Mazda 6 Wagon
Zoom-zoom with a back room.
BY AARON ROBINSON
PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAVID DEWHURST
Nothing says "new family" quite like a station wagon. It's the G-rated matinee of the dealership over there in the corner of the showroom, the one with the dinky engine, automatic transmission, and six-month supply of Gerber prune packs thrown in. You, the parents with the convertible to trade, sign here and shut up.
That's old thinking, the kind that convinced Lexus to ban stick shifts from its IS300 SportCross, the kind that persuaded BMW to offer a 3-series wagon with only the small six, and the kind that has been leaning legions of wagon prospects toward more butch-looking sport-utilities.
Now, if Mazda were to build the BMW 3-series wagon, dollars will get you doughnuts the options sheet would include the M3's engine. Let's see what 333 horsepower does to a prune pack! Well, Mazda doesn't build the 3-series, but it does make the 6 s sedan, which won Car and Driver 10Best honors in 2003, and it does have its "zoom-zoom" tag line around its neck as well as one that states, "It's all about the drive." Build a Mazda 6 wagon that isn't all about the drive, and people are likely to start throwing prune packs.
But Mazda kept its head in the game and delivered both a wagon and a five-door hatchback with as much amusingly youthful performance as you're entitled to get for this price. In fact, you can't even buy a wagon with the base Mazda 6 2.3-liter four. Wagons haul their Huggies only with the 220-hp, 3.0-liter DOHC 24-valve V-6.
The price? It starts at $22,745, a modest credit-card swipe that includes all the suspension, wheels, and tires needed to extract the performance numbers recorded here. The $770 Sport package is of the paint-'n'-tape variety, including fog lights, side-sill extensions, a liftgate spoiler, brawnier bumper fascias, glinting exhaust tips, and a body-color grille. The Luxury pack uses your $1540 to buy heated leather seats with eight power adjustments for the driver, plus electroluminescent dials. A sunroof slips in for $700, $635 lands a Bose audio package with a six-CD changer and a Bose-enhanced speaker array, and side and curtain airbags enhance safety for $450.
So the dandy pictured here painted in metallic pencil lead trades for $26,840, quite a lean lien by today's standards, even if you opt for the $900 automatic transmission. To be sure, the 6's plain plastic interior doesn't have carved-aluminum footrests or a humidor trimmed with abalone shell, but to enthusiasts, it has the equipment where it counts. Instead of struts and beam axles, this wagon rides on a relatively complex tangle of control arms and links in the front and back, sticking to the road on pricier Michelin HX MXM4 all-season rubber.
It's a sports-sedan setup all the way, but the suspension specs alone don't guarantee a good-handling car, says Mazda's Phil Spender. "It's all in the way you execute it at the plant."
Big Spender, as his colleagues call him with only a trace of irony, would say that. The slim, silver-haired New Zealander is president of AutoAlliance International, the Ford/Mazda joint-venture factory just south of Detroit. His job is to build the Mazda 6 as well as the forthcoming 2005 Mustang.
Spender spent big to retool the plant's frame shop so the bodies, and particularly the suspension attachment points, weld up with more precise tolerances. Sweat beads form over fractions of a millimeter. AutoAlliance also flogs its suppliers to curb dimension creep on chassis vitals such as the control-arm forgings. Whereas many car companies outsource preassembled modules, AutoAlliance assembles the 6's suspension in-house to better supervise quality. When it learned the 6's rear bushings were not settling in properly once the car dropped off the assembly rack, the plant developed a new fixture for bolting on the rear suspension while it is compressed with the car's weight.
"You're talking about trying to take variability out of every step," says Spender. "With our zoom-zoom positioning, you have to pay attention to these details."
Lob the 6 wagon into a corner, and you know Big Spender and his cohorts are on the job. There's just 0.80 g of grip in the well by our skidpad count, but the steering is fast and direct, and the rear end is impressively responsive to throttle inputs. Dial the wheel for your desired path, anything from a gentle sweep to a Gilles Villeneuve impersonation. If your fingertips detect tire scrub, lift a little, and the back end rotates gently around to help out.
Saddled with the extra weight of its baggy tush (113 more pounds than the V-6 sedan we tested in June 2004), the wagon still seesaws through lane changes and other fast transitions with restrained motion and four planted paws. Easy fun? An orangutan fresh from shock therapy can pin the 6 to its limit.
Naturally, the ride refinement suffers from Mazda's suspension and tire choices. Bumps are felt more acutely through the seat and floor. Road textures create more white noise than in some of the 6's more sedate mid-size competitors. Some upscale performance sedans have fancy sandwich-insulated steel panels to help hush the cabin. The Mazda makes do without.
We don't need an Arthur Miller play under the hood, but a little more drama from the 3.0-liter V-6 wouldn't offend the critics. A high-desert clutch drop delivered 60 mph in 7.2 seconds, a quarter-mile in 15.7 seconds at 93 mph, and the electronically governed 120-mph top speed in 26.9 seconds. The wagon is slower than the sedan by fractions, but that's not important. What is important is the gasoline tanker filling the mirrors as you merge onto the interstate.
With both the torque and horsepower peaks in the upper stratosphere of the tach (5000 rpm and 6300, respectively), the power has to be mercilessly wrung out of the V-6. The motor's sounds are slightly loud—but good—and the vibes are restrained, but the wagon feels a little labored merging into an expressway stampede until the engine has spun past four grand. The unit should easily handle another 200cc, the chassis another 20 to 40 horsepower, without upending a whole can of torque steer. We're talking a mere dash of power to bring up the car's other subtle flavors.
Even if that never happens, the Mazda 6 wagon is still a sweetheart choice for those who aspire to an Audi or BMW wagon but can't or won't swing the payments. The Mazda's liftgate opens to a 34-cubic-foot carpeted fantail that expands to more than 60 cubic feet when the rear seats fold down. That's a tweener number for mid-size wagons, nine fewer cubic feet than in the old Subaru Outback, four more cubes than in a VW Passat wagon. Pull the release handles in the cargo area, and the 60/40 split rear seatbacks drop, the bottom cushions articulating forward and down to create a truly flat floor. No need even to remove the headrests.
No need to remove your coat, either, since the 6's automatic climate-control system blows chilly air constantly, even with the temperature selector set in the high 70s. Mazda acknowledges a software wobble that favors Eskimos and is working to fix it.
The car industry may know wagon drivers, but Mazda seems to know what our kind of drivers want from a wagon. You, the parents, sign here and smile.
Honda and Toyota both extract a sporty coupe from their mid-size sedans. Mazda's inner voice said, "Wagon." Then, more amazingly, it also said, "Hatchback," although it won't use the H-word: It's a "five-door."
Still, this makes some sense. Coupes are an America-only phenomenon. Smaller Mazda must sell its 6 variants around the world, where wagons and hatchbacks rule the roads. Also, "we had to do something different," says Robert Davis, Mazda's North American senior vice-president of marketing and product development.
Mazda can't compete on quality because the Camry and Accord have the lock. It can't compete on horsepower because "you're king for a day in the horsepower wars," says Davis. It can't even compete on price because "the Koreans own that."
Besides, the hatchback was a low-buck investment, says Davis, sharing almost all its parts with the Mazda 6 sedan except for some rear stampings, the liftgate, and a few interior pieces. Look closely, and the hatchback roofline is slightly faster in the back, something easier to notice from the rear seat, which loses almost two inches of headroom.
With a gaping hole in the rear, body stiffness was an issue. Mazda strengthened the rear wheel arches and designed the thick frame of the hatch to be a stressed member. When closed over the 22-cubic-foot cargo area (bigger with the rear seats folded flat), the lid's massive latch helps hold down the jiggle.
The $21,315 Mazda 6 i five-door has a 160-hp, 2.3-liter DOHC 16-valve four. The $23,415 Mazda 6 s five-door runs the wagon's 3.0-liter V-6. Both come with the Sport package standard. A brief drive around San Diego showed the hatch to be about as sporting on the road as the wagon and sedan. Mazda expects 30 percent of 6 buyers will opt for the hatchback. What's next, a remake of Starsky & Hutch? —AR
C/D TEST RESULTS
Zero to 30 mph: 2.5
40 mph: 4.0
50 mph: 5.6
60 mph: 7.2
70 mph: 9.7
80 mph: 12.0
90 mph: 14.6
100 mph: 18.4
110 mph: 22.4
120 mph: 26.9
Street start, 5-60 mph: 8.0
Top-gear acceleration, 30-50 mph: 10.1
50-70 mph: 10.5
Standing 1/4-mile: 15.7 sec @ 93 mph
Top speed (governor limited): 120 mph
BRAKING 70-0 mph @ impending lockup: 184 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.80 g
Understeer: minimal moderate excessive
EPA city driving: 19 mpg
EPA highway driving: 26 mpg
C/D-observed: 19 mpg
INTERIOR SOUND LEVEL
Idle: 44 dBA
Full-throttle acceleration: 73 dBA
70-mph cruising: 67 dBA
MAZDA 6 WAGON
Vehicle type: front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 5-door wagon
Price as tested: $26,840
Price and option breakdown: base Mazda 6 wagon (includes $520 freight), $22,745; Luxury package (consists of leather seats, 8-way power driver's seat, heated seats and mirrors, and electroluminescent gauges), $1540; Sport package (includes rear spoiler, fog lights, front and rear bumper fascias, and side-sill extensions), $770; sunroof, $700; Bose audio package (includes in-dash 6-CD changer), $635; side and curtain airbags, $450
Major standard accessories: power windows and locks; remote locking; A/C; cruise control; tilting and telescoping steering wheel; rear defroster and wiper
Sound system: Mazda/Bose AM-FM radio/CD changer, 6 speakers
Type: V-6, aluminum block and heads
Bore x stroke: 3.50 x 3.13 in, 89.0 x 79.5mm
Displacement: 181 cu in, 2967cc
Compression ratio: 10.0:1
Fuel-delivery system: port injection
Valve gear: chain-driven double overhead cams, 4 valves per cylinder, hydraulic lifters, variable intake-valve timing
Power (SAE net): 220 bhp @ 6300 rpm
Torque (SAE net): 192 lb-ft @ 5000 rpm
Redline: 6500 rpm
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Final-drive ratio: 4.13:1
Gear, Ratio, Mph/1000 rpm, Max test speed
I, 3.15, 5.6, 37 mph (6500 rpm)
II, 1.84, 9.6, 63 mph (6500 rpm)
III, 1.26, 14.1, 92 mph (6500 rpm)
IV, 0.95, 18.7, 120 mph (6450 rpm)
V, 0.73, 24.3, 120 mph (4950 rpm)
Wheelbase: 105.3 in
Track, front/rear: 60.2/60.2 in
Length/width/height: 187.8/70.1/57.3 in
Ground clearance: 5.1 in
Drag area, Cd (0.34) x frontal area (25.4 sq ft, est): 8.6 sq ft
Curb weight: 3440 lb
Weight distribution, F/R: 57.6/42.4%
Curb weight per horsepower: .15.6 lb
Fuel capacity: 18.0 gal
Type: unit construction with a rubber-isolated front crossmember and rear subframe
Body material: welded steel stampings
SAE volume, front seat: 52 cu ft
rear seat: 45 cu ft
cargo, seats up/down: 34/60 cu ft
Practical cargo room, length of pipe: 125.0 in
largest sheet of plywood: 71.0 x 42.0 in
no. of 10 x 10 x 16-in boxes, seats up/down: 19/43
Front-seat adjustments: fore-and-aft, seatback angle; driver only: front height, rear height, lumbar support
Restraint systems, front: manual 3-point belts; driver and passenger front, side, and curtain airbags
rear: manual 3-point belts, curtain airbags
Front: ind; 1 upper control arm, 1 lateral link, and 1 diagonal link per side; coil springs; anti-roll bar
Rear: ind; 1 trailing arm, 2 lateral links, and 1 toe-control link per side; coil springs; anti-roll bar
Type: rack-and-pinion with hydraulic power assist
Steering ratio: 16.1:1
Turns lock-to-lock: 2.6
Turning circle curb-to-curb: 38.7 ft
Type: hydraulic with vacuum power assist and anti-lock control
Front: 11.1 x 1.0-in vented disc
Rear: 11.0 x 0.4-in disc
WHEELS AND TIRES
Wheel size/type: 7.0 x 17 in/cast aluminum
Tires: Michelin HX MXM4, P215/50R-17 93V M+S
Test inflation pressures, F/R: 32/32 psi
Spare: high-pressure compact on steel wheel