THE Mazda Multi-Purpose Vehicle's chunky good looks are immediately recognisable as North American. It looks just like a station-wagon, a favourite of American suburbanites of the 1950s and as American as mum's apple pie, and Lassie looking out the back tailgate. The older models were built with long, horizontal boards along the sides, to simulate the traditional wooden wagon, but the Mazda MPV has none of the clumsiness of an old wagon. This 1993 Mazda version has an urbane appearance. The MPV has dropped its rustic country pretensions. The exterior projects the image of a city car. The front bonnet has been foreshortened, the nose softened to a slanted, tucked-under front, and the whole vehicle has a fat toy-like charm. Unlike some vans, the engine is accessible through the front, and laid out clearly with oil and other functions readily identifiable. The entire frame, slightly wider at wheel base, has been lifted up over larger wheels. Inside the car, the look of sophistication continues with the two-toned leather upholstery - a surprisingly luxurious touch for a car that can double as a camper. Consequently, Hongkong companies are buying the Mazda as an executive car - attracted by its extra seating capacity. The car has seven seats, divided into three rows. They are comfortably cushioned, the backs well-slanted with strategic lumbar support and height-adjustable headrests. The boxy frame means there is plenty of shoulder and head room, even in the rear row which is raised slightly to clear the axle. In fact, the high position in the rear provides better sight-lines through the windows. Behind the rear row is space for brief cases and medium-size luggage. Adapting to its extra length, the car comes with separate air conditioning for the front and rear sections, a six-speaker audio system with AM/FM radio and cassette player, and independently controlled interior lights. The plastic dashboard and mouldings are practical, easy to clean, and sturdy enough for rough useage. Yet, despite its roominess, passengers in the back seat do not appear distant from the front passengers. The interior feels like a car, not a van. Other car-like features are the doors and step-in facility. Unlike many vans, which have a sliding door along only one side, the Mazda has four swing doors along its sides. The Mazda, slightly higher than a car but lower than a van, does not need a step to climb up. Another design plus is placing the gear shift on the steering wheel column and eliminating the floor-mounted lever. The car's flat floor helps interior mobility, as does the aisle space between the front seats and along the mid-section. The Mazda can transform itself into a mini-van or a modified camper. The back row folds forward to double the luggage space. Given the car's square body shape, this floor-to-ceiling space allows the Mazda to operate as a transporter of equipment and small-scale furniture. The back is accessed through a hatchback door which swings up with the assistance of gas struts. The rear and middle seats can recline backwards to make sleeping cots. With the three-litre V-6 engine capable of 155 horsepower, the front engine, rear-wheel drive Mazda offers serious and almost effortless performance. Driving is like operating a Range Rover. On the highway at speed, the car feels as if it is floating; very calm, with long legs and large lungs. Accelerating, one can feel more engine power than might be expected from such a vehicle but, when the engine is held down in the lower gears, the noise is a little intrusive. Steering is light with a lot of assistance. Lane switching and driving in heavy traffic is easy with sensitive control and responsive mobility. Braking is instantaneous - its anti-lock braking system gripping with real assurance. Passengers feel minimal body movement on braking. There is some side rolling when rounding curves at higher speeds, but suspension is comfortable. The Hongkong Mazda agency said buyers included returning overseas Chinese, who had previously owned similar vehicles in Canada or the United States. Designing for its US market with generally bigger-framed customers has made everything about the interior outsize. The leather steering wheel is chunky and thick-rimmed. The dials are large, the sun-visors enormous, and the rear-view mirrors over-sized. The wipers are longer to cover the enlarged windshield. The Mazda combines advantages of the car and the van. Priced at $269,000, it is not the cheapest MPV on the market, but the high quality and big engine is sure to win customers.