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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.