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Preview: 2003 Mazda6

A new brand beacon or another mid-size melder?
by Sue Mead TheCarConnection 10/8/2002

SANTA MONICA, Calif — Mazda's new flagship sedan, the Mazda6, offers an independent suspension, four-wheel disc brakes, 160 horsepower and a new answer to the age-old automotive question: how to make an everyday car seem extraordinary.

Positioned against formidable competition that includes the VW Passat, BMW 3-Series, Honda Accord, Nissan Altima and Toyota Camry, the Mazda6 is built on a brand-new platform that replaces both the 626 and the Millenia models currently in the stables of Japan's number-five carmaker. Offered over the course of the next year in three models - sedan, hatchback and wagon - the new 6 follows on the heels of its successful Protégé5 cousin, which was introduced as a 2002 model last year.

So far, the 6 seems to be an appropriate encore to the Protégé5's performance on the sales charts throughout 2001 and 2002. More than 1500 units of the Mazda6 wagon versions were sold within two weeks of the vehicle's introduction in Japan on June 24, and European and Japanese orders for sedan and hatchback models were six times higher than Mazda expected within the first month of the vehicle's appearance on the market.

Made in America

On the heels of this success, Mazda hopes to double its share in the U.S. and European markets, and the 6 is seen as one of the ways this Asian manufacturer will get there. Having shifted from its strategy of tailgating Toyota and Honda in every vehicle segment, this automaker now is focusing on its core strengths, including the ever-popular Miata and the best-selling MPV minivan. Since 1996, Mazda has cut jobs, tightened its belt and pinned its hopes on these superstars. Now, the 6 is taking center stage.

In the spotlight, Mazda's latest offering shines. A clean, modern exterior seems inspired by European design, with sleek cat's eye headlamps, five-spoke wheels with 16-inch tires and a narrow, chrome-accented front grille. A rising beltline and wide windshield give the car a crouching, starting-line-ready stance. The wagon model's snipped rear end and angled rear windows have echoes of the BMW 5-Series sport wagon, and the hatchback recalls elements of the most recent Mustang, with a low air dam and hatch-mounted spoiler.

Sport Package versions get 17-inch five-spoke cast aluminum wheels with 215/50VR-17 all season radials, halogen fog lamps integrated into the headlamp clusters, a front air dam, side sill extensions along with a rear apron and rear spoiler with an integrated center high-mount brake lamp. Not just for show, the Sport Package has improved road handling and steering response.

Two available powertrains give this lineup its 'zoom-zoom.' The standard motor is a 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine producing 160 hp and 155 lb-ft of torque; drivers can also choose an optional 3.0-liter V-6 that puts down 218 horses and 192 lb-ft of torque. Both are available with a five-speed manual or automatic transmission; four-cylinder motors can be matched to a four-speed automatic, while the V-6 gets a five-speed automatic. Each powertrain meets ULEV emissions ratings.

Interior motives

Behind the exterior curtain, the cabin is spacious, comfortable, and thoughtfully designed. The titanium-finish dash features round gauges and chrome accents, and controls are easy to find and operate. Commonly used audio controls are mounted high within the driver's line of sight, and audio and cruise control switches also are mounted on the steering wheel.

Seating includes two front buckets and a rear bench that seats three (it's a much more comfortable ride for two) and splits 60/40 for extra stowage space. Seats boast class-leading roominess, and a standard telescoping steering wheel is unique to the class. Another unique interior feature is the fold-down rear seat, a design inspired by a "karakuri," a traditional

Japanese wind-up doll. A single touch on a handle in the luggage area lowers the rear seat cushions into the floor while the seatbacks fold forward to create an entirely flat load floor.

Road rave

Driving it in southern California confirms first impressions: the 6 is an attractive, demure package on the outside, and a soulful performer on stage.

Built on an all-new platform that is based on a wide track and low center of gravity, Mazda's newest starlet features a newly developed front double-wishbone/rear multi-link suspension and a high-rigidity body. The multi-link suspension delivers excellent handling and a very comfortable ride thanks to a long suspension travel, and its packaging allows a relatively large cargo space. Also on board is quick-ratio, power-assisted rack and pinion steering.

As important as going fast is to handling, transitioning from fast to slow and coming to an emergency stop are even more important. The new model's four-wheel disc brakes (11.1-inch ventilated front; 11-inch solid rear) are matched with four-sensor, three-channel ABS and available Electronic Brake Distribution systems, as well as traction control on the 3.0-liter V-6, which is an option on the 2.3-liter four.

As for safety, up to six dual-stage airbags are available -- front driver and passenger "smart" bags are standard, while front seat-mounted side-impact airbags along with optional dual front and rear side air curtains. Seats have anti-whiplash headrests and front seatbelt pre-tensioners with load limiters. Of note is a new crashable pedal assembly design, which helps protect the foot and leg from injury in frontal collisions.

Mazda expects to sell close to 75,000 of its new 2003 sedan versions in the U.S. this model

year, with sales of 27,000 in Japan, and 7,000 in Canada, with a total of nearly 200,000 worldwide. Wagons and hatchbacks will be introduced as '04 models. A number of packages and stand-alone options are available.

As the star of the Mazda revival show, the new Mazda6 is taking on a tough role. The competition is strong, and veteran models like the Camry will be hard to replace by an upstart. However, the great looks, modest price tag and solid performance of this upstart give it a fighting chance in the mid-size sedan market.

2003 Mazda6
Base price: $14,500 (est.)
Engine: 2.3-liter four-cylinder, 160 hp/155 lb-ft; 3.0-liter V-6, 218 hp/192 lb-ft
Drivetrain: Five-speed manual; four-speed automatic (four-cyl.) or five-speed automatic (V-6)
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: N/A
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

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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.....
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