Car camping is hot right now, and so are SUVs from the 1960s to the 1990s. I’m totally on board with all those things, so as far as I’m concerned, it’s a good time to be an enthusiast. But today, I was reminded that the Mazda MPV was a badass four-wheel drive SUV/van hybrid before it devolved into a Honda Odyssey knockoff. You overlanders should check these things out.
Perhaps you, like myself, have always been aware of the early MPV’s existence but never really gave it much thought. After all, it wasn’t particularly embraced by critics or customers when it was new. Hence, the car’s fading into obscurity. Then I saw this tweet, like a ray of sunshine after a rainy week:
Hot damn–look at the stance on that thing. The ride height is righteous, as is that oversized “4WD” emblem ahead of the rear fender and–wait–is this thing a two-door?!
It’s actually a three-door, or “four-door” if you want to be dumb and count the tailgate, but yeah, Mazda in its infinite wisdom of the early ’90s gave the first-generation MPV one driver-side door and two on the passenger side, like a Hyundai Veloster has.
Except on the Mazda, it looks like the right and left front doors are the same size. So if the asymmetry wasn’t to improve ease of driver ingress and egress, the only other justification I can imagine for this configuration would be to left-orient the passenger seating so that the third row could more easily be accessed.
The oddness of this thing didn’t stop with doors: it’s also got true part-time four-wheel drive (electronically activated; so futuristic!) complete with a locking center differential.
Not all first-gen MPVs had four-wheel drive, and none of them looked quite as aggressive as the one in that Craigslist ad, but to me, today, even a stock one looks like a pretty cool platform for an overland build:
An MPV review from 1997 I unearthed from the Old Internet complained that 3.0-liter V6 (155 horsepower) had to work hard to climb hills (no shit), so one of these would probably feel pretty glacial 20 years later. But at least you’ve got enormous windows to enjoy the view from while you wheeze up grades at 15 mph!
I don’t care that much about speed, so seeing that one that got tweeted (look here when the ad disappears) in clearly cared-for condition for a mere $3,500 made me think I’d stumbled upon a forgotten slice of the SUV world just ripe for the digging into... until I tried to find another one.
A cursory lap around Craigslists in a few major American cities yielded about zero similar results. Clearly, there isn’t a wealth of these vehicles left. I kept digging, in hopes that there might be a community or aftermarket dedicated to the remaining few, and didn’t have a heap of luck there, either.
The MPV Club forum seems reasonably active, but I couldn’t find much action at all in the way of Facebook groups. As for people using these as the basis of off-road builds, there’s one other cool one on Pinterest that’s made good use of the light bar and roof rack from a Jeep Liberty to toughen up a bit. Forum chatter indicates that you can fit a 29-inch tire on one of these without lifting it. That’s not particularly large, but it gives you access to some decent all-terrain options that should improve an MPV’s rough-terrain traction markedly.
At least one guy has used an MPV 4WD as an off-road camper:
Yeah, the more I look at these, the more I like them. But the complete dearth of options for sale makes me think owning one might be a hard road to walk with minimal parts support and a non-existent aftermarket.
But that’s what it takes to be a contrarian car fan. If were easy, it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting.
Speaking of interesting, it looks like there was also a luxury version in Japan badged Efini (or “ɛ̃fini” if you want to get dorky). Somebody even bought one! Also, the MPV gets an appearance and a lyrical shoutout in a Wu-Tang video:
The car rolls up at about 01:15. “Catchin’ keys from across seas/Rollin’ in MPVs/every week we made 40 Gs.”
Anyway, if there’s any way to find folks who happen to be devout fans of some obscure car, it’s to make a Jalopnik post about it. So here’s hoping whoever’s out there working on Mazda MPV 4WDs sees this post and leaves a comment or sends me an email about what these things are really like.
Meanwhile, if I’ve piqued your interest, set your search parameters for first-gen vehicles (1989 to 1998) as the revised MPVs of the ’00s were just straight-up minivans. Good hunting!