The MPV is an MVP

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What do auto journalists know? At least with film and music critics, they’re having the same basic experience you are: listening to the CD, watching the movie. But the car writers don’t live with their test vehicles; they just try them out for a week, and most new cars are on their best behavior during that honeymoon period. In approximately 17 years of car writing, I’ve experienced maybe two or three minor breakdowns.

For real-life, on-the-road reviews, you have to go to the people. Minivans are, in particular, a people’s car, enlisted for tough duty in the trenches of day-to-day America. You have to build ’em tough to stand up to the rigors of the carpool and the playdate set. Carpets have to withstand ground-in Cheerios, and cupholders take on the candy-stained fingers of rough toddlers. It helps if the van can steer itself, since the driver is likely to be distracted by the antics of his multiple passengers.

My van this week is a Mazda MPV, which was given more power in the form of a 3-liter, 170-horsepower V-6 engine for 2002. I’ve always felt that the MPV had a certain elevated sensibility among the minivans, which is just as well because Mazda means "wisdom" or "wise" in the Zarathustrian religion.

Coupled with a five-speed automatic, the added power means a certain highway zip and fuel economy of 18/24. The ride and handling are also better, with improvements to the rear stabilizer, front springs and overall body stiffness. Also new is an eight-way power-driver’s seat and audio controls on the steering wheel. The latter I repeatedly fouled when making turns, subjecting me to blasting Aerosmith while trying to yell at my kids.

For what it’s worth, I liked the MPV’s automatic rear door controls, which a child could (and did) operate safely. The MPV does indeed handle reasonably well, without wallowing as many larger minivans and most SUVs do. The controls were reasonably well laid-out and there was very good storage for odds and ends, and a very handy third seat that folds flat. As tested with all the options, it came to $29,087, which seems a bit steep but within today’s minivan range.

So that’s what I think. What about the MPV’s owners? On MSN’s Carpoint reader’s service, the average overall rating was an impressive 9.6 out of 10, with styling, performance and quality all receiving high marks, and a strong vote (9.1) for the interior as well. The most dissatisfied customer was a Canadian who gave his van a 5.8, claiming the quality was poor, that a transmission control unit went bad at around 3,000 miles, and that the driver’s seat frame was not secured — a problem he said also existed on the other MPVs on the dealer’s lot. All the same, he reported an "enjoyable" driving experience. "Hopefully, there will be no more problems from now on," he said.

But MG from Boise, Idaho, loves the handling and acceleration, complaining only about the lack of sound insulation (something I also noticed; the wind noise is particularly bad with the windows even part-way down). "The best bang for the buck," says MG.

At Epinions.com, BrainCam praised the fact that the rear side windows go down (agreed) and the smaller size compared to other minivans. Mkaresh, who’s expecting child number three, is just thinking about buying an MPV. In her current car, it’s getting awfully "tight" in that back seat, what with a toddler seat, a booster seat and now an infant seat, all in one row. But she wants to know, "Can a minivan have ‘zoom zoom?’"

And then there’s 2buzy, who loves her MPV, giving it five stars and praising its changeable rows of seats and, again, the lowering rear windows. She thinks the gas mileage should be better, however.

So the people speak. And I mostly agree with them, too. Minivans work for families. Despite the "soccer mom" image, they offer form, function and more room than station wagons or SUVs.