaneous capture).

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Of course, the MPV’s early success could be attributed to more than mere circumstance; it was a strong product, with styling that clearly marked it as a member of the same family as the generically good-looking RX-7 and 626 Turbo.  While those cars may have seemed a bit dowdy relative to their competition, the corporate styling theme leant the MPV a youthful look relative to other people movers, all without resorting to the monospace futurism that proved visually challenging to conservative buyers.  Better still, this was backed up by the driving experience, which was good enough to land the van on Car and Driver’s Ten Best list for 1990 and 1991.

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Contemporary road tests praised the MPV as one of the best performing and most carlike offerings.  By the standards of the day, power was quite competitive.  The vast majority of MPVs were ordered with an 18-valve V6 which delivered 150-horsepower and 165 lb-ft of torque routed through a four-speed JATCO automatic (a 121 horsepower 2.5 liter four was standard, as was a five-speed transmission, but both are rare).  The 4.3 in the Chevy Astro was the only thing which could really beat it, but it came in conjunction with that van’s less desirable traits.

Motorweek managed to haul an early MPV’s 3,700 pounds to sixty in ten seconds flat, and whether or not you find yourself somewhat skeptical of this good figure (this was Maxima and Taurus-grade acceleration out of a van with similar power), ordering the trailer towing package enabled a strong 4,300 pound towing capacity.

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This latter figure reflected that the MPV was a minivan more in the Astro or Aerostar vein than a copy of Chrysler’s playbook, with rear drive and a live axle in rear.  Still, it only minimally borrowed from Mazda trucks, deriving its steering, front suspension and drivetrain from the Luce sedan/929.  While it couldn’t match the ease of use of the segment-defining Caravan/Voyager, it easily outclassed Ford’s and GM’s rear-drivers.  And for families who wouldn’t buy American, or for those who wanted a classy minivan which could also tow, it was the only game in town.

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The MPV’s most distinctive trait as far as most buyers were concerned was its hinged right rear door which swung open a full ninety degrees.  Foreign markets came with a door on the left-hand side as well, like the 1995 Honda Odyssey, but Mazda omitted it in North American vehicles for seemingly no reason.  Evolution has tossed this feature aside, since sliding doors make much more sense with large openings, but it was a good choice stylistically, and was a unique touch which reinforced the MPV’s carlike credentials.

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Perhaps the best thing about the MPV was its interior design, which wouldn’t have been out of place in a Japanese sedan of the era.  In fact, it was a much more smoothly integrated layout than found in the 626 sedan, without the baroque, fussy look of the unit in the 929.  The Chrysler vans, with their brougham-y touches, looked distinctly old fashioned in comparison, and none of the domestic options could compete as far as material quality was concerned.  This remains one of the better interiors in its segment.

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Mazda wisely copied Chrysler when it came to optional equipment, meaning that the MPV could accordingly be outfitted to only carry five passengers with no power assists or air conditioning or lavishly equipped with dual climate control, leather seats, a CD player and a variety of other luxuries.

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It was a testament to the MPV’s positive reception that many more were ordered fully loaded compared to Mazda’s more mainstream offerings.  A very highly popular option was the selectable four-wheel drive system, which retained a high take rate even following the MPV’s declining popularity after its first few years on the market.

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Yes, the MPV’s success was ultimately short lived despite its good looks and refinement, because there were also significant shortcomings when compared to many other minivans.  While it was popular because it was different, a lack of versatility was perhaps its biggest shortcoming, with a gigantic hump in the floor over the solid, coil-sprung rear axle and a heavy, nearly impossible to remove rear bench.  Rear-wheel drive meant that many who lived where snow fell were compelled to ante up for four-wheel drive for a measure of security in the winter, and although we used to be more tolerant of such a compromise (in the days before nearly every Benz and BMW had all-wheel drive), it was something buyers of Chrysler minivans didn’t have to tolerate.

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Furthermore, the arrival of the Previa took the wind out of Mazda’s sails.  Though expensive and available only with a 2.4 liter four-cylinder, it was much more capacious and beat the MPV hands-down with regard to versatility, while overshadowing the modern, tastefully finished interior which had been the Mazda’s trump card.  Being virtually indestructible was nice, also.  The arrival of Nissan’s Quest also hurt, as it co-opted much of the MPV’s Japanese sedan-like appeal while offering the advantages of front-wheel drive and lower production costs through its joint-venture with Ford.  Neither of these vans were segment busters, but they took away from Mazda’s large of the minivan market for import-happy households.  It wouldn’t be until the second generation of Honda’s Odyssey and Toyota’s Sienna that any Japanese automaker could truly claim sustained, mainstream success in the van market.

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Still, despite the Previa’s AllTrac all-wheel drive option, Toyota couldn’t match the take-rate of Mazda’s selectable four-wheel drive system.  Ironically enough, while the MPV’s carlike credentials dated quickly in the face of more refined competition, it was its more primitive traits in 4WD guise which maintained its cult following.  Much like an AMC Eagle, the MPV became sluggish and tippy, sitting very high off the ground when equipped to power the front wheels, a surprising compromise in a product planned from the beginning to offer all-weather capability.

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Mazda, of course, didn’t have the cash on hand to really make the MPV more competitive against other, newer minivans.  It took until 1993 for an airbag to be offered as standard and until 1996 to cobble up a new dashboard with a passenger airbag.  What was to be done with a tall, wagon-aping, rear-drive minivan whose most compelling feature was optional four-wheel drive?  Morph it into an SUV, of course; unlike minivans, they weren’t expected to be efficient or versatile, just high off the ground and rugged, which the MPV 4WD had always been.

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The engineers in Hiroshima duly grafted on a nose-extension, gave the US market version of their van the left rear door it had theretofore been denied, modifying both to accept roll-down glass, and offered an “All Sport” appearance package to butch things up.  In so doing, they tacitly brought the MPV out of the closet, revealing its true identity as a three-row crossover.  While not convincing as an SUV outright, it usefully extended the now-elderly MPV’s time on the market, which culminated in ten whole sales seasons.

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And truly, with second-rate flexibility, a hinged rear door, a sedan-like interior, and focus on front seat passengers, the MPV was always more of a crossover than a traditional minivan.  It was something Mazda knew from the beginning, always avoiding the dreaded V-word where possible: this was a multi-purpose vehicle, thank you very much.

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If marketing the refreshed 1996 MPV as an SUV wasn’t a straight path to profit, it was at least a shrewd way to save money.  By the late nineties, most of Mazda’s cars were suffering an acute lack of development owing to declining profits.

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All the magic and optimism which resulted in cars like the superlative FD RX-7, the incomparable JC Cosmo, the Millennia and a number of interesting V6-powered small sedans not sold in the US was expensive.

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Worse still, these ambitious cars largely failed to make an impact with buyers; simply put, the petrol heads (calling the sole of purveyors of the Wankel precluded my calling them piston heads) at Mazda blew their wad.

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The hard lesson Mazda learned was evident in cars like the 1998 626, largely a reskin and decontenting of its agile, curvaceous predecessor, and the 1999 Protege, which abandoned its distinct platform in favor of a shrunken version of the 626’s platform (fortunately becoming Mazda’s next strong seller and a class leader in the process).  The second-generation Miata was also minimally changed from its predecessor, deservedly keeping a largely abandoned market for affordable sports cars to itself.

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It was tough times for the company, but they used their resources wisely and by the end of the ’90s, Ford increased its shares in the company to 33.4 percent, giving it a controlling interest.  Though Ford had owned 25 percent of Mazda’s shares since 1980 (the fuel crisis was particularly rough on the company), the period between 1996 and 2010 under Ford’s leadership saw the company engineer and execute a turnaround.  Though known as the Zoom-Zoom brand today, Mazda always made cars which often offered dynamics a cut above much of their Japanese brethren, with unique engineering underneath their generic good looks.  As lucky as we are for the company’s continued presence and dynamic offerings, the MPV is emblematic of the subtle individuality that defined the company at one of the high points of its creativity.

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