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Craig Cheetham

The star of the Geneva Motor Show for Mazda was billed as a styling study, but that's just car company talk. It's the final piece in Mazda's numbers game, and will ultimately appear as the 4.

Seen here badged as the MX-Flexa, the new model has been described by Mazda's marketing chief, Stephen Odell, as "an incredibly important concept". It's midway in size between the firm's current people carriers, the Premacy and the MPV, which suggests it could replace both of these by the end of 2005. It has been designed to set out what Mazda considers the key elements in the MPV segment.

Unlike many show cars, the MX-Flexa is fully operational. It comes with the 164bhp 2.3-litre four-cylinder engine fitted to the Mazda 6, which is expected to appear in range-topping versions of the production model. Other powerplants will be 1.8 and 2.0-litre petrol units, plus a 2.0-litre diesel.

The MX-Flexa is based on a wider and longer version of the Mazda 3's platform. And the company's engineers believe it has the potential to be one of the best handling MPVs on the market, with sporty steering and a dynamic suspension set-up. But the importance of practicality hasn't been overlooked in favour of driver appeal.

Its versatile interior has six seats in total, with each passenger getting their own individual captain's-style chair.

All the seats fold to give a completely flat load bay, while the concept also features a sliding stand in the boot on which a mountain bike can be stored upright. This is likely to be carried over as an option on production versions of the 4, which could debut at the Paris Motor Show in September.

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