By on August 14, 2013

2011_Honda_Freed_Spike_Hybrid_002_6105

Yesterday, I took a look at the Mitsubishi Delica Space Gear and the Toyota Hi-Ace, the “size queens” of the Japanese market. Today, I decided to look at the odd men out, so to speak, those mini-vans that hit the sweet spot in the market and offer seven seats in a small or mid-sized package. Sticking with that earlier theme, both of these are only available outside of the United States so, sorry, you can’t get them here. But it’s fun to see how other people live so let’s take a look.

As my young family has grown in size and number over the past few years, my in-laws have been absolutely wonderful. When we lived in Japan we saw one another frequently and even today, thought we are half a world away, my wife and her parents Skype at least once a week and we are blessed with their presence in our home usually two or three times per year. Last summer we decided to bless their home with our presence and the whole Kreutzer clan picked up and headed across the Pacific. In preparation for our arrival, my in-laws ran out and purchased a new seven seater and wisely, with an eye towards the fact that most of those seats would be empty most of the time, they went small and they went hybrid.

2008_Honda_Freed_02

The Honda Freed is a “compact seven seater” with sliding side doors that is similar in size and function to the Mazda 5 we get stateside. In person it bears a striking resemblance to the most recent incarnation of the Honda Fit, with a steeply sloping nose, a long curving windshield, and a rectangular back half that ends so abruptly it looks like it was cut with a knife. As a Star Trek nerd, the little Freed reminds me very much of one of the small shuttles used in The Next Generation from the outside and on the inside, if it is not overly spacious, it is at least futuristic.

2012-Honda-Freed-Hybrid-Interior-design

The Freed offers three rows of seating with each of the back two rows slightly elevated in a way that makes the vehicle’s cabin appear to have stadium seating. The third row is even with the rear wheels and my guess is that this arrangement was necessary to fit atop them, but the effect is generally nice and gives the rear passengers a chance to look over the front seats and catch a glimpse out the windshield. I understand that there are second row captain’s chairs available, if they can be called that, but my in-law’s car was outfitted with a three person bench seat. The back row is cramped and only offers space for two. Because the rear seat is so far aft, there is no additional cargo space and no place for a fold-flat seats. To allow space for cargo, the rear seat is split in two allowing each side can be folded and then swing up into a position where they block the rear quarter windows. Personally, I don’t like this arrangement.

I don’t spend a lot of time in Hondas these days so stop me if you already familiar with the two level dash the Freed mounts. It is an odd looking piece at first, but it fits in well with the car’s overall styling. The top of the dash incorporates the instrument bezel and a place for the car’s navigation system while beneath its rounded leading edge a second almost flat shelf comes out and provides space for the climate controls and the gear shift. It is, I think, a little odd but quite refreshing given that the alternative would have simply been a flat panel with a glove box.

hondaFreedhybrid dash

Although I had the opportunity to ride in the Freed on the expressway, where it seemed to do just fine, I did not get to take the wheel until we were safe at home in Kyoto and then my trips were mostly confined to the local area. Around town it was a competent little car that handled the city streets well and accelerated without any kind of drama whenever I hit the gas. All in all, not bad.

But not all of the hybrid systems were so seamless. In order to save gas, at lengthy stoplights the engine would shut itself off if I held my foot on the brake too long and, of course, when the engine turned off so did the air conditioning. That’s a problem on a hot summer day so I began to use the hand brake to hold my position in order to keep the engine running and the air conditioning pumping. Not horrible, but annoying. The other “eco” effect I noticed was how the car acted while coasting. It seemed to me that whenever I took my foot off the gas they car would begin to slow more rapidly than a normal, non-hybrid car might and it the overall effect was that the car seemed as though it was especially heavy for some reason. That said, the effect was predictable and never caused any issues while driving even if I never quite acclimated to it entirely.

I generally liked the Freed well enough but I think there are a lot of other cars on the market I would probably go to before I actually purchased one. With four adults and three children in the cabin, the little car was quite cramped and with all the seats in action there was virtually no space for any kind of luggage. Even without the grandparents, the car was still crowded with my wife and me up front, two kids in the middle and another in the third row. To facilitate a trip to the grocery store we would have to fold up one of the rearmost seats, and I really hate the way they fold up where they block a window and create a possible problem should they somehow, say in the event of a side impact, come loose and fall onto any body parts that might end up in that space in an accident.

55-honda-freed

I like the idea of a smaller mini-van, but I think we need to acknowledge that larger families need larger size vehicles. In my in-law’s case, the Freed makes a great deal of sense as it offers good economy in a small, easy to drive package while having the extra seats for those times my wife and kids decide to head home for the summer. For daily use, however, about the smallest I would be willing to buy for my own family is another van we can’t get here in the States, the new Mazda MPV.

In the interest of full disclosure, I want to start this part of the article by stating right up front that I owned a 2002 JDM Mazda MPV with the 2.3 liter 4 cylinder for the entire three years we lived in Okinawa. Prior to purchasing it, my wife and I spent some time in the then brand new 2006 MPV and I was quite taken by it. It was that experience that sent me to my local Mazda dealer to seek out a used version and it was my inner cheapskate that caused me to end up purchasing a slightly used 2002 for a fraction of the price the redesign was fetching. Regardless of the fact that the design was already “day old bread,” I loved that van and sold it to family when I left just so I could see it when we go home.

2002 mpv

It’s funny how the mind works, because when I was in Japan my MPV seemed like a reasonably large, reasonably well powered vehicle. Back in the United States, however, I soon saw just how small the MPV actually is when compared to other vans and the especially so when compared to the even more giant SUVs that prowl this side of the Pacific. Even so, the earlier generation of MPVs did well in the United States, but I will note that to help satiate the American’s desire for more of everything the smaller 4 cylinder was not available here and only V6 MPVs were sold on our shores.

mazda_mpv_front

The 2006 MPV I drove, and yes I know that Mazda still sold MPVs in the USA in 2006 and so I want to stress here that the US got the old version while the Japanese stopped selling that design domestically in 2005, was a handsome, long nosed, low profile vehicle that appeared more like a tall station wagon than a typical mini-van. They came in two flavors, both 2.3 liter four cylinders, one turbo charged, the other not and had any number of features that were typical at the time but, as one commenter who lives in Hong Kong rather astutely pointed out when I mentioned the JDM MPV in some remarks a week or two ago, lack a lot of the more modern electronic and interconnectivity features found in many of the newest vans. Our Canadian enthusiasts, who waxed rhapsodic about the previous model’s four wheel drive capability, will be thrilled to know that the current redesign also features both front and four wheel drive versions.

As those of you who have them in your cars probably know, the Mazda 2.3 liter is a smooth running little engine that does pretty well on the road. The extra weight of the MPV and a load full of passengers does affect the engine, however, and there are times when I found myself working the engine harder than I would normally like. In general, it was serviceable on the highway but I would have enjoyed trying the turbo. Around town, as with virtually all Japanese minivans, the engine was more than sufficient.

Mazda_MPV_interior1.preview

Inside, the MPV was a good combination of “get the job done” practicality and pure class. I liked that the gear selector was not on the dash next to the wheel but was located below it on a small protruding console on the lower part of the dash. Above that, the climate controls were prominent and intuitive and, topping the center stack and tucked neatly between a pair of vents, was the navigation/audio screen. In front of the driver, in a blatant display of Mazda’s Zoom-Zoom philosophy, back lit analog gauges included a large, easy to read tachometer alongside a matching speedometer. There are several seating options available and they run from the totally practical cloth covered three row bench to the highest-end full leather recliners you can get. There is no doubt in my mind that the MPV’s primary mission is to move people in comfort and style and that utility, which is still present thanks to a fold-flat rear seat and the well in the floor that swallowing that seat necessitates, comes in a close second.

mpv seats

On the road, the current MPV is not as easy to drive as many of the larger, taller JDM vans currently on the market. Because it is has a longer nose, the driver sits well behind the front wheels and the overall driving dynamic is quite car-like. Also, thanks to a lower greenhouse, the windows too are slightly smaller than the enormous ones available on more typical high-end JDM people movers like the Elgrand and the Alphard and that makes it slightly more difficult to see out of. Handling and the ride is good and the driving experience is reminiscent of a large, full size luxury car. I like it.

The MPV is all about compromise and, unlike many compromises I have been forced to make during my life, the trade-offs made in its design do not end up giving away all the good in favor of all the bad. The design offers seven seats and sliding doors with the handling dynamics of a large car. It gives up overall height, which is bad because it limits the driver’s view but also good because it eliminates the sail area that sends most mini-vans skittering across the freeway on gusty days. It sits the driver further back in the cabin than most vans, which I think makes it more difficult to drive in tight situations but gives an added sense of comfort and control. I think the MPV would do wonderfully on the American market and I would purchase one in a heartbeat.

It’s a shame we don’t get either of these wonderful people movers stateside. They both strike a perfect balance by being big on the inside and small on the outside and, in doing so, are exactly what a mini-van is supposed to be. To wrap up, both of these mighty minis are decent vehicles that would probably draw people into showrooms in the United States, but only one, the Mazda MPV, would make my short list of mini-vans. If only they were sold here. If only…

mazda_mpv_back

Thomas M Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

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24 Comments on “In Japanese Bondage: The Honda Freed Hybrid and the Mazda MPV...”


  • avatar
    BunkerMan

    The wife and I owned a 2002 MPV that we purchased after our Dodge Caravan was written off in an accident in 2006. Overall it was a good vehicle. It had the 200hp 3.0L V6 engine that was new for that model year.

    It was a revelation compared to the 1999 Caravan that it replaced. The engine was smoother, quieter, and had more power than the Dodge. It was a smaller van for sure, but still large enough for our family of four, plus any friends they wanted to bring along. It had no trouble towing our ~2,000 lb tent trailer on camping trips, and the Mazda version of Stow and Go was easy to use.

    It had one major flaw, however. Rust. Every issue that van ever had was rust related.

    We live in Atlantic Canada, so tons of salt are spread on our roads all winter.

    - The exhaust pipe behind the cat rusted out (in the US on a trip. We fixed it in a Wal-Mart parking lot with muffler tape and a Pepsi can so we didn’t raise eyebrows going back across the border.)
    - The muffler rusted out
    - The underside of the hood edge went to powdered rust
    - The lower edge of the hatch and behind the licence plate
    - Lower edge of both sliding doors
    - Rust around all 4 wheel wells
    - rusty wiper arms (front and back)
    - perforated rocker panels on each side
    - The license plate nearly fell off since the bolts rusted away. This was fixed with zip ties.

    Mechanically, it was running great when we sold it at a public auction in 2011. It sold for $800 because of the crappy body.

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    So basically the ATS has the front of an older MPV on it.

  • avatar
    dolorean

    I love my ’10 Mazda5 GT and really, REALLY like that Japanese looker you posted! Are there plans to have this model to the States instead of the resurfaced Mazda5 gen? I’d greatly appreciate purchasing the GT again, with the 6spd, the diesel and cappucino-metallic paint with latte leather seats. Better than Sailor Moon carrying me another frosty Asahi.

  • avatar
    ott

    “As a Star Trek nerd, the little Freed reminds me very much of one of the small shuttles used in The Next Generation…” –What’s that happening to the body in pic number two? I thought the Federation had banned cloaking technology.

  • avatar
    AlfaRomasochist

    This article makes me sad. :(

    For 9 years and 112,xxx miles now we’ve had a 2004 Mazda MPV as our family truckster. We bought it new and would replace it with another new MPV in a heartbeat if it was available. Great van. I honestly don’t know what we’ll end up replacing it with.

    Odyssey / Sienna? Too big and pricey. Caravan / T&C? Too rental-y. Quest? Too … weird. Mazda5? I love the idea, especially of a Kodo / SkyActiv replacement in a year or so, but for a family of 6 with kids aged 11, 8, 6, and 2 it’s probably too small to be a realistic option. Which leaves the horde of crossover thingies, which are exactly like minivans but with the added bonus of paying more for a less space efficient, less convenient package. (Sliding doors FTW!)

    It’s a bummer knowing that Mazda has the perfect replacement and won’t sell it here.

    • 0 avatar
      Richard Chen

      Slight problem: the 3rd gen MPV/Mazda8 is RHD only.

      Agreed, 6 people in the current Mazda5 is a bit too tight. The 5 cubic feet behind the 3rd row is a tall & narrow trapezoidal solid, and not of little use.

    • 0 avatar
      DeeDub

      How about that stretched version of the Ford Transit Connect that’s supposedly coming soon? “Transit Connect Wagon” or some such I think.

      • 0 avatar
        Richard Chen

        The upcoming 2014 Transit Connect Wagon LWB is taller, but otherwise similarly sized to the MPV. It seats 2-3-2, as opposed to the MPV’s 2-2-3. Headroom look great and there’s a decent amount of room behind the 3rd row, and the seats fold flat on the floor. IIRC it’s coming early 2014.

        http://www.ford.com/crossovers/transitconnect-wagon/

  • avatar
    Richard Chen

    FTA:”I think the MPV would do wonderfully on the American market and I would purchase one in a heartbeat.”

    Sadly, Mazda felt otherwise and brought over the CX-9 instead. Outgoing 2nd generation MPV had a $5K rebate.
    related: http://www.autoweek.com/article/20070202/free/70129011

    • 0 avatar
      AlfaRomasochist

      Yup, I paid under $18k for mine back in 2004, with a sticker just over $25k. I don’t think it would be a volume seller but with the right sales target it would do fine. They just built way too many for the demand in the last generation, and now there’s probably too much overlap with the Mazda5.

  • avatar
    nguyenvuminh

    Thank you Tom for your write-up and like many here, I long for a practical car like the true minivan (not Odyssey/Sienna/T&C). The 6-7 seats, the sliding door, the storage-space if need be, just makes too much sense. I am a family of 4 (two young children) and is waiting for news that the 2014 Mazda5 will have Skyactiv. I would gladly take the Mazda MPV you described above if Mazda brings it Stateside (as it do a better job accommodating my children as they grow). Sadly, until I hear about the 2014 Mazda5 getting Skyactiv, I really have no other choice.

  • avatar
    Kenmore

    Nope.

    Lost my heart yesterday to the Hi-Ace.

    There’s no one else for me.

  • avatar
    jeffzekas

    My first new car was a ’91 Mazda GLC Wagon- nice car, but not as durable as the Corolla (GLC motor went bad at 90K vs the Corolla at 210K miles). Always liked vans with AWD- especially when compared with Dodge. Here’s an idea: put $!/gallon tax on gas! We could fix all the bridges AND get folks to buy smaller, more efficient cars! What do you think, Mr Kreutzer?

  • avatar
    rolladan

    The previa is my favorite van of all time. Huge interior, huge greenhouse,rwd or 4wd, mid engine, 4 cyl, supercharger option, available in stick shift, obnoxiously reliable, amazing selection of aftermarket parts ( if youre into that sort of thing) and dirt ass cheap in the used car market. Plus the cool factor of driving an egg is unmatched. Probably the only bad thing about it is its not as good on gas as you’d expect from a 4 cyl and the non supercharged ones are slow as hell. Like reeeeeeally slow. I have a non supercharged and if a kid pulled up on a tricycle and wanted to race I wouldn’t bite. I love the van articles btw interesting stuff as always. Now buy a damn van already.

    • 0 avatar
      Piston Slap Yo Mama

      I keep chiming in on Herr Kreutzer’s posts with the Previa / Estima mantra but so far no luck in getting him to write a column on how awesome they are. Usually I blather on about the supercharger & AWD options but this time I’m taking a different tact: it’s amazing how durable the suckers are – seriously, most of them on Craigslist are well over 200k miles and still going strong. When I see someone emerging from one while out on errands I ask them how many miles they’ve racked up and the number is generally well beyond my guess. That’s awesome-sauce when taking into account how hard that puny 4-cylinder has to work, unlike an understressed v6.

  • avatar
    Luke42

    My wife would love the Freed.

    She likes the Mazda 5 a lot, but it looks like a gas hog compared to the Prius.


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