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Old 10-07-2002, 12:18   #1 (permalink)
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2003 Mazda6

Sixth Heaven: Mazda’s new midsize 6 sedan is only for a few

By MARK VAUGHN/ AutoWeek

2003 MAZDA6
ON SALE: October
BASE PRICE: $16,000 to $19,000 (est.)
POWERTRAIN: 3.0-liter, 220-hp, 192-lb-ft V6; fwd, five-speed manual
CURB WEIGHT: 3243 pounds
0 TO 60 MPH: 8.0 seconds (est.)

The new Mazda6 could be the car for you, AutoWeek reader. It is sprightly and alive and will make you feel likewise, yet it offers the practicality of midsize sedan mega-sellers like the Camry, Accord and Taurus. So when the spouse henpecks you to make that reasonable and prudent midsize sedan purchase, you can say, as if you are giving in to the spouse’s unbending will, “Yes, okay dear, you are right, as always, and I will go to the Mazda dealer and buy that practical Mazda6 sedan upon which you so rightly insisted.”
You should be at the U.N., you negotiator, you. No need to tell the significant other that the benchmark car during development of the Mazda6 was the BMW 3 Series. Or that the front and rear double-wishbone suspension makes it feel faster than darn near anything else in the class.
Or even that the base 2.3-liter four feels like it was made for the tiny, twisting roads connecting European villages and that the 3.0-liter V6 with its own unique heads and variable valve timing feels ready to haul on an empty autobahn. You can keep all that to yourself.
Instead, tell the spousal unit the Mazda6 has more trunk space than the Taurus, that the rear seats fold down flat and make the thing look like a station wagon inside, or at least a hatchback (both of which are coming in a year and a half), and that eight-way power seats and a tilt/telescoping steering wheel are standard. Stuff like that. You’ll know the full story.

There aren’t many others like you, you know. Mazda knows its new 6 is not for everyone. “Everyone” is that monster-sized slice of the midsize sedan segment that buys all the boring, practical sedans in the world.

“Everyone” wants soft, squishy suspensions made to soak up bumps; rides and interiors that isolate drivers from the world around them, particularly those nasty pavement undulations coming through the steering wheel and the seat of the pants that some of us refer to as “road feel”; and heavy, torque-sapping automatic transmissions that muffle shifts so completely you don’t even know anything’s happening down there under the transmission hump.

“A lot of people won’t like this,” said Kelvin Hiraishi, director of research and development engineering. “That’s fine with us; this car isn’t for everyone.”

That’s not to say the Mazda6 bumps the 3 Series off its pedestal. Mazda is just the latest in a long line of midsize and sports sedan wannabes to try to compare their entries to the fabled Munich schnell-vagen. While the 3 may have been the target, Mazda couldn’t hope to hit it with front-wheel drive and a target sticker price that will compare to the Camry/ Accord—$16,000 to $24,000 and $20,000 to $26,000, respectively. The BMW is 10 grand more than the expected price of the 6, for one thing, and a lot of that 10 grand went into BMW engineering. But compared to the cars it really competes with, Mazda has done a lot to make its sedan stand out as a sportier entrant.

Let’s start with the suspension. In front, a big cast piece octopuses out from the inboard side of each wheel hub to accept each outboard end of the wishbones at the best angle to minimize kingpin offset. The kingpin is therefore almost directly above the center of the contact patch, meaning more precise cornering feel and stronger turn-in. The upper wishbone mounts higher up than most, for better distribution of side loads when cornering.

In back is a slightly new take on Mazda’s old “E-link” suspension, so named because, from above, the links sort of form the letter E, if you squint. It’s made up of one trailing link and three lateral links on each side. The bushings are precisely controlled, too, with unidirectional stiffness where it helps and precise control of bushing installation playing into a more responsive setup. Everything connects to a stiff new rear subframe except the shocks, which mount diagonally, directly to the body. The subframe includes a crossmember that joins the tops of the shocks to add lateral stiffness. Antiroll bars sit front and rear.

For all the suspension improvements, Mazda basically carried over the rack-and-pinion steering from the 626 and Millenia, but is nonetheless proud of the 6 steering’s 2.5 turns lock-to-lock and 16.1:1 steering ratio.

Mazda is equally proud of the front and rear discs, which have been tuned to eliminate as much free play as possible. This removes a lot of mushiness in the pedal feel, especially compared to the Camry and to domestic entries. With ABS and electronic brake force distribution, Mazda quotes braking performance of 62 mph to 0 in 122 feet, which is very good.

All that is bolted or welded to a body-in-white with torsion- al rigidity of 29.0x10 to the fifth Nm squared/rad, and a bending resistance of 56.5x10 to the fifth Nm squared. Which is to say, it’s mighty stiff.

“The car is strategically rigid in order to improve handling and ride comfort,” said program manager Ryoichi Kishimoto.

There is a choice of two engines to pull this new sedan around by the front wheels. The Mazda6 i will get a Mazda-engineered 2.3-liter four that makes 160 hp at 6000 rpm and 155 lb-ft of torque at 4000. It comes with an alumi-num block with iron liners, alumi-num head with variable valve timing on the intake cam, variable-length induction system, 4-2-1 stainless-steel exhaust and even a variable duct in the air cleaner. It can be mated to a four-speed automatic or a five-speed manual.

The four is used in the Ford Mondeo and Ranger and Mazda MPV, and will soon find its way into the Land Rover Freelander, Ford Focus and at least one Volvo. A 2.8-liter I5 is in the works, too.

The Mazda6 s, meanwhile, comes with an aluminum 3.0-liter V6. The block is shared with the Tribute SUV but the heads are engineered exclusively for the 6, with roller finger cam followers, hydraulic tappets and variable intake ducts. Combined with a 10:1 compression ratio, the V6 makes 220 hp at 6300 rpm and 192 lb-ft of torque at 5000 rpm. It comes with your choice of a five-speed automatic or a five-speed manual. We commend Mazda for offering the manual with the V6, a rarity. It shows Mazda really is going for the enthusiast buyer.

So how does it all work? Over standard roads with some sweeping turns, it was fun. It took us a while to get over that BMW 3 Series comparison the suits had been tossing around and line up the Mazda6 in our mind against the Altima, Accord and Camry. Our first impression was the 6 was comfortable to drive, not harsh. Despite the tighter suspension, it absorbed bumps well, with little cabin whang. It wasn’t as sporty as a 3 Series certainly, but it responded better than the other midsize offerings out there when pushed hard.

A lot of Mazda6 intenders might find the four-cylinder mated to the five-speed manual to have the best balance and provide the most fun. After about 2500 to 3000 rpm, the four-cylinder was downright gleeful to flog. The V6 was, of course, more powerful, and therefore more fun to simply floor the throttle and haul, but we’d go for the four-cylinder with the manual. Mazda expects about two-thirds of buyers to choose the four. All the cars we drove had the sports package, with 215/50V all-season radials mounted on 17-inch rims.

The stock tires are all-season 205/60HRs on 16-inch rims. While Mazda engineers admit summer tires would improve the handling of the car dramatically, and are available in Europe and Japan, don’t look for any from Mazda in the States. We can’t be counted on to change to M+S tires when the snow comes and all it takes is one guy with a lawsuit to blow it for everyone. A set of aftermarket performance tires might be in order here.

Later on our test drive Mazda let us loose on an auto-cross with new four-cylinder versions of the Accord and Altima available for comparison. We liked the steering on the Altima better, but found roll and wheel travel much better controlled on the Mazda6. The 6 was tighter than the comfort-oriented Honda and the Nissan and, indeed, sportier. We would have liked a Passat to try back-to-back runs to see how that compared, since the Passat has traditionally been the sportiest of these midsize sedans.

Cars will be in showrooms Dec. 1. But you’ll know when the 6 arrives by the advertising and marketing blitz, which Mazda promises will be twice as big as that of the Tribute. It’s a fun, sporty car, true, but the bigger news is Mazda is planning on making all its cars fun and sporty. And that’s good news for us.
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Old 10-07-2002, 12:19   #2 (permalink)
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