Mazda6/Atenza : A car built for dads
Wednesday, December 11, 2002
2003 model is solid and responsive, but it lacks enough interior space
By Paul Lienert / Special to The Detroit News
SANTA MONICA, Calif. -- For American families, the Honda Accord and the Toyota Camry consistently vie year in and year out for top sales honors. For American fathers, however, the all-new Mazda6 may be the vehicle of choice in 2003.
North American executives of Japan's Mazda Motor Corp. insist the new mid-size sedan is aimed not at traditional buyers of the class-leading Accord and Camry, but at a more select group of consumers that one lieutenant refers to -- only half-jokingly -- as "divorced dads": well-educated and relatively affluent males in their late 30s, including many singles with children.
Jim Sailer, Mazda's head of product marketing, says the new 6 will be positioned as an alternative to mainstream mid-size sedans. "Internally, we refer to it as the anti-Camry,'" he said with a smile.
In early research, consumers viewed the 6 as being closer in image and flavor to such performance-oriented models as the Nissan Altima and the Volkswagen Passat, Sailer said. That's still some pretty tough competition.
While the Mazda6, in terms of roominess, functionality, value and family-friendliness, is no Camry- or Accord-beater, it is certainly entertaining to drive and better in nearly every respect than its predecessor, the 626.
Mazda is an affiliate of Ford Motor Co. and the Mazda6 (it is called Atenza in the Japanese market, where it went into production last February) is being assembled at Ford's Auto Alliance International plant in Flat Rock. The sedan went on sale Dec. 1, priced from $18,530. A fully loaded six-cylinder Mazda6 will brush $26,000.
The standard Mazda6 is fitted with a new twin-cam 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 160 horsepower and 155 pounds-feet of torque, and feels surprisingly lusty. It can be mated to either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission.
The uplevel Mazda6 gets an equally lively twin-cam 3.0-liter V-6, rated at 220 horsepower and 192 pounds-feet of torque. Transmission choices on the six-cylinder model include a five-speed manual and a five-speed Tiptronic-style automatic with manual-shift mode.
Nissan's Altima, which has been building a head of steam since its rebirth here in model year 2002, also comes with a choice of twin-cam engines -- a 2.5-liter four-cylinder rated at 175 horsepower and a 3.5-liter V-6 rated at 240 horsepower. VW's Passat can be ordered with a choice of four-, six- or eight-cylinder engines, starting with a 170-horsepower turbocharged 1.8-liter four.
Stickers on the Altima range from $17,000 to $24,000, while the Passat ranges from $22,000 to $38,000.
Both the Altima and the Passat are roomier than the 6, the Altima by a substantial margin. Although a lack of sufficient cabin space, especially for rear passengers, was one of the biggest complaints about the old 626, Mazda apparently decided not to address the issue.
Instead, the new 6 actually has a tad less interior space than its predecessor, which means that it's also smaller inside than the Accord and Camry.
Nor does it measure up all that favorably with another model it purports to replace, the now-discontinued Mazda Millenia. While marginally larger on the inside, the 6 is not as powerful as the Millenia, nor does it offer as much torque.
Still, the 6 has it merits, notably a high fun-to-drive quotient. I tested a preproduction model on a familiar loop north of Los Angeles that includes the twisty Mulholland Drive. I found the car to be as solid and responsive as the Passat, and nearly as comfortable as the class leaders that it's not supposed to be competing with.
The 6 exhibits terrific poise and agility, with little compromise in ride quality, thanks in large measure to a well-tuned and nicely damped all-independent suspension that employs struts and double wishbones in front and a multi-link setup in the rear. Steering is quick, crisp and responsive, with good feel and just the right effort at higher speeds. The brakes are top-notch, and the standard P205/60R16 tires provide good grip.
Inside, the cabin is not quite up to world-class standards. Enthusiasts no doubt will like the subtle blend of brushed metal and carbon-fiber trim, as well as such sporty touches as a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob. There are also some very firm, yet comfortable and supportive sport bucket seats.
But I was annoyed by the automatic climate-control system on the V-6, with its confusing rotary controls and a hard-to-read display that's located on another part of the console. And the manual shift pattern on the five-speed automatic seems to have been inadvertently reversed. I also noticed such discrepancies as the lack of rear climate controls and no pullstrap on the rear armrest. I found it difficult to sit for long periods in the rear seat unless the passenger in front of me pulled his seat forward. Let's hope those divorced dads have only small children to transport.
Another complaint is one that is shared with nearly all of the entries in this segment, and that is the lack of standard safety features on the base four-cylinder model, the Mazda6 i. Unless you're moving into the uplevel six-cylinder model, the Mazda6 s, you'll have to pay extra for such "amenities" as antilock brakes and side air curtains. Perhaps that's why the company expects fewer moms than dads to be attracted to this car.
Nevertheless, Mazda has big plans for its new mid-size range, and apparently so does parent Ford. A four-door wagon and a five-door hatchback will join the family in model year 2004. And Ford reportedly plans to build its own stable of mid-size cars -- including a sedan, a utility vehicle and a tall-roof wagon due mid-decade -- based on the Mazda6 underpinnings, with variants for both the Ford and Mercury brands.
For Mazda, the new 6 should bring some additional sales volume -- up to 80,000 units a year for the sedan, according to company projections -- and another 40,000 units when the hatchback and wagon arrive next year.
To further sweeten the pot, Mazda has boosted its standard warranty to four years or 50,000 miles, and is offering free 24-hour roadside assistance.
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.....