Versus the competiton:
Mazda likes to talk about sporty performance, pointing out the zoom-zoom attributes of its stylish roadster, the Miata, as well as its enhanced compact, Protege5, and even its minivan, MPV.
With Mazda6, the company takes its message mainstream.
Redesigning its bread-and-butter midsize sedan, the former and largely forgotten 626, into a sharply maneuverable sports sedan, Mazda takes on the family-sedan heavyweights, Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, as well as such popular sporty sedans as Nissan Altima and Volkswagen Passat.
The engineers did their homework on this one, providing Mazda6 with top-notch handling, steering and braking.
Since Mazda recently announced that it was discontinuing its luxury model, the Millenia, 6 becomes the flagship. There are two versions: the four-cylinder Mazda6 i and the V-6 Mazda6 s.
The name 6 seems a bit awkward, though. It reminds me of the old Seinfeld joke when George wanted his pregnant friend to name her baby Seven.
Whatever, Mazda’s parent company, Ford, thinks enough of the 6’s platform that it is planning to build 10 new Fords, Mercurys and Lincolns during the next three years based on the Mazda6 underpinnings.
What it is
Mazda’s latest entry in the midsize-car market, Mazda6 is a major advance over the previous sedan, the 626, and emphasizes sporty driving characteristics. By the numbers: the 6 is a four-door sedan with seating for five. The rear seat is fairly tight, and if three people squeeze back there, they had better be small.
Engine and transmission
Two engines are available for Mazda6, a 2.3-liter inline four with 160 horsepower that’s reportedly strong and lively, and a 3-liter V-6 that delivers 220 horsepower. The V-6 in the test car, equipped with a five-speed stickshift, provided plenty of pull.
The V-6 is admirably smooth and flexible, thanks in part to continuously variable intake valve timing. Still, the 6 is a bit slow off the line while gathering power as engine speed builds.
The 6 performed well during a day trip up north, including one of my favorite roads, the uphill run on Arizona 260 from Interstate 17 to Arizona 87, just north of Strawberry.
The V-6 emits a harsh roar under acceleration. After all that talk about tuning the exhaust on the Miata to generate the right sort of sports-car tone, something could have been done to mellow out the sound of Mazda6’s exhaust.
The five-speed was well calibrated to keep the engine on the mark, though the shifter left something to be desired. The linkage felt rubbery and notchy, not what one would expect from a car striving for sporty performance.
Handling and drivability
My favorite aspect of the 6’s fine road manners is its responsive rack-and-pinion steering. Very quick and precise feeling, but never twitchy, the steering is balanced and firm. Maybe too firm for some drivers, th ough this is how I like it.
The four-wheel disc brakes, which include standard antilock on the V-6 version and optional with the four, are potent and easy to modulate at all speeds.
Overall, handling is sharp and poised, a truly sporting take on the family sedan. Accord and Camry may be roomier and more accommodating, but 6 takes to the road as neither of them can, even in their latest versions. Cornering is flat and controlled, with that lovely steering providing sharp agility.
Mazda6 looks low and fast and managed to pique the interest of young drivers. Though not as distinctive as Altima or Cadillac CTS, Mazda6 manages to walk the line between family transport and all-out sports sedan.
The sport package on the test car is largely cosmetic, with lower-body extensions, dual chrome exhaust tips, rear apron and spoiler, 17-inch alloy wheels with low-profile tires and interior embellishments. Fog lamps are integrated into the headlight cluster.
This is a mixed bag of sharply modern forms and some chintzy execution. The styling includes the latest trend of hard-plastic forms that look like brushed aluminum, which looks either strikingly modern or starkly fake, depending on your point of view.
Gauges and switches are nicely arranged, with unusual rotary dials in the center binnacle for climate control and audio functions. The dials, and the digital display that appears on the upper dashboard, took some getting used to.
The black-plastic air-conditioning vents felt cheap and flimsy, as did the cover of the stowage bin on the dashboard top.
The back seat is cramped for all but the smallest passengers.
The test car had the optional 200-watt Bose audio package with six speakers and a subwoofer. Sweet.
The base-model Mazda6 starts at about $18,500. The base pricing on the test car was $21,100, plus leather seating, $860; the sport package, $860; power moonroof, $700; Bose audio package, $635; side air bags and air curtains, $450; heated seats and mirrors, $220 and shipping, $520. Total was a still reasonable $25,345.
Mazda6 provides a sporty alternative to Accord and Camry and should satisfy even the most critical drivers.
Vehicle type: Five-passenger, four-door sedan, front-wheel drive.
Base price: $21,100.
Price as tested: $25,345.
Engine: 3-liter V-6, 220 horsepower at 6,300 rpm, 192 pound-feet of torque at 5,000 rpm.
Transmission: Five-speed manual.
Wheelbase: 105.3 inches.
Curb weight: 3,243 pounds.
EPA mileage: 20 city, 27 highway.
Flimsy interior parts.
Cramped back seat.