2005 Mazda Mazda6
By Dan Jedlicka of MSN Autos
Mazda really should be further along than it is, having pioneered use of the rotary engine in mass-produced cars here in 1970 and having resurrected the affordable sports car roadster with its 1990 Miata.
But this Japanese automaker—controlled in recent years by Ford—always was a step behind Japan's more conservative Toyota and Honda. That's partly because they're bigger than Mazda, but Mazda also would be larger if its vehicles had met with wider acceptance.
However, Mazda finally is picking up some ground, ending 2004 with higher U.S. sales than in the previous year and offering more attractive products.
One such vehicle is the Mazda6 sedan—introduced in 2003 to replace the automaker's rather bland 626. The Mazda6, which promptly was named one of the 10 best cars of 2003 by Car and Driver magazine, is supposed to battle cars such as the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord in the midsize car market—although the top-selling Camry and Accord models are more conservative.
The Mazda6 is practical, but is designed with an emphasis on sportiness in keeping with the automaker's "zoom-zoom" image, fostered by its go-go advertising. Mazda knew it couldn't compete with the Camry or Accord on refinement and that offering more power would only give it a temporary edge. Also, it knew that South Korean automakers could undercut it on price.
Dare to be Different
The general rule is that, the more trim levels you offer, the more vehicles you will sell. Both the hatchback and wagon, which are far more popular body styles in Europe than in America, share many parts with the sedan, so Mazda's move was a relatively low-cost investment.
Trim levels are i Base sedan, i Sport sedan and hatchback, i Grand Touring sedan, s Base wagon, s Sport sedan, hatchback and wagon and s Grand Touring sedan and wagon.
Also new are standard 17-inch alloy wheels (vs. 16-inchers) on Sport sedans and hatchback and wagon versions, along with a power driver's seat standard on Sport and Grand Touring versions.
A Bose audio system/tilt-slide glass sunroof package is newly standard on Grand Touring and optional on Base and Sport models. All Sport versions now have a body color front grille, spoiler and gray headlight bezels for a more aggressive look.
Safety features include front side torso and front/rear head-protecting side-curtain airbags for most models.
The 4-cylinder versions come with a 5-speed manual transmission or 4-speed automatic, while the V6 works with either the manual or the 6-speed automatic.
Both engines provide the most punch at high rpm levels, so off-the-line acceleration isn't very fast during normal takeoffs. However, the V6 versions are especially faster once underway.
The V6 wisks the $23,995 s Sport hatchback I tested from 0 to 60 mph in 7.4 seconds and provides fast merging and good 65-75 mph passing, although a downshift from fifth to fourth gear was needed for rapid passing.
Racy-Looking Sport Hatchback
Mazda6 buyers looking for the best fuel economy should opt for the 4-cylinder trim level with a manual gearbox because it delivers an estimated 23 mpg in the city and 31 on highways. The V6 with the manual provides 19 and 26, and does slightly better with the new automatic.
The variable-assist power steering is quick and direct, although the car's turning circle is rather wide. Handling is in the sports sedan class with the available 17-inch wheels. And an all-independent suspension provides a supple ride. The brakes provide good stopping power and have good pedal feel.
Outside door handles are large for easy entry to the attractive interior, which has easily read gauges and a good number of storage areas. The supportive front bucket seats slide back a lot, and four to five tall adults comfortably fit in the interior, which is moderately quiet at highway speeds.
Some Confusing Controls
All versions have a 60/40 split-folding rear seat with releases in the cargo area that don't force you to open a rear door to use them. The large cargo area becomes very spacious when rear seatbacks are folded forward—especially in the hatchback.
While not as refined as top Japanese rivals, the Mazda6 is well worth considering. And there isn't much competition for the hatchback and station wagon versions.