Mazda pulls a fast one to draw attention to its spunky new Mazda6 mid-size sedan.
by Marc K. Stengel
Right off the bat, I gotta tell ya I'm all at sixes and sevens over this one. What I mean — and what "sixes and sevens" actually does mean in Brit-speak — is that I'm confused, perplexed, bewildered by Mazda's latest mid-size sedan.
Let's start with the name. At the risk of sounding self-centered and petulant, just how am I supposed to refer to this car: Is it the Mazda Mazda6, whereupon the surname is rushed and slurred into something like "Modzix"? Or do I simplify everything to "Mazda6" like some automotive Madonna or Cher or Sting? Or is "6" the surname? I just don't know; Mazda didn't include "nomenclature" in the index of the Mazda6 instruction manual. So I'm warning you off the top: Brace yourself for a lotta repetitive "Mazda" references in what follows.
On to weightier matters: Mazda's 2003 Mazda6 represents the sixth-generation of the Mazda mid-size sedan formerly known as 626. It is also the company's replacement for the nice-try-but-never-mind Millenia flagship sedan that tended toward luxury and sported offbeat Miller-cycle engine technology. The marriage of convenience that Mazda's marketing department has made renders Modzix the new flagship of the Mazda fleet — or, as the press release trumpets, "Mazda's finest flagship sedan!" Rather precocious for a car whose base prices range from just $19,000 to $21,000. (Where will the sporty, forthcoming Mazda RX-8 fit in, I wonder?)
Don't misconstrue my aforementioned quandaries for complaints. I've always been a Mazda aficionado--anyone who can build and sustain the Miata deserves heaps of praise. I am concerned about Mazda's positioning of the Mazda6 — hence the inner conflict of sixes and sevens. At the spec sheet level as much as in personal experience, what we have here is a jaunty, sporty sedan that's meant to muscle into the attention spans of shoppers eyeing Camrys, Accords and Tauruses. Will they notice the Mazda6? You betcha! It looks great. Will they take it seriously? I'm not really sure.
What concerns me is the Mazda6's apparent preoccupation with establishing a performance image. I love three-digit velocities as much as the next rash fool; but mid-size sedan buyers don't fall into that latter category very often. To replace a poor-selling 626 with a niche-market sedan aimed at performance-car wannabes looks like a roll of the dice to me. I hope those dice come up sixes, not seven.
For my tester, I drove a chrome yellow Mazda6 "S" version, which means it was equipped with a twin-cam 3.0-liter V6 using variable valve timing (VVT), all mated to a five-speed manual gearbox. Base price was a very attractive $21,100, which toted up quickly to $25,345, as-tested, after adding sporty options like 17-inch wheels, moonroof, leather seats and $450 worth of side and head-curtain airbags. A Mazda6 "i" version starts at $19,050 and sports a 2.3-liter twin-cam in-line four with VVT making 160 horsepower.
Mazda's Modzix S is very, very fun to drive, make no mistake about that. Its 220 hp may not be champs in its market category, but it doesn't miss by much; and when it's controlled by a decent manual five-speed, there's a lot of cut-and-thrust bravura inspired by this powertrain. The VVT set-up is key in this regard. Just the same, horsepower and torque (192 pound-feet) peak relatively high (6300 rpm and 5000 rpm, respectively), so it takes a bit of driver skill — or just plain attention — to keep gear and rpm relationships at optimum levels of the powerband.
A distinct powerband there is, however; and it's exceptionally exploitable thanks to Mazda6's sophisticated four-wheel-independent suspension. Double-wishbones up front and Mazda's proprietary "E-link" rear provide very precise handling control. Speed sensitive steering enhances the effect. Push the Mazda6 hard, it pushes back with taut reflexes. Back off in traffic, and the Mazda6 complies with pleasing but by no means softie ride quality.
Much of the car's road dynamics stems from its compact dimensions. It's smaller in length, width and height than a Camry, for example; and its wheelbase is almost two important inches shorter. Racy styling exploits these dimensions and results in a very aggressive package that looks almost like a compact pocket-rocket. That, you see, is the crux of the issue. Nominally a five-seater, Mazda6 gives up space — and arguably comfort — in almost every aspect of its interior when compared with rivals like Camry and Accord. Out of eight different interior dimensions, Mazda6 is largest in only one — front hip room — and that by only 0.1 in. Otherwise, the Mazda is everywhere smaller, with front shoulder and rear shoulder/head/legroom dimensions suffering most.
Don't envision the Mazda6 as a cramped cubicle. Compared with Camry, the Accord is often smaller as well (albeit often larger than the Mazda6 and significantly cheaper as a base model). In terms of all-important perceptions, however, the Mazda6 looks, feels, is smaller; and in the cutthroat mid-size sedan category, engendering these perceptions may not be a case of best-foot-forward.
So it's back to the numerical quandary: Is Mazda's Mazda6 a big, moderately sporty compact sedan or a smallish, very sporty mid-size sedan? Six? Or Seven? Its distinctly European driving feel compares best with the pricier VW Passat; but Passat, too, is something of a niche-pleaser with, arguably, an ineffable German cachet that Mazda can't quite muster.
I'm rooting for Modzix, in any case. Its snappy looks suit my taste; its well conceived, airplane-cockpit interior suits my frame (5’ 6”, if you must know). I wish, in fact, I'd thought up Mazda's own tagline for 2003 — "Emotion in Motion" — because driving the Mazda6 is every bit an emotional thrill. I just hope it's also perceived as a solid, rational choice among very demanding buyers of mid-size cars — buyers who tend, by the way, to know their sixes from their sevens.
Base price: $21,100; as tested, $25,345
Engine: 3.0-liter V-6, 220 hp/192 lb-ft
Drivetrain: Five-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height (inches): 186.8 x 70.1 x 56.7 in
Wheelbase: 105.3 in
Curb weight: 2900 lb (est., V-6)
EPA City/Hwy: 20/27 mpg
Safety equipment: Driver and passenger front airbags; optional front side and side curtain airbags; four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock control
Major standard equipment: Tilt/telescoping steering wheel, AM/FM stereo, flip/folding rear seat
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles
My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.
My next Ford.....