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2003 Mazda MPV
John Rettie

Compared with most minivans, the Mazda MPV is a sports car. It's lighter and more compact than, say, a Honda Odyssey, making it more agile and easier to park.

Last year, the MPV was significantly upgraded, with a new 3.0-liter V6 that delivered substantially more power and torque. Mazda paired this new engine with a new and responsive five-speed automatic transmission and a revised suspension. Big, sporty 17-inch alloy wheels are standard on the ES version.

The MPV's small size hasn't hurt its performance in crash testing. In fact, the MPV is one of just a few passenger vans to receive a top five-star rating in all four of the Federal government's collision categories: front and side impact, for both front-seat and rear-seat passengers.

The MPV is smooth, quiet and powerful. It's pleasant to live with. MPV features a beautifully designed interior with high-quality materials, excellent ergonomics, and great seats. Sliding doors on both sides are convenient, and they have real windows that go up and down, which is nice for back-seat riders. Flexible seating and cargo configurations make it easy for the MPV to handle a variety of tasks on a busy day. The third row disappears into the floor, and the middle seats are a marvel of clever design.

If you want a big van this isn't it. MPV is a good size if you typically have four or fewer passengers; if five or six regularly ride with you, then one of the bigger minivans would likely be more suitable. But if you want a family vehicle that's smooth, quiet, comfort, agile and quick, yet can carry up to six passengers, then the Mazda MPV is an excellent choice.

Model Lineup
Mazda MPV is available in two trim levels: LX ($22,690) and ES ($26,090).

Both are powered by a 3.0-liter, 24-valve V6 engine that produces 200 horsepower and 200 pounds-feet of torque.

Standard equipment on the LX includes antilock brakes (ABS), air conditioning, power windows and locks, Side-by-Slide and Tumble-Under seating, cruise control, 16-inch alloy wheels, a tilt steering wheel with audio controls, and a AM/FM stereo with CD player.

ES adds leather-trimmed seats, rear air conditioning, front side-impact airbags, keyless entry, nine-speaker audio with CD player and cassette, chrome interior accents, traction control, and 17-inch alloy wheels.

Side-impact airbags and traction control are available on the LX as a $400 package. The Security Package for the ES ($730) adds an anti-theft alarm with immobilizer, compass, outside temperature gauge, auto-dimming mirror and fog lamps

On both models, a Four Seasons package ($425) includes a rear heater, heavy-duty battery, larger windshield-washer tank, transmission cooler, larger radiator, heated door mirrors, and a 3000-pound towing capacity. Stand-alone options include a power glass moonroof ($700), power rear sliding doors ($800) and an in-dash six-disc CD changer ($450).

For 2003, a rear-seat entertainment system ($1200) is also available. It plays DVD, MP3 and all other audio files, and comes with two infrared headphones, a seven-inch wide-angle screen (mounted to the ceiling), a handheld remote control and outputs for video games and camcorders.

Mazda MPV is among the smallest of the mainstream minivans sold in the U.S., Measuring just 188 inches long. Honda Odyssey, among the largest minivans, is nearly 14 inches longer than the MPV.

Most Americans believe bigger is better when it comes to minivans. Europeans prefer a smaller vehicle for negotiating narrow streets and parking in tight places. The Mazda MPV is designed for this latter group, so it isn't the first choice of most U.S. buyers. Being smaller and more nimble does have its advantages even in North America, however.

The MPV is sleek and aerodynamic, at least for a minivan. It boasts a coefficient of drag of just 0.34; that means it's not quite as boxy as you might expect. The low drag coefficient contributes to the MPV's low levels of wind noise as well as its fuel efficiency. The appearance of the MPV is enhanced by its big wheels: 16-inch alloys on LX, 17-inch on ES. The outside mirrors are on the small side; bigger mirrors would be better (although they might increase wind noise).

MPV offers a higher level of quality than the Kia Sedona. You need only pull on the door handles of the MPV and the Sedona to see an example of this. The MPV sports high-quality, body-color door handles that are easy to grab and feel good and substantial in your hand; they are among the best door handles on any vehicle.

MPV's sliding doors open nicely, also. The doors are easy to operate manually, although optional power operation ($800) makes life far more convenient. Buttons to open and close them are located on the driver's left and in front of each rear passenger; they are also activated by yanking on the inside or outside door handles. For safety, a defeat switch allows the driver to lock everyone inside. A beep lets you know a door is in motion, and the doors will stop closing if they sense any obstructions, such as a small foot or hand.

Mazda MPV boasts a brilliantly designed interior. The quality of the materials is top notch. Controls are ergonomically excellent. Rear seating is superbly designed, particularly in light of the MPV's compact dimensions. The MPV can haul six people, yet can be quickly reconfigured to provide a large, flat cargo floor.

The leather in the ES is first class, as nice as what's found in some of the most comfortable luxury cars. The interior itself is very nicely finished with high-quality materials on the dash, center console, everywhere you look. The ES features attractive trim on the dash that looks like polished carbon fiber, giving the interior some sports appeal. The front bucket seats are comfortable and supportive. Visibility from the driver's seat is excellent.

The dashboard has a pleasantly smooth finish that is more reminiscent of a car (rather than a van), flowing organically across the width of the vehicle in a single arc. The instrument pod is nicely situated, with a large speedometer set directly in front of the steering wheel and a smaller tachometer to the right. The gauges are attractive. Mazda's attention to detail is seen everywhere: For example, the shift indicator uses outline lettering for Park and Neutral, which makes Reverse and Drive stand out better. Window switches and other switchgear are textured and feel good to the touch, reminding us of Volkswagen's switchgear, which is among the best in the industry.

Radio and climate controls are placed high up in the center, leaving plenty of space for a couple of storage bins underneath. Once shifted into Drive, the shift lever obscures some of the buttons on the radio. Fortunately, the volume and tuning buttons are huge, and other big, clearly marked controls for station presets and other features make the MPV's radio among the most ergonomically correct in any vehicle. Big storage bins and plenty of cupholders ease long hours on the road. An auxiliary 12-volt outlet in the rear side panel provides power for electric accessories.

Particularly nice is the little foldaway tray between the front seats. We prefer having it deployed because it provides a nice platform for the things we take with us. A small, covered compartment on its leading edge is lined with felt, perfect for toll change and other small items; like other features of the interior, the lid on this little compartment is of high quality.

Seating can be configured for two, three, four or as many as six passengers. Technically, the MPV is rated for seven, but that's assuming the three people in the third row are very small and don't mind being crowded. The MPV is a good size if you typically have four or fewer passengers; if five or six regularly ride with you, then one of the bigger minivans would likely be more suitable.

The second-row bucket seats are as nice as the front seats. They adjust fore and aft, providing additional legroom in either the second or third row, depending on where it is needed. They also recline. It's not a bad place to ride at all. The right-side middle seat features Mazda's innovative Side-by-Slide system, allowing it to be moved to the left, up against the left bucket. Flip up the armrests, and you have a small bench seat. This also provides room for third-row passengers to get in and out. What's great about it is that it's so easy to use. A passenger in that seat can quickly move it to the left to let someone in or out, then move it back right and outboard for more personal space. Both second-row seats can be removed individually, resulting in a perfectly flat cargo floor. Each seat weighs just 37 pounds.

The rearmost bench seat can be folded down into a well in the floor (Mazda calls it Tumble-Under), providing even more perfectly flat floor space. With the seat down and the second row in place, the MPV has 54.6 cubic feet for cargo. Remove the second row and as you have 127 cubic feet for your stuff. This Tumble-Under feature (also found on the Honda Odyssey) is very useful, and much easier than having to remove and store the rear seats.

When the third-row seat in its regular position, a well underneath it serves as a useful storage bin for stuff that you don't want sliding around on the floor. The seat also can tip back, so that it can serve as rear-facing picnic bench at a tailgate party. Available rear heating and air conditioning with nicely designed controls makes the back of the MPV a more comfortable place for people or pets. Hooks for grocery bags, purses and other gear are provided on the seat backs and in the cargo area.

Big power windows in the sliding side doors go down two-thirds of the way, which will greatly add to the pleasure of rear-seat passengers who like wind in their hair. Younger riders may enjoy participating in power-window races, but the driver can override this activity by pressing a lock-out switch up front.

Driving Impressions
Mazda MPV goes zoom, zoom, zoom with its 3.0-liter V6. Introduced last year, this dual-overhead-cam engine delivers great power and response. Hit the on-ramp, nail the gas, and it takes off, quickly accelerating into and ahead of the traffic. It's also smooth and quiet.

One reason for the MPV's responsiveness is its flat torque curve. Fully 90 percent of this engine's maximum torque is available from 1800 to 5500 rpm; and its torque peaks at only 3000 revs. Torque is the force that actually accelerates a vehicle. Or, to put it another way, this is the same engine that powers the Mazda Tribute sport-utility vehicle, and it has been acclaimed as the strongest engine in that class.

Just as important is the five-speed automatic transmission that debuted last year along with the new engine. It's smooth and responsive, always in the right gear. And with five ratios it does a much better job of keeping the V6 revving in the power zone than the four-speed automatic that's found in most minivans. MPV's five-speed automatic includes a Slope Control feature that holds fourth gear when climbing hills instead of hunting up and down through the gears.

The 3.0-liter V6 gets better highway gas mileage than the 2.5-liter V6 Mazda used in pre-2002 MPVs.

MPV drives more like a tall car than a minivan, though driving it is still a minivan experience. Compared with other minivans, it handles better on winding roads and maneuvers better in tight situations. Its suspension was revised last year for improved handling. Body and suspension mounts were made more rigid, and the rear stabilizer bar was made larger. The front springs have a three degree offset axis. All of this improved handling and provided a more direct feel to the steering.

The brakes work very well and are easy to modulate for accurate stops. Ventilated discs are used in front with drums in the rear; ABS and electronic brake force distribution (EBD) are standard equipment. ABS allows the driver to brake and steer at the same time for better control in a panic-braking situation, while EBD reduces stopping distances by transferring braking forces to the tires with the most weight on them.

It's hard to beat a minivan for convenience and interior space; whether moving people or cargo, a minivan will carry more for your money. The trouble is, minivans haven't been much fun to drive. But the Mazda MPV is more agile and easier to park than other vans, with good handing, strong power, and a brilliantly designed interior.

MPV is second-rate to no minivan in interior finishing. The power roll-down windows in the side doors are what an adult rear-seat passenger expects. The tumbledown rear seat is really convenient, both for increasing cargo space and as a rear-facing bench for a tailgate party.

Compared with other minivans, Mazda's MPV handles better on the road, and maneuvers better in tight confines. It offers a unique alternative for buyers who like the versatility of a minivan but who do not need the ultimate passenger or cargo capacity of the larger minivans. If it's big enough for you, then the MPV is a great choice.

Model as tested
Mazda MPV ES ($26,090)
Basic Warranty
3 years/50,000 miles
Assembled in
Destination charge
Gas guzzler tax
Base Price
Price as tested
Options as tested
Four-Seasons Package ($425) includes rear heater, heated power mirrors, large windshield washer tank, large radiator, automatic transmission oil cooler, heavy-duty battery; power rear sliding doors ($800); roof rack ($200); rear bumper step plate ($50); fog lights ($250); floor mats ($50)

Model Line Overview
Model lineup
LX ($22,690); ES ($26,090)
Safety equipment (standard)
ABS, EBD, dual front airbags
Safety equipment (optional)
3.0-liter dohc 24-valve V6
5-speed automatic

Specifications as Tested
leather-trimmed upholstery, leather-wrapped steering wheel, second-row Side By Slide seat, third-row Tumble Under seat, air conditioning with dust and pollen filter, rear air conditioning, power door locks with remote keyless entry, eight-way power driver's seat, armrests for driver and passenger, rear privacy glass, nine-speaker AM/FM/cassette/CD stereo

Engine & Transmission
3.0-liter dohc 24-valve V6
Drivetrain type
front-wheel drive
Horsepower (hp @ rpm)
200 @ 6200
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm)

Brakes, front/rear
disc/drum with ABS, EBD
Suspension, front
Suspension, rear
twist beam

Seating capacity
Head/hip/leg room, middle
Head/hip/leg room, front
Head/hip/leg room, rear

Fuel capacity
Trunk volume
Turning circle
Towing capacity
Track, front/rear
Ground clearance
Curb weight

J.D. Power Rating
Overall Quality Not Available
Overall Quality - Mechanical
Not Available
Powertrain Quality - Mechanical
Not Available
Body & Interior Quality - Mechanical
Not Available
Features & Accessories Quality - Mechanical
Not Available
Overall Quality - Design
Not Available
Powertrain Quality - Design
Not Available
Body & Interior Quality - Design
Not Available
Features & Accessories Quality - Design
Not Available

Overall Dependability Not Available
Powertrain Dependability
Not Available
Body & Interior Dependability
Not Available
Feature & Accessory Dependability
Not Available

J.D. Power Rating Legend
Among the Best
5 / 5
Better than Most
4 / 5
About Average
3 / 5
The Rest
2 / 5

* The J.D. Power Ratings are calculated based on the range between the car manufacturer or car model with the highest score and the car manufacturer or car model with the lowest score. J.D. Power generates a rating of a five, four, three, or two. If there is insufficient data to calculate a rating, a dash (—) is used in its place.

J.D. Power Ratings may not include all information used to determine J.D. Power awards, visit the Car Ratings page to learn more about awards and ratings.

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