PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 June, 2006, 12:00am

DON'T DRIVE THE Mazda8 in heavy traffic after a big lunch. The car is so smooth, quiet and comfortable that the chances of dozing off behind the wheel are very real; and I almost did.

While driving behind slow-moving traffic on Sai Kung Highway and Clearwater Bay Road at the lower end of the engine rev range, I hardly noticed any engine noise or vibration. OK, I could hear the tyres rolling and the suspension gently thumping, but the engine was so quiet, maybe the rev-counter was lying.

With the front air-conditioner's driver-side temperature control set, the electric sunroof's blind shut to shield out the midday sun, the comfort-oriented suspension creating a cradle-like gentle body motion that makes you feel as if you could be back in the womb. And it's probably just as safe, too (see At a Glance, below).

The temptation to take a nap in the back is even greater. The Mazda8, the third generation of this multi-purpose vehicle, has room for goofing off. It's roughly the same size and layout as the Nissan Presage (from $233,800), both being the tall wagon kind of MPV with a 2+2+3 seating arrangement. You get a front row walk-through corridor with a foldable table between the front seats, two individual mid-row seats that look inviting, and a third-row bench seat that seems alright. You can flip and flop each of the seats just like any other MPV. Then you push one of the middle seats of the Mazda8 sideways and combine the two in to one bench seat with three seat belts, and viola ... the car becomes a 2+3+3 that seats but eight people - just like the Nissan. It would be a tight squeeze with six guys in the back, but MPV buyers consider an eight-seater better value than a seven-seater.

I like the mid-row 'Super Relax' seats. They have the proper angle adjustments, armrests, tiltable head rests, and foldable foot-rests to allow you to relax. You can even lay the seats down, business-class style. Push the seat all the way to end, and shorter passengers can stretch their legs, taipan-style. But if you're tall, you'll end up kicking the front seat's back. Still, shoppers will be impressed.

The sliding doors can be switched on at the B-pillars by the passengers, or on the dashboard. The key card of the new keyless ignition system can also open the doors and the tailgate window. The car has separate air-con controls for rear passengers and vents on the ceiling. The third-row seats have an electric reverse function: you push the seats down manually for added luggage space, both seats raise up electrically by pushing buttons in the boot. The boot has an extra 109-litre compartment. There's also an aero kit with front and side skirts and rear spoiler.

With some skulking, you can walk freely around a cabin that's well-finished in aluminium and wood, and the dashboard is lit in blue. All the seats are comfortable and made of rich materials.

You sit tall in the Mazda8, but it's still unmistakably car-like, with the leather steering wheel and the centre console-mounted gear lever facing the driver.

The Mazda8 is powered by a new 2.3-litre, four-cylinder engine that matches the 163 horsepower of the Honda Odyssey 2.4 (from $277,880) and the Nissan Presage, but lacks the torque of the Honda's 22.3kg/m and the Nissan's 25.1kg/m. The engine is eerily quiet in traffic, but can be intrusive when revved hard, which is necessary when overtaking.

The light steering wheel and brake pedal feel halfway between direct and disconcerted. The gear lever has an extra slot for the Activematic manual control, but you find yourself pulling for the fifth gear that's not there.

The Mazda8 is leisurely in pace, and there isn't much excitement in the driving department except from the constant rocking sensation and the muffled road noise. If your idea of a good time is a quiet evening spent at home, the Mazda8 is your kind of car.