The 1989 MPV was designed from the ground-up as a minivan for the American market. It was based on the large rear wheel drive 929's HC. It would be called the LV platform, and equipped the MPV with a V6 engine and optional four wheel drive. Its 4WD system is not to be confused with "all wheel drive"; the MPV can be switched into 4WD with a switch mounted on the column gear selector. A dash mounted switch also allowed the driver to lock the center differential, splitting power equally between the front and rear axles. The 4WD can be engaged and disengaged while moving.
Like the later Honda Odyssey, it featured traditional hinged doors instead of sliding rear doors, though the original MPV only had a single rear door. Because of the 4WD option, the Mazda Navajo (sold from 1991-1994) version of the Ford Explorer was only offered as a 2 door. The middle row was available as a bench, allowing seating for 8 when most minivans seated 7.
The van was named to Car and Driver magazine's Ten Best list for 1990 and 1991 and featured as one of their "vehicles for the coming (fuel) crisis". Initial sales were strong as well, but rapidly fell off once other makers introduced all wheel drive and V6 engines. However, Toyota's 1991 Previa, Nissan's 1993 Quest, and Honda's 1995 Odyssey all featured purpose-built platforms and eroded Mazda's lead.
The MPV received one star out of four in the Australian ANCAP crash tests and a "Marginal" rating in the American IIHS crash tests.
The van was refreshed in 1996, adding drivers' side rear door. While the I4 engine retired for the United States market, it was replaced with a similar 2.5L unit for the rest of the world. The '97 and '98 models received a mild refreshing with "all-sport" body cladding and wheel arches, and polished alloy wheels. Mazda discontinued the original MPV after the '98 model year.
- This generation was featured in the Wu-Tang Clan's C.R.E.A.M. video.
The MPV was replaced for 2000 with a front wheel drive LW platform based on the 626. This second generation MPV featured dual sliding rear doors,front-wheel drive, a third row seat that folded flat into the floor and rear door windows that rolled down.