Midsize Mazda6 has zoom, room
BY LAWRENCE ULRICH
DETROIT FREE PRESS AUTO CRITIC
Sedan is loaded with style on inside and out
Hold on there, Mazda -- family cars aren't supposed to be this fun.
But the automaker, whose "Zoom Zoom" ad campaign always seemed a tad optimistic, now has the Mazda6, a midsize sedan that sincerely delivers on personality and performance.
One digit might be the only thing the all-new 6 has in common with the 626 sedan it replaces, besides four doors and a trunk.
Where the 626 was frumpy, the 6 is fashionable. Where the 626 was feeble, the 6 is frisky. OK, I'm all out of F-words, so let's just say the 6 is one bleeping great sedan. It's also further evidence that the family midsize field is ripening nicely after a fallow period marked by take-no-chances styling and sober practicality.
But while the 6 is handsome to behold and a blast to drive, Mazda hasn't thumbed its nose at family values. The 6 is practical, comfortable and affordable, starting at just $18,350 for a four-cylinder Mazda 6 i and $21,100 for the gutsy six-cylinder Mazda6 s.
The 6's styling is truly winning; this is among the strongest, most assured Japanese designs in recent memory. Husky shoulders, a deeply creased hood and streamlined mirrors do recall BMW, but few would call the look derivative. A prominent nose, crouching-tiger stance and slim horizontal headlamps and taillamps further distinguish the Mazda from the murky sea of Asian sedans.
Extroverts will covet the $860 sport package, available on both four- and six-cylinder models, whose generous add-ons include unique front and rear fascias, side sills, a decklid spoiler, 17-inch wheels and high-performance Michelin tires, foglamps and fire-red electroluminescent gauges.
The 6 comes in about three inches shy of an Accord or Camry, and about an inch narrower. But it closely matches the leading midsize sedans for interior space, with a back seat that's perfect for a pair of adults but tight for a trio. A clever multilink rear suspension ensures that strut towers don't cut into trunk space; the resulting 15.2-cubic-foot trunk tops the Honda Accord or Volkswagen Passat, but trails the Camry. Rear seats fold 60-40 for surplus cargo.
Good grades extend inside, where the 6 offers an attractively simple, driver-centric environment. Highlights include the big crimson-lit tachometer and speedometer, snug sport seats, and a leather-wrapped shifter, handbrake and steering wheel. The excellent three-spoke steering wheel is a virtual dead ringer for that of the departed RX-7, with the bonus of tilt and telescoping functions plus standard audio and cruise control switches. Materials may fall just short of the standard set by the VW Passat, but this is still a fresh design with a good deal of visual pop. One miscue is placement of the large temperature control knob nearer the passenger than the driver. And the trunk on my test car would open with the remote button, but its key cylinder was stuck and refused to budge.
Now, I'm not usually a fan of yellow cars, and my Mazda's particular shade was so brilliant to seem nuclear-powered. But on two-laners north of Chelsea, as an autumn confetti of wine-and-amber leaves fell over the parading Mazda, it seemed nature itself was giving thumbs-up to the sunny paint.
The midsize sedan class can always welcome a genuine looker, but the 6 manages to be just as seductive on the performance front. It all begins with a quicksilver chassis and suspension that fairly demands the driver come out and play. Mazda engineers designed the suspension to mimic the cornering feel of a rear-wheel-drive car. That's not quite possible in a car with a 60-40 weight bias between front and rear, but this is undeniably one of the best-handling front-wheel-drive cars going.
In fact, the 6 felt more balanced in hard cornering than even the Acura 3.2 TL, a benchmark for front-drive cars. Nor does the sporty handling extract a penalty in comfort, as the 6 proved with its nicely compliant ride on the lunar surfaces of Detroit-area freeways.
Power gets sliced two ways. The i model manages 160 horsepower and 155 pound-feet of torque from its 2.3-liter four-cylinder, one of several Mazda-designed fours destined to power Ford-family products around the globe. The s model gets a version of Ford's Duratec 3.0-liter six-cylinder, an engine never known as an overachiever, even in the version Jaguar engineered for its X-Type sedan.
But somehow, this Mazda-designed version -- including a unique aluminum head, variable valve timing and modified intake valves -- feels even stronger than the numbers of 220 horsepower and 192 pound-feet of torque would suggest.
It may not match the big-displacement Nissan Altima for V6 torque, but the Mazda makes amends with smart gearing, a tremendous shifter-clutch combo and an eagerness to rev to its peak of 6,500 r.p.m.
The 6 feels plenty quick, able to bark its tires in second gear at will. And the creamy feel of the five-speed shifter, along with its hand-caressing shape, is just about faultless. It reminds you how critical that little lever is to satisfying performance; how a great shifter makes everything else better, while a clunky unit can hold back even the most powerful cars.
Mazda also beefed up the Duratec's timid sound, now a throaty tenor cool enough to top the Billboard charts, played through dual stainless-steel pipes. Extensive soundproofing, including felt in the wheel wells, lets the good sound into the cabin while keeping bad frequencies out.
Standard four-wheel discs are strong and progressive, though ABS is standard only on the six-cylinder version. The manual transmission is standard in both models. A four-speed automatic is the optional box in the i model, and the s gets a five-speed; both automatics feature a manumatic function.
The main performance miscue is the featherweight steering feel, which needs to be firmed-up at higher velocities. That, and a tendency toward wheel hop -- that is, difficulty keeping the front wheels planted to the pavement -- during hard launches. Ironically, the last Mazda RX-7 suffered the same problem, only with its rear wheels.
In its defense, the lightness and fluidity of the 6's controls are a big part of its appeal. Curb weight is no less than your average midsize, at 3,243 pounds for a six-cylinder version with manual trans. Yet the 6 feels smaller and more agile than its rivals.
Again, the 6 may not be the most powerful midsize. But it nails the sport sedan formula better than many pricier machines -- and this from a family car. By any measure, this is one of the most significant new models for 2003. Especially for one that starts at $18,530 in four-cylinder guise, $21,100 for the s model. Loaded up with leather seats, the sport package, sunroof and the premium Bose 6-CD audio system, the 6 tallied an impressive $24,675, including a $520 destination charge. And unlike so many four-doors, the 6 will offer sweet-looking wagon and five-door hatchback models beginning in January 2004.
Hey, maybe that funny-looking "Zoom Zoom" kid was onto something in those Mazda commercials. But when the 6 blows by in his next ad, I suggest he stand well clear of the shoulder, or those knee pants are getting messy.
Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive midsize sedan
Key competitors: Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Volkswagen Passat, Ford Taurus, Nissan Altima, Dodge Intrepid, Hyundai XG 350, Chevrolet Malibu.
Base price: $21,100
As tested: $24,155
Standard equipment: Front and side air bags, five-speed manual transmission, four-wheel ABS with electronic brake force distribution, power driver's seat, steering wheel audio-cruise controls, remote keyless entry, tilt-telescoping steering, intermittent wipers, cruise control, 60-40 split rear seat, power windows, mirrors and locks.
Options: Leather seats, sport package, sunroof, premium Bose 6-CD audio
Specifications: (manufacturer's data)
3.0-liter V6, 220 horsepower
20 m.p.g. city
27 m.p.g. highway
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.....