The Mazda 6 is sportier than the other cars in the mid-size class, both in its appearance and in its handling and driving dynamics. It's more agile and holds the road better than the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, or Nissan Altima. The Mazda 6 is lighter on its feet and stops quicker. In short, it's a better driver's car. It's also the best sedan for the money that Mazda has ever built, and is available with four-cylinder and V6 engines. The zoom-zoom folks have really put a fine point on it this time.
The Mazda 6, or MAZDA6, as the company calls it, debuted last year to widespread acclaim and multiple awards. Money Magazine named it "Best Mid-Sized Sedan," and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety called it a "Best Pick." The Mazda 6 also ranked among Car and Driver's "10 Best" cars and Automobile Magazine's "All-Stars." And it was the highest-rated new vehicle nameplate in the J.D. Power and Associates APEAL study.
Mazda hasn't been content to rest on its laurels. For 2004, Mazda is introducing 5-Door and Sport Wagon versions of the Mazda 6. The 5-Door model is the only mid-size hatchback sold in America, says Mazda, and is just the thing for active singles and couples.
Mazda 6i sedan ($18,750); 6s sedan ($21,345); Mazda 6i 5-Door; Mazda 6s 5-Door; Mazda 6s sport wagon
The Mazda 6 represents one of the sportiest exterior designs in the mid-size sedan class. Visually, it has more personality than the Accord and more spunk than the Camry. It has with a strong front-end treatment that's consistent with other Mazdas. Cat's-eye headlamps and big tail lamps that feature multi-element designs that enhance the action at each corner of the car.
The Mazda 6 benefits from a kind of muscular conservatism inside and out. Everything in, on and under this car makes sense, and it all looks good doing it. The relationship of the lower body to the upper body looks perfect, yet the roof shape is designed for people, not for style. Its sporty styling makes the Mazda 6 look smaller than it is. But because the Mazda 6 replaces both the mid-size 626 and the more expensive and luxurious Millenia, it's bigger in all directions than the old 626.
The shape of the Mazda 6 is truly fetching when painted a hot color and accented by the Sport Package ($710), which includes clear-lens halogen fog lamps, dual oval exhaust outlets, front and rear air dams, and side sill extensions. A rear wing is optional ($60).
The 5-Door features an extended rear roof pillar sloping rearward into a raised deck lid. As Mazda says, it looks fast even when sitting still.
The Sport Wagon features aggressive styling, though it doesn't look as sporty as the new Mazda 3 wagon.
The Mazda 6 interior is designed to be comfortable for front and rear passengers in the 95th percentile of all body shapes. The front seats are comfortable through a wide range of adjustments. We found them suitable for hard driving, with good upper body support and enough lower back support with the optional lumbar adjuster for all-day comfort. The Luxury Package ($1540) adds leather to all the right places, including perforated hides for the seating surfaces.
The rear seats are also quite comfortable. There's more than 96 cubic feet of useable space inside the Mazda 6 sedan, according to the EPA measuring system, and that translates to plenty of room for four, or five in a pinch.
There are half-liter cupholders in the doors and in both front and rear center consoles, and lots of other open and covered storage. The seat pockets and door pockets are huge. Our only complaint is that the interior door handles lacked heft.
The interior design is complemented by carbon fiber, titanium and body-color finishes. The sharp-looking gauges are illuminated in red light, but are conventional white-on-black during the day, with nice, large and pleasing graphics. Controls are equally well-labeled, legible during the day and illuminated in red at night.
The trunk is a good size at more than 15.2 cubic feet, and the trunk lid is designed with hinges that do not impinge in any way on the storage space. The compact, lateral-link rear suspension system allows for a perfectly flat trunk floor. The 60/40 split rear seat folds to expand luggage space. The release levers are in the trunk, a plus for security and convenience, and the seats themselves are spring-loaded so they fold instantly with just one pull of the release.
Handling comparisons to other cars in its class put the Mazda 6 near the top of the heap. The Mazda 6 holds the road better when cornering than the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, and Nissan Altima, and it offers better transient response than other mid-size sedans in quick lane-change maneuvers. The Camry feels genuinely lethargic by comparison and the Altima feels like a bigger car. And the Mazda's handling is sharper than the Honda's.
Mazda tells us that no sport-tuned suspension or handling package is offered on the Mazda 6 because the standard suspension is already tuned for sporty handling. In other words, it comes standard with a sports suspension. And we buy that, as indicated by our assessment above. The Mazda 6 rides on double wishbones up front, with a lateral-link layout in the rear and coil springs all around. Tires on the 6i are generously sized at 205/60HR16, with beefier 215/50VR17s on the 6s. Grip is very, very good, tenacious you might say, right up to the point where the front end pushes, telling you to lighten up. This doesn't occur until you've reached competition-level speeds, however. Other mid-size sedans lose grip far sooner than the Mazda 6. The amount of power-steering assist backs off the faster you go, to give good road feel, though still on the light side, at high speeds.
Ride quality is plusher than we were expecting, but body roll is nicely controlled by the lateral-link rear suspension and the standard front and rear stabilizer bars. In other words, the car doesn't lean much in corners.
Road and wind noise does come through, however. This Mazda is not as quiet as the latest Honda Accord, and road noise is relatively pronounced on broken pavement. We noticed more road and wind noise in cars with the Sport Package, so we suspect that the package's aerodynamic enhancements may be the cause.
Braking is better than in other cars in this class; the Mazda 6 stops in shorter distances. The optional anti-lock brakes demonstrated a marked propensity to arrest forward motion, with solid, progressive pedal feel, and good resistance to fade from prolonged heat buildup when driving hard for extended periods of time.
Zoom-zoom is in plenty supply regardless of which model you choose. The four-cylinder Mazda 6i is a hoot to drive. Order it with the five-speed manual and the fun zone starts at about 4000 rpm, where the engine is very responsive. The 2.3-liter, double-overhead-cam engine loves to rev. Below 3000 rpm, however, the four-cylinder lacks strong throttle response. Measured by the numbers, acceleration is on par with other four-cylinder mid-size sedans. The Honda may be slightly quicker, but the Mazda feels younger and sportier. The four-cylinder works best with the manual gearbox, which is fun to row.
The 3.0-liter V6 in the Mazda 6s greatly increases the fun. Like the four-cylinder, it has continuously variable valve timing (VVT) for its intake camshaft; but on the V6, this feature seems to be used more effectively, providing better low-down torque along with a willingness to rev, good gas mileage, and a nice set of sounds from the air intake and the dual exhausts. The Mazda V6 doesn't feel like it has as much low-rpm torque as the Toyota and Honda V6 engines, but it loves to rev and it's a lot of fun to drive.
The five-speed automatic transmission is a very good companion for the flexible V6 engine. Electronic controls automatically interrupt torque delivery on both upshifts and downshifts for smooth, positive gear changes without that secondary, rubbery bump that some front-drive transaxles generate. Both automatic transmissions offer a manual mode called Sport Shift: Pull back on the stick to upshift, push forward to downshift.
Both engines are made of aluminum to keep the new Mazda 6 from getting too heavy, which it isn't, at 3309 pounds for the V6 automatic.
The Mazda 6 is an affordable sports sedan. It boasts more exterior and interior style than other mid-size sedans. It's more fun to drive than other cars in this class, including the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, and Nissan Altima. The Mazda offers quicker cornering and stopping performance and a sportier ambiance. It's a great choice for someone who wants a more exciting car.
Though we haven't driven them, we expect the Sport Wagon to offer the same driving excitement, plus increased versatility; it should be a terrific dog car. The same goes for the 5-Door, which will fall between the sedan and wagon in terms of cargo utility.