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Everyone knows that in the United States — for better or for worse — light trucks are hot and cars are not. The best-selling vehicle in the country has been a truck, the Ford F-150 pickup, for two decades — since long before light trucks became the people movers they represent today. But the midsize sedan remains a staple, always the top-selling car type. For nearly a decade, the crown has gone to the Honda Accord or Toyota Camry (see the Vehicle Profile).

These models are so good and well rounded that it’s been hard for competitors to get noticed. Some brands have tried to do so by claiming to be the sporty alternative. Examples include the Dodge Stratus (see the Vehicle Profile); Nissan Altima and Pontiac Grand Prix, to name a few. All have succeeded in looking sportier, but when it comes to performance, none has been a knockout. Meanwhile, the Camry and especially the Accord have become more engaging to drive.

The most recent contender, the Altima, became the critic’s darling when it came out for 2002 as a newly redesigned midsize car. I gave the Altima its due (see the Vehicle Profile); but I never gushed over it as some did. Much of the car’s appeal comes from its optional V-6 engine, and power simply isn’t everything. The firm suspension that accompanies it is too taut, in my opinion, and the steering is numb.

Enter Mazda’s new Mazda6 sedan, which replaces the 626. Mazda’s “zoom-zoom” image is not marketing hooey, in my opinion. The Miata is more fun than a modestly powered car has any right to be, and the compact Protegé (see the Vehicle Profile) has been a favorite of driving enthusiasts since before there was a Ford Focus (see the Vehicle Profile). The RX-7 was always a gas, and I look forward to driving the 2004 RX-8. The Mazda6 can only boost this reputation. In the class of affordable front-wheel-drive sedans, the Mazda6 is my new top pick for sporty driving with no significant trade-offs to speak of.

Clearly, Ford Motor Co., which owns a controlling interest in Mazda, is fond of the car as well. Ford has announced plans to base up to 10 future Ford, Lincoln and Mercury sedans and wagons on the Mazda6 platform in its drive to cut costs through component sharing.

For the record, the car is officially called the Mazda MAZDA6. We at don’t indulge manufacturers with the capital letters, but we haven’t resorted, as some resources have, to calling the model simply the 6. There are two trim levels, the i and the s, distinguished mainly by their engines. The Mazda6 i comes with a four-cylinder, and the s has a V-6. I tested a Mazda6 s with the optional Sport Package.

Exterior & Styling
The i and s trim levels look the same on the outside. Changes come with the optional Appearance Package and the Sport Package, offered for either trim level. The Appearance Package includes a body-colored front air dam, side sill extensions, a rear bumper skirt and chrome exhaust tips. The Sport Package includes the sill extensions and rear bumper skirt, as well as a sculpted front air dam, rear spoiler, front fog lights in the headlight clusters, 17-inch aluminum wheels and some interior upgrades. The standard wheels are 16-inch steel with wheel covers on the i trim level and 16-inch cast aluminum on the s.

My test vehicle definitely looked sporty, and the Lapis Blue Metallic paint was very well received by all who saw it. The Mazda6 resembles the Protegé sedan, and the Sport Package gives it a look similar to the Protegé5, on which a sportier front fascia and sill extensions are standard. I particularly like the rear end, where the spoiler isn’t too large and the wraparound taillights are sharp and distinctive. Mazda resisted using the clear-lens taillights that often show up on vehicles that are intended to be sporty. Thank you, Mazda.

In my opinion, the Mazda6’s styling is brilliant. It’s not as bland as some of its competitors, but neither is it such a statement that it’s likely to turn people off. Blandness hasn’t proven to be much of a problem for the Camry and Accord in terms of sales, so it would be unwise to style a competitor too radically. All the same, the chief complaint about the Camry and Accord, even among some owners, is their conservative styling. Mixing things up a bit, but not too much, seems the best strategy.

Buyers who want to customize the car’s appearance can choose from a variety of exterior-upgrade options. The Chrome Appearance Package adds chrome side moldings. The fuel-filler door can be dressed up with chrome or a pearl satin finish. Also available separately are the rear wing spoiler included in the Sport Package, a more subtle rear lip spoiler and a body-colored Sport Grille.

Ride & Handling
Where the Mazda6 sets itself apart from other cars is in its ride and handling. More specifically, it’s the handling, but the point is that the car’s excellent dynamics don’t come at the cost of ride quality.

Where most cars in this segment use MacPherson struts in their front suspensions, the Mazda6 uses the double-wishbone design favored by many driving enthusiasts. The rear independent suspension is a multilink design with coil springs. I counsel consumers to pay more attention to the results than the formula, and the results here are splendid. The suspension does a terrific job of keeping the tires in contact with the road, and the structure’s high torsional rigidity adds to the precision and gives the car a feeling of solidity and quality.

Equipped with the optional Sport Package, my Mazda6 s had the 17-inch wheels and Michelin Pilot HX all-season tires rated P215/50VR17. The standard tire is rated P205/60HR16 (see tire codes to decipher the specs). Roadholding was very good, and the variable-assist power rack-and-pinion steering is a significant contributor to the car’s impressive handling. The ratio is quick and sporty, turn-in is crisp — at least with the higher-series tires I tested — and steering feedback is well above average for a front-drive car.

When pushed into corners, front and rear stabilizer bars serve well in controlling body roll. For all this performance, the ride quality is firm but not overly so. The sport suspension in Altimas equipped with the 3.5-liter V-6 is more harsh.

Thanks to an event sponsored by the Midwest Automotive Media Association, I got a chance to flog the Mazda6 and some competitors on Road America’s 4-mile racetrack (see coverage). The Mazda6 availed itself very well, and its composure in turns was as impressive at high speeds as it was on regular roads. Understeer is notably mild for a front-drive car. Mazda cites a front/rear weight distribution of 60/40 for both trim levels, but my test vehicle felt far more balanced. At Road America, I found I could induce the rear end to drift when I wanted to, but it remained controllable at all times.

Electronic stability systems have begun to work their way into this vehicle segment, but the Mazda6 currently doesn’t offer one.

If you haven’t noticed, there’s a horsepower war going on in the automotive industry. It seems that manufacturers figured out they can make any car exciting by giving it more oomph (fuel economy be damned, in many cases). Power can make you overlook other shortcomings, and too often that’s why it’s offered. To put a fine point on it, adding power is easy. Achieving good handling performance, especially with no practical trade-offs, is difficult. Mazda has really accomplished something here. If you’re of the mind that buying a midsize sedan means the fun is over, then drive this car.

Going & Stopping
Mazda wisely offers the Mazda6’s four- and six-cylinder engines with a manual transmission and the option of an automatic. The manual, though its gear ratios differ slightly with the engine choice, is a five-speed in both cases. The four-cylinder comes with a four-speed automatic where the V-6 mates to a five-speed. Both automatics include a clutchless-manual mode for drivers who want to shift for themselves.

Trim Level i s
Type 2.3-liter inline-4 3.0-liter V-6
Horsepower 160 @ 6,000 rpm 220 @ 6,300 rpm
Torque (lbs.-ft.) 155 @ 4,000 rpm 192 @ 5,000 rpm
Redline 6,500 rpm 6,500 rpm
Required Fuel regular unleaded
(87 octane) regular unleaded
(87 octane)
Manufacturer data

The 2.3-liter four-cylinder is an all-new Mazda engine. The 3.0-liter V-6 sees a lot of duty in other Mazdas and Fords, but this is the first version to offer continuously variable valve timing, on the intake valves. Also employed on the four-cylinder, this technology improves efficiency and emissions at all engine speeds and helps even out torque across the rev range.

My Mazda6 had the V-6 and manual transmission. The V-6 engine’s torque peak is very high up the rev range: 5,000 rpm, just 1,500 rpm shy of the upper limit, as reflected in the table above. Though the peak isn’t sharp — the engine tugs reasonably firmly at lower rpm — I absolutely had to work the shifter when I really wanted to move out quickly. When it comes time to power out of a turn, the lower reaches of the tachometer are wanting. This immediately makes me suspicious of how the car will perform with an automatic, which I hope to test soon. The reason is that automatics tend not to kick down as readily as I like, and with the torque peak at 5,000 rpm, kick down is what the transmission would have to do to make use of the high-rev power.

I have the same concern about the four-cylinder with the automatic, because its torque peak also is relatively high and its transmission has one less gear. In my experience, less-powerful engines do better with more gears, so the situation is a bit flopped here.

My test vehicle had a decent amount of power, and the gear ratios seemed well chosen. The clutch pedal has a good feel and is relatively forgiving. Mazda says it based the shifter on that of the Miata, which explains its relatively short stick and short throws. I had no beef with it in theory, but there was clearly something wonky with the shifter in my test vehicle. Third gear was tough to get into — it felt like the lever had to go up and to the left. I can’t imagine this is the design, so I’m dismissing it as a defect or the result of abuse by another driver. If you know differently, send me a Yo, Joe! e-mail.

The Mazda6’s specs compare reasonably well to the competition’s. Its four-cylinder matches that of the Honda Accord sedan in horsepower, though the Accord has slightly more torque: 161 pounds-feet at 4,500 rpm. Likewise, the Accord’s optional V-6 has more torque, 212 pounds-feet at 5,000 rpm, as well as 20 hp more, 240 total. Currently, the Accord doesn’t offer a manual transmission with the V-6. Comparing power ratings alone doesn’t tell you much, though the curb weight of these vehicles is comparable, and that’s the most significant other factor in acceleration. Still, if you want to know not just how quickly different models accelerate but the characteristics, then you must test-drive them yourself.

By riding my car’s manual gears close to the redline before shifting, I was able to sprint from zero to 60 mph in about 7 seconds, perhaps a hair less. I’d expect the automatic to be slightly slower, which is almost always the case. It also will get slightly lower fuel economy if EPA estimates are correct.

(city / highway, mpg)
2.3-liter inline-4 3.0-liter V-6
Manual Transmission 25 / 32 20 / 27
Automatic Transmission 23 / 29 19 / 27

In terms of emissions, the Mazda6 i scores 7 out of 10 (with 10 being the best) in the EPA’s Green Vehicle Ratings. The s trim level scores 6 in the national version and 7 for cars sold in more restricted states like California and the Northeast (where an additional $100 charge applies). These ratings are competitive with most cars in the segment. The Honda Accord is the exception, scoring at least 8 in all versions.

Though the Mazda6 platform is designed to accept all-wheel drive, which is available in Europe, front-wheel is the only current offering in the United States. This could change if demand dictates. Traction control comes with the ABS, which is standard on the s trim level and a $400 stand-alone option on the i. The ABS also includes electronic brake-force distribution. Though the ABS has a wheel-rotation sensor at each wheel, it is a three-channel system, which means the rear wheels share a channel. This is a theoretical disadvantage to a four-channel system, but I experienced no ill behavior in my test vehicle’s standard four-wheel disc brakes. Had I not read the specs, I never would have known the system had three rather than four channels.

The brakes perform well in normal driving, with decent pedal feel and linearity.

The Inside
All-new models and redesigns are a great opportunity for an automaker to match the features offered by competing vehicles, and Mazda seems to have taken advantage, with a few exceptions.

The driver’s seat height is adjustable in both trim levels. In the Mazda6 i, the manual seat jacks up and down by means of a lever on the side — a relatively recent approach and probably the easiest to use. The s trim level adds an eight-way power driver’s seat with a manual lumbar adjustment. Mazda6 i buyers can upgrade to this seat with the optional Premium Package. Power is not offered for the passenger seat. Cloth upholstery is standard and leather is an $860 stand-alone option on either trim level.

One can add seat heaters to the leather seats with the optional Comfort Package, which also includes heated side mirrors. My test vehicle had the seat heaters, the switches for which are somewhat hidden under the center armrest’s overhang. The heaters only turn on and off, which is badly out of date. Most cars with this feature have at least low and high settings, and some have up to six or a continuously variable control.

I found the driver’s seat quite comfortable. At 6 feet tall, I had about an inch of headroom to spare even with the seat at its highest position and the optional moonroof installed, which characteristically diminishes headroom by 0.7 inch. With the cushion at its lowest setting, I had several inches of leeway. Shorter drivers should have no trouble with visibility. As shown in the photo, rear sightlines are good, and the Sport Package’s spoiler has negligible effect on the view. The seat has generous fore/aft travel. It gets closer to the wheel than anyone is likely to need, and I was able to get out of reach of the clutch pedal.

A boon for all is the steering wheel, which tilts and telescopes, helping drivers of different statures to get comfortable and distance themselves properly from the airbag. The Volkswagen Passat (see the Vehicle Profile); Altima, current Accord and 2004 Chevrolet Malibu all offer this feature, but the Camry still doesn’t. The standard cruise control and audio buttons on the steering wheel are backlit at night. One of the power-window buttons on the driver’s door armrest is backlit, but the others aren’t. Neither is the power-lock switch, but it’s up near the handle where it’s easy to find by feel.

The Sport Package replaces the standard white-on-black instruments with glowing red faces (see photos). I don’t mean to fixate on illumination, but the Mazda6 has a versatile if high-maintenance approach to the problem of displays that wash out in bright light. In some cars with such gauges, turning the headlights on when it’s not dark out — say, during rain — makes the gauges disappear. The Mazda6 has the usual dashboard thumbwheel to set light intensity for when the headlights are on and a separate stalk on the instrument panel itself that you can press to go to daytime brightness. It also lets you set the intensity for when the headlights are off. The LED display for the stereo and ventilation, located high on the center control panel, has a similar button labeled “DIMMER” that brings it up to full brightness when the headlights are on. I’m not sure if these separate controls are an advantage, but it’s an interesting approach.

Storage provisions are good. The door pockets are a decent size and incorporate bottle holders to supplement the two cupholders in the center console. The locking glove box also is reasonably roomy, as is the bi-level center storage console. The bottom compartment holds a handful of CD boxes and incorporates a 12-volt accessory outlet. The top level has a cutout to allow a power cord to pass through. A covered bin atop the dashboard is also good for a few CD boxes, a sunglasses case or what have you.

The materials quality is good overall. The “titanium” finish on the center control panel is no better or worse than in the throng of other models that have adopted the look. The Sport Package adds more of this finish, on the door armrests, and accent-color trim pieces on the dash. Another trendy item is the air conditioning vents that look like Girl Scout Thin Mint cookies. Aside from the possible trademark infringement, these registers don’t allow you to control the volume of air that flows through them. Other oversights include the side mirrors, which don’t fold, and the sun visors, which have illuminated vanity mirrors, but they don’t slide or have extensions to cover all of the side windows.

Another issue is cabin noise. Objectively, the Mazda6 isn’t dramatically louder inside than the competition, but the character of noise is a separate issue from the level you might read on a meter, and the Mazda6’s noise seemed more intrusive to me, especially when compared to the Camry.

I found the backseat surprisingly roomy. Even with the driver’s seat all the way back, my knees were just touching its backrest, and they weren’t raised too high either. Though a bit firm, the cushion and backrest were at comfortable angles. The Accord’s backrest leans back too far for my tastes. By the manufacturer-supplied numbers, the Mazda6 backseat’s headroom is 0.3 inch greater than the Accord’s but 1.2 inches lesser than the Camry’s. Its legroom is 0.3 inch lesser than the Accord’s and 1.3 inches lesser than the Camry’s.

The center seat is so-so in terms of comfort. It is raised relative to the outboard seats. The floor has a hump in the center about ankle high, and the center console comes back pretty far, so a passenger’s feet must go to either side. A flip-down center armrest is standard, and it includes two cupholders. There’s an airplane-style seatback pocket on both front backrests. There are air conditioning vents under the front seats, and the backdoor windows open a full 90-plus percent.

Child-safety features include child-safety door locks, LATCH on the outboard seats, three top-tether anchors on the rear deck and switchable-locking retractors on all passenger seat belts for installing child-safety seats.

The Mazda6 has three-point (lap-and-shoulder) seat belts in all five seating positions, but there are pretensioners and head restraints for the front only. The headrests adjust up and down, not fore and aft, but they’re positioned relatively far forward for seemingly adequate protection.

The Mazda6’s front airbags are dual-stage designs that deploy at one of two intensities depending on crash severity and, in the driver’s case, how close to the airbag the seat is positioned. A $450 stand-alone option includes seat-mounted side-impact airbags for the front seats and side curtain-type airbags that cover the side windows and provide head protection for the front and rear seats.

The first crash-test results from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) are excellent. The Mazda6 sedan scored five stars, the highest rating, for both front seats in a frontal crash. The result of the side-impact crash is under review. You can check for the latest data on NHTSA’s Mazda6 page, and see how competing vehicles performed on the 2003 Medium Passenger Cars page.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS); a nonprofit organization funded by the insurance industry that conducts a different type of test, hasn’t crash tested the Mazda6 as of this writing, but you can check for the latest data on its Midsize Inexpensive Cars page.

Cargo & Towing
The Mazda6’s trunk is competitively sized at 15.2 cubic feet. The Accord’s trunk is 14 cubic feet, the Passat’s is 15 cubic feet, the Altima’s is 15.6 cubic feet, and the Camry’s is 16.7 cubic feet.

The Mazda6 trunk has a wide opening, and the hinges are on the outside of the compartment so they don’t encroach on the cargo space. A 60/40-split, folding backseat is standard. Handles in the trunk release the backrests, which are spring-loaded to fold themselves — nice. The small trade-off to this design is that they require a little more effort to raise again. The aperture between the trunk and cabin is generous in size, unlike some, such as in the Camry.

Mazda says the Mazda6 is not intended to tow a trailer. Though this isn’t unheard of, especially among front-drive cars, there are many in this class that are capable of trailering.

The Mazda6 comes nicely equipped for the price. Standard features not already mentioned include air conditioning; an AM/FM/CD stereo; power door locks with remote keyless entry; power windows; power side mirrors; a leather-wrapped steering wheel, shifter knob and parking brake handle; and an engine immobilizer security device. The s trim level adds an alarm system and automatic climate control in addition to the features already mentioned.

Stand-alone options not already mentioned that are offered on both trim levels include a cassette player, an in-dash six-CD changer, a MiniDisc player, and a Bose premium stereo that includes the changer and also adds a 200-watt amplifier and a subwoofer. One can also independently add front fog lights, which are incorporated into the headlight clusters; a cargo net, tray and organizer; a power moonroof; an electrochromatic rearview mirror with a compass; and all-weather floormats.

A Mazda6 i packed with options has a sticker price of $25,800 including the destination charge. A loaded Mazda6 s tops out at $27,245, destination fee included. All of the Mazda6’s standard and optional features and their prices can be viewed in the Model Report.

Mazda6 in the Market
Mazda6 sales got off to a slow start, Mazda spokesman Jeremy Barnes says, in part because it hit dealerships at the worst time of year, winter, and a brutal one at that. It didn’t help, he says, that Mazda6 is a new brand name, and it entered a market loaded with incentives.

The car is also defying expectations. In this vehicle category, 80 to 85 percent of the sedans are sold with four-cylinder engines, but 30 percent of Mazda6 buyers want the V-6, and Barnes suspects it might go as high as 50 percent in time. Mazda was supplying only about 10 percent with the larger engine. Similar things are happening with the manual transmission — for which demand is 15 to 18 percent, much higher than the average single-digit percentage — and with the Sport Package and other add-ons.

“The typical buyer doesn’t choose these items,” Barnes says. “The car doesn’t fit any of the segment norms, fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it.”

Since the November launch, Barnes says, sales have increased steadily, and Mazda is ramping up production of V-6 models and Sport Packages. The original target was 80,000 units for the car’s first model year, which Barnes concedes “will require stout numbers as the year goes on.”

Mazda has long built cars that don’t sell as well as people in my position expect them to. “Our single biggest battle at Mazda is getting shoppers to consider our model along with the others,” Barnes says.

If you’re in the market for a midsize sedan, you should do more than consider the Mazda6. You should test-drive it. You’d be crazy not to.
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