Sport Wagon Spies SUV Market

2007, Mazda, MAZDA6

The overt mission, visible to car shoppers and TV viewers, is to offer excitement and fill niches in the marketplace. For example, the delightful little Miata, soon to be known in this country by its worldwide moniker, MX-5, has no real competition. The RX-8 sports car defies convention by having four doors while acting and looking like a coupe. Neither car is a volume seller, but it gives richness and appeal to the Mazda brand.

"The Mazda6 Sport Wagon is a fine alternative to a hefty, gas-guzzling SUV, and offers a much more enjoyable driving experience." Mazda's covert mission is to supply quality platforms upon which Ford can build vehicles of its own for the American automobile consumer. For example, the small Escape SUV was developed for Ford by Mazda, and Mazda offers a sibling called the Tribute.

However, the car that is really going to help Ford in the near future is the new Mazda6, which recently replaced the historic 626 as Mazda's mid-size entry. The Mazda6 platform will soon live under some new Ford, Mercury and Lincoln products, but that's another story.

Battling for sales in the mid-size category in America means head-to-head combat with the huge-selling Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, surely a daunting task. You can't beat those worthy opponents on volume, so the company gave the Mazda6 something special, a sports sedan personality in a choice of sedan, wagon, or five-door model. Although there have been Accord and Camry wagons sold in the States before, none is currently marketed here. We are, presumably, too busy buying SUVs to notice.

In any case, the Mazda6 Sport Wagon is a fine alternative to a hefty, gas-guzzling SUV, and offers a much more enjoyable driving experience.

My Steel Gray Metallic test car looked as sober as a presidential bodyguard, and its black interior was all business as well.

Silvery accents brightened the cabin somewhat, and it was quiet as a bank vault out there on the highway.

As part of its sporting character, the car came with the standard five-speed manual transmission, and with the only engine available, a 220-horsepower 3.0-liter V6. The EPA gives the Ford-sourced engine ratings of 19 city, 26 highway, just a tick better than a mid-size SUV.

Other sporty touches include independent front and rear suspension and front and rear stabilizer bars. Stopping chores are made faster and safer with four-wheel disc brakes (with computerized assistance from an antilock system), electronic brakeforce distribution and traction control.

The second-row seats of The Mazda6 Sport Wagon fold with the touch of a lever located near the tailgate with no need to remove the head rests for a near-flat load floor. Tie-downs, a retractable cargo cover shade and a barrier-type net that raises from the floor and attaches to the roof interior all come standard. Despite these enhancements, however, the Mazda6 still feels soft and gentle, absorbing bumps and riding like any other family hauler.

The Sport Wagon is delivered only with a high level of standard equipment. That means that all of the electronic goodies come with it, including automatic climate control, a comfortably-proportioned eight-way power driver's seat, a six-speaker audio system, cruise control and, of course, the usual power-assisted windows, mirrors and locks. You also get 17-inch alloy rims, side sill extensions and a spoiler, so other motorists know you've got something special.

Options are few, but my tester had the Leather Package, which includes heated leather seats, heated mirrors and electroluminescent gauges ($1,240). I also enjoyed the upgraded Bose Audio and Moonroof Package ($1,335), which kicked in an in-dash six-disc CD changer.

Although it's not as big as an SUV, the Mazda6 Sport Wagon will hold almost 34 cubic feet of cargo, and a cargo cover and barrier net come standard to keep it in place. Perhaps it's just that I'm used to SUVs, but the long, low, stretched-out proportions of the Sport Wagon look sinuous and powerful, especially in a dark color.

The Sport Wagon does not have much direct competition, except perhaps for the Subaru Legacy wagons; but it seems to me that the car might appeal to someone interested in an entry luxury car like the Audi A4 Avant. Compared to that vehicle, the Mazda offers a stronger standard engine, more length, and a bit more storage space. Oh, and at $27,245, it costs about $8,000 less than the Audi, similarly equipped (except that the Audi has all-wheel-drive).

With gas prices rising and the public losing some of its infatuation with SUVs, sport wagons like this one may be coming into their own. The Mazda6 Sport Wagon certainly makes hauling your family around a whole lot more amusing.

By Steve Schaefer

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