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Part 4x4, Part Minivan: The First Gen Mazda MPV Was Doing "Adventure" Before It Was Cool

If you are familiar at all with JDM vehicles, you probably know that Japanese automakers have built all sorts of cool 4x4 vans and minivans over the years, the vast majority of which never made it to our shores.

First Gen Mazda MPV Black

There was one, however, that did find it's way to North America and it can easily be called one of the strangest minivans ever sold here—the first generation Mazda MPV.

Mazda MPV JDM Version

The Debut of the MPV

Debuting in 1988 when the minivan concept was still quite young, the MPV didn't use a front-drive layout but a rear-drive layout based on the Mazda 929 luxury sedan. And unlike most minivans it had traditional hinged doors rather than sliding doors. 

Mazda MPV Red Open Doors

Off-Road Minivan?

Even so, it still offered a ton of space inside for its size, and was a fairly common sight on American roads in the 1990s. But what really set the MPV apart from the increasing number of minivans introduced to the market was that it could be had with four-wheel-drive. 

Mazda MPV 4WD Gold

That's right, this family hauler could be equipped with a "real" 4WD system that could be activated via a switch on the dash. Better yet, in something that was unheard of in minivans you could even get one with a five-speed manual transmission. 

Mazda MPV RHD Interior

After a refresh in the mid 1990s, Mazda even added an "All Sport" trim that included body cladding that made the MPV look even more like an SUV. 

Mazda MPV All Sport

Even by the standards of the day, the first generation MPV was an unusual vehicle. A van based neither on a front-drive car platform or a body-on-frame truck platform. It was its own thing—and the only other van this unusual was Toyota's egg-shaped Previa. 

Mazda MPV Gray and Silver

Ahead of its Time

The first generation MPV lasted until 1999 when it was replaced with a new MPV minivan that had a traditional front-drive layout and sliding doors, and the MPV disappeared from the US market completely in 2006. 

Mazda MPV with Running Boards

Today there are just a few minivans of any type left on the market, with Mazda and many other automakers ditching these once popular vans for crossover SUVs. 

Mazda MPV Green and Gold

It's especially interesting to look back on the first generation MPV today, seeing just how popular crossover SUVs and other "adventure-ready" vehicles have gotten. Even so, with Mazda now aiming to be a premium brand, it's highly unlikely they'll ever build something like this again.

It's just another strange slice of automotive history. 

  • How about another "adventure" vehicle that was before its time? The Pontiac Aztek.
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