Mazda Motor Corp. believes its all-new front-wheel-drive '00 MPV (multipurpose vehicle) will be the siren's song that lures young families to its brand. The stylish short-based minivan is one of the smaller vehicles in its segment and is priced affordably, starting at $19,995.

Mazda wisely benchmarked the Honda Odyssey, which can't be produced fast enough to meet U.S. demand. MPV offers dual sliding doors with windows that actually open up (there's a concept) - a first in the industry - and a rear-facing third-row bench seat that folds into the floor.

The new MPV gives Mazda five vehicles for the North American market, with a mainstream lineup that will be enhanced by the addition of Ford Motor Co.'s upcoming small sport/utility vehicle (SUV) in 2001. Ford currently holds 36% of Mazda. Built on a modified 626 platform and powered by Ford's 170-hp Duratec 2.49L V-6 engine, Mazda hopes to sell 45,000 MPVs in North America next year (that 2.49L is a variant of Ford's 2.54L Duratec V-6, downsized to scrape under the Japan-market tax on engines over 2.5L).

Things are looking up for Mazda, including the redesigned Miata roadster and Protege subcompact, which sells well in Canada.

Mazda's North American arm contributed close to half of the Japanese parent's net profits for fiscal 1998-'99, which represented the first consolidated profit in six years and the highest in 14 years.

Yet Mazda still seems unable to make the elusive connection with mainstream customers that has proved so fruitful for rivals Honda and Toyota, despite near-universal press praise for the "soul" and inherent quality of its cars. Perhaps a resurrection of the rotary engine - Mazda plans to introduce an all-new rotary in an equally all-new RX-7 sports car this month at the Tokyo Motor Show - can reinvigorate in the U.S its reputation for innovative thinking translated into refreshingly different products.