As late as 1999, the Swedish carmaker offered a mid-size four-door hatchback (a.k.a. "five-door") that set Saab lovers' shakras aflutter. I went to a Saab owners convention in the mid-1990s - where there were more gray ponytails than in a herd of Appaloosas - and was regaled with tales of cargo-swallowing achievements: how this guy got a roll-top desk home in his Saab, and how that guy remodeled his kitchen without ever resorting to the crassness of a pickup truck.

I have yet to get the smell of patchouli out of my clothes.

Some essential self-reliance went out of the brand when Saab discontinued its hatchbacks (the 900 and 9000 series had them), though it wasn't simply that the overlords back in Detroit (GM) were insensitive.

In the United States, the five-door models didn't appeal much beyond the brand's core constituency - think Howard Dean's constituency, only with money.

That was then. Half a decade later, hatchback and wagon variants are popping up like rain forest mushrooms as carmakers rush to provide flex-cargo alternatives to suddenly so-last-summer SUVs. The Mazda6 comes as a sedan, a five-door hatchback and a wagon.

Offhand, I can think of only one other nameplate that hangs more bodywork over the same chassis - the Ford Focus, which can be had as a three-door, a four-door, a five-door and a wagon.

Mayhap it's time for the Saab hatch to make a triumphant return?

The case for the Mazda6 five-door - as opposed to the sedan or the wagon - is easily made. For one thing, it's the coolest looking of the three. The fast-glass canopy and the more graceful curvature of the rear roof pillar pull the body lines rearward with more dispatch, lending the hatchback a leaner, sleeker profile; an altogether ornery-looking spoiler is standard. It seems to me all recent Mazda cars look like they are going downhill, even while sitting on level ground.

The Mazda6 five-door is a case study in the evocative power of cheap plastic. Standard equipment on the car includes body-colored side-sill extensions and sport bumpers front and rear, for a slightly slammed, ground-effects look, as well as body-colored grille, door handles and mirrors.

Unlike a lot of aftermarket bolt-ons that can make cars look like they got dressed in the dark, these handsome factory pieces complement the car very, um, dope-ly.

Our test model, a sport edition with the 3.0-liter V6 and five-speed manual transmission in "Blazing Copper Metallic" (the exact color of copper gasket sealant, by the way) smoldered in the driveway.

Meanwhile, the five-door sups cargo with a big ladle. The rear cargo hold, with seats up, measures 22 cubic feet, about 7 cubic feet more than the sedan version.

With the 60/40 split rear seats folded flat, the cargo hold expands to a Saab-like 58 cubic feet, only a couple feet shy of the capacity of the wagon.

A little housekeeping: Two engines are available in the Mazda6 range - a 2.3-liter, 16-valve inline four (155 hp) in the i Sport model and a 3.0-liter, 24-valve V6 (220 hp) in the s Sport. The five-door comes with the five-speed manual as standard. A six-speed automatic is available with the V6.

The five-door is fairly well decked, equipment-wise: 17-inch alloy wheels with performance rubber; halogen fog lights; eight-way power adjustable driver seat; leather steering wheel, shifter and emergency brake; automatic dual climate control; and dual front and rear side air bags and air curtains.

Option packages include the moon roof/audio package that stuffs in a 200-watt Bose system with six-disc in-dash changer, and the leather package, which includes heated front seats.

Unlike most overachievers, this car is instantly likable - taut and well drawn, comfortable and capable. Even so, you would not compare it to its competition, such as the Honda Accord or the Nissan Altima, and conclude it's made of sterner stuff.

Actually, the Mazda has the vaguest tinniness to it, a quality amplified when the car encounters less-than-perfect pavement. The wishbones-and-multilinks sports suspension is harder than day-old baguettes, and it feels even a bit zingy on L.A.'s concrete quilt work.

It's not until you bend into an off-ramp that the setup pays off as the car shoulders into the camber and noses around.

With an easy agility and composure at the limit of the tires' adhesion, the front-wheel-drive Mazda6 is a fun car to drive hard, but you do need to dig your spurs in. Like other Mazda motors, the V6 puts out most of its power and torque in flight-of-the-bumblebee range.

With variable-valve timing and all kinds of cybernetic engine controls, this high-revving nature is purely a matter of choice for Mazda's powertrain engineers, an aesthetic choice they see as part of brand character. At least they have a fixed idea of what that is.

If you really torment this 3,336-pound car, you can get it to 60 mph in 7 seconds, with a gritty, jaggedly serrated note from the chrome exhaust tips as accompaniment. Just coincidentally, the old Saab 900 five-door was a tad soft at low revs too.

I can't say I endorse the faux titanium finish on the consoles, though. This surface material picks up scratches pretty quickly, and the test car had a noticeably worn area around one of the climate controls.

Slowly but surely, I grew enamored of the Mazda6 five-door, with its balance of performance and practicality worthy of the Ikea loading zone. Mazda's in-house tuning operation, Mazdaspeed, will soon stick a bottle rocket in the 6 sedan's bazoo, creating a 274-hp, all-wheel-drive sedan to rival cars such as Audi's S4 and Subaru's WRX STi.

Why not hotrod the five-door? I need to get back from Ikea before the meatballs get cold.



2005 Mazda6 S Five-Door

Base price: $22,655

Price, as tested: $24,905

Powertrain: 3.0-liter, 24-valve V6, with variable-valve timing; five-speed manual transmission; front-wheel drive

Horsepower: 220 at 6,300 rpm

Torque: 192 pound-feet at 5,000 rpm

Curb weight: 3,336 pounds

0-60 mph: 7 seconds

Wheelbase: 105.3 inches

Overall length: 186.8 inches

EPA mileage: 19 miles per gallon city, 26 mpg highway

Final thoughts: Up the hatches

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Automotive critic Dan Neil can be reached at