The Mazda MPV is something of an historical oddity. It was created specifically for the US market, which alone was quite unusual, especially for a second-tier Japanese manufacturer. The MPV was sold in Japan, starting in 1991, but because of its excessive width (for Japanese standards) it had to be taxed as a “luxury vehicle”, so sales were quite modest. Meanwhile, Toyota, Nissan and Honda were sending over federalized versions of their old-school vans with their engines between the front seats, and other shortcomings.
Mazda clearly had Chrysler’s hot-selling minivans in their gunsights when they designed the MPV. But Mazda was in no position to develop a new dedicated FWD platform, so they started with their large RWD sedan platform, as used on the 929, and made it work as best as possible. It’s the only minivan that comes to mind that started out life that way (except the much later Mercedes R-Class), and as such, it’s really something of a crossover of sorts, between a sedan and a compact van. And although it had a few intrinsic shortcomings, dynamically, it was the best in class when it arrived, thanks to an optional 3.0 L V6 and handling that was closer to a good sedan than a trucklet.
I just shot this 1996 MPV 4WD a last fall, one of the last left in town, so I’ll use it to augment the review.
The MPV’s performance was clearly best in class. But then V6s were on their way for others in the class, which quickly took away that one advantage. The MPV’s handling wasn’t exactly in sports-car territory, but it was clearly more fun to drive on a twisty canyon than anything else in its class. That advantage wouldn’t be eroded quite so quickly.
Due to it being RWD, it was never going to be quite as space-efficient as the Chrysler minivans. But it wasn’t too bad either, as long as one is comparing them to the swb versions; once the Grand caravan/Voyager came along, they were in a class by themselves.
As can be seen, the rear-most seat sits up over the solid axle, so there was never going to be a flat floor if one took the seats out. They could be removed, as well as folded down, which even made a bed of sorts. A compromise, and one which quite a few buyers were willing to accept the first few years, when the MPV sold fairly well.
Of course there’s also the fact that the MPV had a conventional hinged rear passenger door, which made opening it adequately in parking lots a bit challenging.
From today’s vantage point, one thing is clear: the MPV was a tough and durable thing. There may only be a few left here now, but I know at least two folks who drove them for ages and racked very high miles on them. And the 4WD version really did make it more of a crossover than anything else. A perfect Eugene-mobile for those with kids.