Mazda puts extra zoom into new 2004 mid-sized sedan

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Mazda’s mid-sized sedan had slipped off the car-buying public’s radar screen by the time it ended production some months ago. The venerable 626, available in the United States since 1979, once was an exciting alternative to better-selling vehicles such as the Taurus, Accord and Camry.

But over the past few years it had become an uninspiring entry in the highly competitive family sedan segment. Since its last redesign in 1998 it has steadily lost ground to the competition, selling only 40,000 copies in 2002.

Mazda made a big deal about an all-new car it was readying for the U.S. market as a replacement for both the 626 and the upscale Millennia – a sedan that would add excitement to Mazda.  It was to put the zoom-zoom back into the mid-sized portion of its lineup. That has been the Mazda mantra since last fall when it started pushing its all-new Mazda6.

Occasionally this kind of advance hype builds too many expectations. In some cases the car just can’t live up to its advance publicity but after a week behind the wheel of a Mazda6 we can say the new entry, which reached showrooms around the first of the year, is one of the most exciting mid-sized sedans we’ve driven in years. It lives up to the hype. No apologizes necessary. This car speaks for itself, just get behind the wheel.

That’s high praise from this corner because we have driven some very good new stuff in recent months including the Honda Accord and the new Nissan Altima and Toyota Camry.

The 6 will hold its own and then some. It’s just a matter of getting people to realize that the Mazda store has a viable alternative when they go shopping for a new car.
The Mazda6 feels well proportioned, measuring 187-inches long with a wheelbase of 105-inches. It is slightly larger than the Volkswagen Passat and Subaru Legacy and slightly smaller than the Honda Accord, Nissan Altima and Toyota Camry.

It comes with two engine choices and, unlike most family sedans it can be purchased with a 5-speed manual transmission mated to either the 4-cylinder or the V6.

A 2.3-liter twin-cam engine developing 160 horsepower and 155 pound-feet of torque powers the 4-cylinder edition, the 6i. The V-6 edition, tagged the 6s, features a 220-horsepower engine adapted from Ford’s 3.0-liter Duratec.

Neither engine is best in class in terms of horsepower and torque, but the overall driving dynamics of the car has a wonderful balance that will have you shaking your head in delight after a test drive.

The Mazda6 is the sports sedan of the middle class.
The test car is the pick of the litter, in our opinion, a V6 matted to a 5-speed manual transmission. We just couldn’t get enough drive time. And that’s saying something for a sedan that comes well equipped for under 25 grand.
Its suspension is aggressively tuned for road hugging performance yet the ride is well within the parameters of comfortable. The Mazda6 drives small, demanding to be tossed around and down-shifted and raced toward redline as it’s accelerated past slower vehicles, bobbing and weaving with the ease of a high priced sports car through traffic.
The shifter has short, accurate throws and the clutch action is nearly perfect. But if you prefer an automatic, the 6s comes with a 5-speed and the 6i with a 4-speed.

The steering is responsive with dead-on on-center feel.
The Mazda6 looks as aggressive as it drives, especially outfitted with the optional $860 sport package which adds 17-inch alloy wheels, rear spoiler and side sill extensions, sport-type front and rear bumpers, V-rated high-performance tires and dual sport-type exhausts. The exhaust pipes, by the way, are one on each side in the American muscle car tradition, not together on one side as in the traditional Japanese style.

The exterior has a clean wedge-shaped look that is just as appealing without the sport package add-ons as with them. The one sour note is the giant Mazda emblem hanging off a large chrome piece over the grille. We wish they had toned that down some.
Mazda has dared to be a little different with its interior and it works. It looks modern while keeping the stereo and climate controls simple and intuitive. The entire center console has the titanium look that is now in vogue, but it works well here. Large and comfortable knobs for the climate control and stereo are set up in a U shape that is about as neat a design as we’ve seen in any car.

For instance, one big knob adjusts volume and another on the other side tunes the radio. One big knob adjusts temperature, one fan speed. Perfect.
A display above three center air vents imparts such information as interior temperature setting, outside temperature, radio station setting and time.

Mazda has not forgotten comfort, either. The leather sport seats in the test car were well shaped particularly for spirited driving. In fact, they may be too contoured for the average sedan driver. The steering wheel tilts and telescopes to help reach optimum driving position.

Rear-seat leg and headroom is adequate. Some competitors have more. But two adults in back will find it comfortable with a pull down armrest that includes two drink holders, overhead reading lights and storage pockets on the seatbacks.

There are 15 cubic feet of trunk space, about average for the mid-sized class. Mazda has used strut-type hinges that do not obstruct trunk space. There are no annoying hinges to smash your suitcase. The rear seats can be folded down in a 60-40 split creating more storage space by pulling levers inside the trunk.

The well-equipped 4-cylinder 6i model starts at $19,050 and the V6 starts at $21,620. Standard equipment on the 6s includes ABS with traction control, 4-wheel disc brakes, power windows and locks, air conditioning, stereo with CD player and six speakers, remote keyless entry, power driver’s seat, and a 48-month/50,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty.

In addition to the sport package, other options on the test car included leather seating, side airbags and side curtain airbags, heated front seats and Bose audio package. That brought the bottom line to $25,345.

If you like the Mazda6 but need more space, hang on for a few months. A station wagon and hatchback are in the works.