MALIBU, Calif. -- Mulholland Drive, a twisted ribbon of asphalt warped in corkscrew contours across the Santa Monica Mountains above Los Angeles, connects through wrinkled canyons like Encinal and Latigo to the Pacific Coast Highway at Malibu, along the way serving up some of the most demanding driving routes on the continent.
We use these chutes -- with switchback kinks, washboard ripples and serpentine descents lipping around sheer cliffs unfettered by guard rails -- to test the athletic agility and sample the poise and power of Mazda's new mid-size sedan dubbed simply as the 6, the Mazda 6.
And a 6 under our control devours these kinky roads.
It hugs every contour of the convoluted course as we cut clean and quick lines across apexes of so many curves.
Leave it to Mazda, that "Zoom-Zoom" brand from Japan steeped in the production of fun-to-drive cars like the MX-5 Miata roadster and slinky RX-8 coupe, to take a sporty tack on the mundane concept of a people-hauling four-door sedan.
Fresh generational versions of the Mazda 6 for model-year 2009 look lean and aggressive, with sleek exterior lines spread across a broad structure where wheels push to perimeters of the package and the body seems to hunker down on pavement.
Behind the new sheetmetal forms, Mazda's front-wheel-drive (FWD) sedan contains a rigid structure which stretches the wheelbase for 4.5 inches longer than on the previous 6 and adds 2.6 inches to the track width -- the distance between the front and rear wheels. These expansions forge a broader and longer footprint for the 6 which improves its stability in motion and sets up more precise handling traits.
The skeletal steel safety cage of Mazda 6 was beefed up to improve structural rigidity. Measurements indicate an increase of 39 percent for the form's resistance to vertical bending and a 17 percent gain in torsional rigidity, with flexing in the rear of the package diminished by 29 percent.
In tests you can feel that stiffness now with far less flex evident in the chassis, while the independent suspension, acting quickly and predictably, works all nuances of the road with the dexterity of a dancer wiggling through a leg-twisting tango.
Up front there's a subframe for isolation and a double-wishbone design with low roll center to make the 6 even more agile for hugging every contour when tracking through a set of curves.
At the rear, there's Mazda's patented E-link design for a compact package with multiple links noted for the high lateral rigidity and a comfortable ride quality due to the long suspension travel.
The attachment point for each trailing arm in the rear suspension assembly is elevated by one inch, which improves anti-dive tendencies -- keeping the body more level when you're hitting the brake pedal hard.
Also working for sporty driving traits is a power-assisted rack and pinion steering device tuned to feel direct and precise. A quick steering ratio -- only 2.93 turns from wheel lock to lock -- means only the slightest movement when running at speed will point the nose quickly where you want it to go.
For keen stopping power, there's a big disc brake mounted at every wheel with electronic brake force distribution (EBD) and computer linkage to an anti-lock brake system (ABS), a traction control system (TCS) plus a dynamic stability control (DSC) anti-skid device.
Mazda makes two versions of this car badged as the 6i and 6s.
The 6i carries a four-cylinder engine and the 6s totes a six-pack, yet each plant puts a kick in the go-pedal.
A four-in-line engine for 6i displaces 2.5 liters with dual cams and variable valve timing (VVT).
It produces 170 hp at 6000 rpm plus torque of 167 lb-ft at 4000 rpm.
The 6s gets a twin-cam 3.7-liter V6 VVT juiced way up to 272 hp at 6250 rpm with 269 lb-ft of torque at 4250 rpm.
In Mazda's sporty tradition, the four-in-line plant for 6i shows an available six-speed manual transmission, or an optional electronically controlled five-speed automatic with manual shift mode (MSM) control.
The V6 on 6s ties exclusively to a new Aisin six-speed automatic transmission with MSM and rev-matched downshifts.
Federal EPA fuel consumption numbers on Mazda's engines look good -- up to 30 miles per gallon for highway travel with the four-cylinder plant and 25 mpg for the V6.
The standard wheel package for 6i SV and 6i Sport consists of 16-inch steel wheels with Michelin Pilot 205/65HR16 all-season radials.
The 6i Touring and 6i Grand Touring plus the 6s Sport roll on 17-inch aluminum alloy wheels ringed by Michelin Pilot 215/55VR17 all-season radials.
Top trims 6s Touring and 6s Grand Touring bump up to 18-inch aluminum alloy wheels and Michelin Pilot 235/45WR18 all-season radials.
During our romp through Malibu's canyons in testing several 6i and 6s editions, the only challenge comes from reining the throttle to keep the tires planted on blacktop around each curve as forces of inertia and gravity tug against the machine.
In truth, we rip these route, flinging faster than prudent down the slopes, cranking the console shifter back a notch or two when needed to check momentum before the next bend, then inducing a bite of power on front wheels to pull our 6 through each turn in a controlled arc as the chassis maintains a flat stance which denotes tight control.
Not many cars can perform such feats at speed on risky curves, but for the new 6 it seems like play time.
This car also behaves itself on more mundane roads, and at legal speed on a multi-lane freeway like the 101 it provides a quiet interior atmosphere which reflects measures built into the new structure to control chassis vibrations and block sound of engine and road from intruding into the passenger compartment.
Among Mazda's many improvements for the 6, there's more elbow room for riders in the cabin and expanded trunk space, with new seat designs and a revamped instrument panel, plus more safety systems such as side-impact air bags for front seats and curtain-style air bags front and rear.
Top model Mazda 6s Grand Touring stocks perforated leather upholstery and glossy plastic trimwork resembling dark-stained wood.
Mazda's MSRP figures for the 2009 Mazda 6 begin at $18,550 for the 6i SV and extend to $28,260 for 6s Grand Touring.