The fairly new 2004 Mazda6 family sports sedan needn't take a back seat to any rival, especially when equipped with its available V6 engine.
Ford Motor, which controls Mazda, certainly feels that way—Ford will use the Mazda6 as the foundation for up to 10 of its 2006 and 2007 Ford, Mercury and Lincoln models.
That's a mighty strong vote of confidence, although those future models will not look or drive exactly like the Mazda6 because Ford helped design lots of versatility into the car's platform.
For instance, the wheelbase and track can be stretched. And the Mazda6, which now has only two rows of seats, can handle three rows. The steering and suspension also can be tuned for a sporty or luxury ride.
The Mazda6 was introduced as a 2003 model and is an improvement over the decent 626 and Millenia models. It comes with a base 4-cylinder engine, but offers a strong V6, taut chassis and sporty appearance at approximately half the price of similar-size high-performance BMW or Mercedes sedans.
Fits Zoom-Zoom Image
What you don't get with the strong-selling Mazda6 is a name associated with world-class performance But the Mazda6 is helping earn the Japanese automaker a good reputation and contributing to Mazda's "zoom-zoom" image—along with its new Mazda3 sports sedan/hatchback and RX-8 sports car with its rotary engine and unique 4-door design.
The front-wheel-drive Mazda6 isn't as nimble as the smaller Mazda3 or RX-8, but is fun to drive. Its virtues include quick steering, sharp handling, a comfortable ride and strong braking.
The Mazda6 competes in both the compact and midsize sedan market. There is an $18,895 base 'i' sedan with a 2.3-liter 160-horsepower 4-cylinder engine and a $21,525 "s" version with a 3.0-liter 220-horsepower V6. (Hatchback and station wagon trims arrive mid-year, but haven't been tested yet.)
Variety of Transmissions
The car's good 5-speed manual gearbox is needed with the 4-cylinder engine for lively acceleration, but the V6 has enough power and torque to easily handle either the manual or an automatic.
Optional are a 4-speed automatic for the 4-cylinder engine and a 5-speed automatic for the V6. Both automatics have a manual shift gate, which can be used with the 4-cylinder engine for slightly more lively acceleration.
Fuel economy is good with the 4-cylinder engine: an estimated 22-24 mpg in the city and 29-32 on the highway, with the manual providing the higher numbers. Figures with the smoother V6 are 19 city and 27 highway with either transmission.
Both Mazda6 sedans are well-equipped, with such features as air conditioning, a tilt-telescoping wheel with radio controls, cruise control, an AM/FM/CD player, split-folding rear seat and power door locks (with remote keyless entry), windows and mirrors.
Added to the higher-line V6 version are such items as automatic climate control, traction control, anti-lock brakes and larger 17-inch (vs. 16-inch) tires on alloy wheels. Anti-lock brakes and traction control cost $400 for the i trim.
Front-seat side airbags with side-curtain airbags are optional for the V6 version at $450, but require a $710 Sport package that contains titanium-colored interior trim, body cladding, rear spoiler, dual exhaust outlets and fog lights. Also required is a $635 Bose audio package and $700 power sunroof.
The Sport package adds a lot to the racy look of the Mazda6, but why is one forced to buy all that other stuff to get it?
In any case, you can get a $950 Security package for the i trim that has the front and side-curtain airbags, anti-lock brakes and a traction-control system.
Some Mazda6 buyers probably will just opt for the $1,500 Luxury package, which contains leather upholstery, a power driver's seat and heated front seats.
Four 6-footers easily fit in the Mazda6, which has a quiet, sporty, airy interior, although some plastic trim looks and feels cheap and rear doorways should be wider. It has nicely placed controls, a tidy 3-spoke leather-covered wheel, sports sedan gauges and door pockets that hold half-liter bottles.
But audio controls need a simpler design, and some may feel that the supportive front bucket seats need a longer cushion.
The roomy trunk is nicely shaped and its lid has strut-type hinges that don't eat into cargo space. The flip-forward seatbacks significantly increase the cargo area, but they should sit flatter when folded down.
The Mazda6 is more fun to drive than competitors from larger automakers, and also is just as practical and less expensive.