New Mazda 6 gains beauty without losing sting

2009, Mazda, MAZDA 6

Sometimes everything comes together just right in creation of an automobile, and you can't help but be impressed by its cumulative charm. The Mazda 6 had that impact on driving purists when it replaced the 626 almost six years ago, and it maintained that status all through its lifespan for all who enjoy spirited driving.

The question, then, is whether the entirely new 2009 Mazda 6 will supplant the outgoing model by retaining its considerable artistic turf while carving out a larger share of the ever-more-competitive midsize segment.

As promised, the new Mazda 6 is larger, roomier, with a more potent pair of engines, better transmissions, and a sleek and, in silhouette, almost a coupe-like sweep to its lines. Upon first exposure, the new Mazda 6 exceeds expectations with either its own 2.5-liter 4-cylinder or when boosted by the 3.7-liter V6 as refined for the Mazda CX-9 SUV. By creating a package that leaves nothing to dislike, the new car is impressive enough to challenge the best of the crowded new midsize cars including the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima, Volkswagen Passat, Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Fusion, Hyundai Sonata, Saturn Aura and Pontiac G6.

The outgoing Mazda 6 was criticized by some for being a bit tight in the rear seat and trunk, and by the standards of its slightly larger adversaries, that case was valid, although those who didn't haul around 6-foot rear occupants might not have subscribed. Director of product planning Tim Barnes said that while the outgoing Mazda 6 won car of the year in Canada and elsewhere, Mazda's market research indicated some shortcomings in its quality, power and spaciousness.

Whatever, the new Mazda 6 has grown by 4 inches, creating more rear-seat room and a larger trunk, and great attention has been paid to its quality contruction and improved rigidity and refinement. But its sporty handling balance remains precisely tuned, and its improved chassis rigidity is even more firmly planted, for both handling and safety. The body is stiffened by the use of 30 percent high-strength steel, and chassis rigidity improves as wider cross-section sills and improved adhesives raise bending rigidity by 39 percent and torsional rigidity by 17 percent, while flexing of the shelf area under the rear window has been reduced by 29 percent.

Midsize or intermediate cars remain the standard of the industry, especially with fuel costs leading consumers to drop down from larger sedans, to say nothing of SUVs. The competition has always been ferocious, dating back to when the renamed Mazda emerged six years ago. Mazda officials apologized to the gathered auto journalists back then for spending a decade or so trying to build an Accord/Camry of their own, while backsliding on their company's intention of building the sportiest midsize sedan.

The company came out with its catchy "zoom-zoom" trademark and we drove hard through the twisting mountain roads above Santa Monica, California. Later we drove them on an autocross course set up to compare with cars like the top-line Accord or Camry. The Mazda 6 clearly was the best-handling and sportiest of the bunch.

The Mazda 6 added a hatchback version my personal favorite and a station wagon. Sales were OK, and improved after the more compact Mazda 3 started attracting customers to Mazda dealerships, but they never reflected how well the car matched up with the technology/durability of Honda or Toyota.

As rivals all built new and redesigned models of their midsize stalwarts in the last two years, the new Camry and Accord came out larger, and more conservative, while a new Altima aimed for a decided sporty slant. Yet the aging Mazda 6 could still beat them around an autocross course as the standard of sportiness.

So now it's time for a new Mazda 6. Arguably, the new Mazda 6 is the sleekest and best-designed of the batch. Whether you agree with that or not, you do need to examine it if you think you are going to make an objective choice in your midsize sedan purchase.

Mazda engineers have hit all the bases on their way to what appears to be a midsize home run. Seven design teams, working independently in four studios. Hiroshima, Yokohama, Frankfurt, and Irvine, California designed their own cars. It came down to two finalists, one called " elegant" and the other sleeker and sportier.

The latter won. It was a design aimed at U.S. buyers, and its lines created a 0.27 coefficient of drag a 10 percent improvement over the outgoing model, and a figure that beats such cars as the Porsche 911. Suspension was improved too, and steering feel, to better coordinate with the new engines.

Robert Davis, Mazda's senior vice president in charge of research, development and quality, said there were three primary targets for the Mazda 6. "We had the great driving dynamics as a sports sedan, so we wanted to keep that and add new features," Davis said. "We had three targets for the car -- quality and sophistication had to be improved, the size had to be right, and the power had to be right."

The car's handling was tuned at Mazda Laguna Seca race track -- the legendary track at Monterey, Calif., now owned by Mazda. It is a tight, intricate road course with some legendary sections, including the Corkscrew, a hilltop left-hander that forces drivers to turn sharply when their car is defying gravity, then plunging down a steep decline. "A lot of companies tune at Nurburgring in Germany," said Davis. "Nurburgring is good, but they don't have the Corkscrew."

The outstanding 2.3 derivative of Mazda's 2.0-liter 4-cylinder Miata engine, had served Mazda well and was shared with Ford. The upsized 3.0 V6 was Mazda's renovation of Ford's 3.0-liter engine, and came out so well that it was recycled back to Ford, meaning vehicles such as the Fusion and the Escape had two engines, one Mazda-built and the other Mazda-refined. The Focus, too, uses the Mazda 4. Wise moves, by Ford, which remains the largest shareholder in Mazda.

Both engines have been replaced in the new Mazda 6. Mazda has designed an entirely new 2.5-liter 4-cylinder, with all the right stuff. It has dual overhead camshafts, operated by a maintenance-free chain, as if anticipating the anguish of car-buyers who have had timing belts break when not replaced soon enough. The chain won't break. There is also a counter-spinning balance shaft in the oil pan of the 2,489 cc. aluminum engine, and a forged steel crankshaft.

With separate coils for each cylinder, and electronically controlled sequential fuel injection, it produces 170 horsepower at 6,000 RPMs, and 167 foot-pounds of torque at 4,000 RPMs, while also improving fuel economy. It remains the base engine in the revised 2009 Escape and its companion Mazda Tribute. With more pep, that engine can also propel the new Escape to an SUV-best 34-plus actual miles per gallon.

The optional upgrade engine is a 3.7-liter V6, which again is Mazda's reassembled tweak of Ford's excellent new 3.5-liter engine also with chain-driven dual overhead cams on both banks. It is the engine that powered the CX-9 to the 2008 Truck of the Year award, and in the Mazda 6 it develops a whopping 272 horsepower at 6,250 RPMs, and 269 foot-pounds of torque at 4,250 revs.

Both engines come with a 6-speed automatic with a manual gate, but sporty drivers shouldn't look past the 4-cylinder with a Mazda-designed 6-speed manual transmission.

After driving both engines and both transmissions hard, one of the few nits to pick is that the manual-gate automatic continues with Mazda's peculiar insistence that the shifter should be pushed forward to downshift, and pulled back to upshift counter to my and I suspect others' intuition, which has a mindset that pushing ahead should upshift and pulling back should be to downshift.

Mazda, like BMW, argues that hard-core shifter-kart racers shift their way, which is true, although when lying on your back and accelerating hard, being thrust rearward could jerk the shifter back for a dangerous downshift in a kart -- but precious few consumers ever experienced a shifter-kart, and potent as the Mazda 6 is, a driver is unlikely to be thrust toward the back seat by its torque.

That issue could be solved if Mazda would simply offer steering wheel paddles to manually shift the automatic.

With that being a factor, and with gasoline still costing maddeningly close to $4 a gallon, I would go with the quick and strong 4-cylinder, and unless you are committed to daily rush-hour gridlock, I'd be strongly tempted to pair it with the 6-speed stick.

Base price of such a vehicle is $18,550, rising to $20,250 with the Sport version. You can keep going up, to Touring and Grand Touring, and if you loaded every option into the Grand Touring model with the optional V6, you could push the price up to $28,260. That may seem steep to those who have observed the incentive discounts that made the outgoing Mazda 6 one of the industry's better bargains, but when compared to its competitors, those prices are right in the ballpark.

Sporty car handling is assured in all models, starting with the base car. Standard in all Mazda6 models are traction control and stability control. The front-wheel-drive composure of the new car has been improved by a different steering gear, which, coupled with the new suspension, allows the longer Mazda6 to reduce its turning circle by a whopping 3.2 feet. Stalwart traditionalists who insist that a car must have front-engine/rear-drive to handle well would come out into the light after driving the Mazda 6.

Competition is even tougher these days in the midsize category, where the new Fusion is impressive, and Chevrolet's Malibu won 2008 Car of the Year. If sporty performance is important, the Altima also offers a 6-speed stick with its 4-cylinder, while the Accord only offers a 5-speed manual with its 4, and you can't find a stick shift in any Malibu. Mazda doesn't offer a stick with its V6, repeating others' claims that only a small percentage of buyers will opt for a stick, to which I say, manufacturers invoke a self-fulfilling prophecy when they don't offer a stick; for example, zero percent of Malibu buyers will choose a stick, because you can't get one.

Adding the stick, and an extremely smooth-shifting one, at that, helps Mazda maintain its claim as the sportiest midsize car. Even though it has grown in size and power, its agility has actually improved, thanks to the quicker turning circle and more rigid platform.

It's outright and familiar sportiness ripples through every driving exercise, and that will be appreciated by all drivers, even those who prefer their driving to be shiftless.

By John Gilbert

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Images of the 2009, Mazda MAZDA 6

2009 Mazda MAZDA 6 front view
2009 Mazda MAZDA 6 front view
2009 Mazda MAZDA 6 interior
2009 Mazda MAZDA 6 interior
2009 Mazda MAZDA 6 center console
2009 Mazda MAZDA 6 center console
2009 Mazda MAZDA 6 rear shot
2009 Mazda MAZDA 6 rear shot