The second generation Mazda MPV, introduced in mid-1999, replaced the quirky, but beloved (by some) first generation MPV with it’s available 4WD and hinged rear doors. By waiting for the minivan dust to settle, Mazda got most of the details right with this redesign.
In the spring of 2001 my soon-to-be new wife and I were in the process of successfully blending our two families, a la The Brady Bunch. We had found a duplex rental large enough to accommodate 5 kids and 2 adults. All that remained was to replace the holdover Mercury Villager from the previous administration. Between the move and planning a late spring wedding, I was feeling some pressure to get the car thing done. I had been scouting Honda Odysseys for a couple of months, but dealer inventory was sparse and for whatever reason, dealers weren’t working that hard to sell the few units they had in stock. So I started to look a little farther afield.
I was aware of the first gen MPV with it’s funky styling. In Minnesota, that usually meant the optional 4wd and two tone, green over silver paint. There was one in the day care pick up line and the styling grew on me. The second gen MPV went from funky to generic, with Mazda offering one of the smaller minivans at the time. Their Zoom Zoom campaign implied the small size gave it Miata like handing prowess. I’m not sure I bought that argument, but living in the city with parking space at a premium, I appreciated the compact dimensions.
The car shopping experience this time around turned out to be maybe my worst ever, but not really the fault of the dealer. I just needed a new minivan, I wasn’t really working hard at the deal. I’m sure I ultimately paid too much, but I’ve managed to block the details. I suppose I’m like most consumers in that if I feel like I overpaid, I’m just never going to be happy with the product. That was certainly the case here, although the MPV wasn’t innocent either.
We ended up with a Silver 2001 MPV LX with grey cloth interior. Equipped with dual sliding doors and second row captain’s chairs, the layout certainly simplified child seat loading and unloading. By this time our youngest were 5 years old, still in their child seats, and they commandeered the second row for obvious reasons. The MPV had a very flexible interior, perhaps rivaling Honda with it’s tricks.
Starting with the second row, the passenger side seat could slide about a foot to starboard or port, creating a middle row aisle or leaving the passenger side open a bit for curbside loading of the third row. This feature got a lot of use, although over time the seat track filled with sand, Cheerios and what not, making it hard to slide those seats. Both middle row seats could be easily removed when you needed the space for hauling. You folded the seatback down and then released a latch on the floor. The seats weren’t exactly lightweight and finding the latch point could be a real pain when reinstalling the seats, but it is a feature we used a lot.
The rear seat had also had a nice trick of it’s own; after folding the seatback, you could flip the entire seat down into the floor, leaving a flat cargo area. In later years of ownership, this feature got a lot of use hauling yard waste to the local composting site.
The whole family took many memorable road trips in the MPV before the kids got too big. That third row could technically fit three, but it got to be a fight as to who would get the second row once the twins had graduated from their car seats. The rear seat did have its own climate controls, but that was about it back there as far as creature comforts. We would stow all our luggage in a soft bag strapped to the standard roof rack. The kids learned to carry their own back packs stuffed with books, ipods and such because once that bag was strapped on it was staying there until we reached out destination.
The early 2nd gen MPVs came with the Ford 2.5L Duratec engine making about 170 hp, coupled with a 4 speed automatic. While this engine produced enough power to get us around, I always felt like it was working too hard. I don’t know if it was just bad luck with our van, but at about 60,000 miles we started to have ongoing issues with ignition coils. At about this time our oldest child started driving and the MPV became her primary ride. We trained her well, she would call us every time the check engine light came on, which was often. I remember one time we got a call around dinner time. She was stalled at a stop light in rush hour traffic, getting evil looks from drivers trying to maneuver around her. After that incident, the MPV started to get used less, mostly just for cargo hauling. With those seats removed, we could fit a lot of stuff inside.
We held onto the MPV for 7 or 8 years, putting about 95,000 miles on it. Mazda still hadn’t solved their rust issues and by this time we had serious rust forming around the rear wheel wells. A friend I worked with had a slightly newer model with the power sliding side doors and in addition to the same rust problems, his van was in the shop multiple times to get those doors repaired. In the last year of ownership we probably drove the MPV less than 3,000 miles; it mostly just sat there taking up valuable driveway space. I finally listed it on Craig’s List for an absurdly low price and it was gone the same day. In the end, although it did serve us well, I just never really liked it very much. Looking back at the twenty or so cars I’ve owned, I would have to say the MPV is at the bottom of the list. My next car would be another Mazda. This next one is actually in my top three, but man those rust problems, Mazda was really trying my patience.