The Mazda6 has been at a disadvantage in the dog-eat-dog midsize car class. Compared to stalwarts such as the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry and Nissan Altima, the Mazda6 was too small and weak on power, although it handled well and looked good. For 2009 Mazda is building on those positive qualities with a redesigned sedan that is larger and more powerful. Mazda has also addressed some quality issues, since it aims to better compete with the best in class.
Mazda offers the 2009 Mazda6 as only a four-door sedan. Last year's four-door hatchback does not return, nor does the four-door wagon that was available in 2007. The lineup consists of 4-cylinder i and V6-powered s models. Trim levels for the i model include base SV, Sport, Touring and Grand Touring. The s model is available in all but SV trim. SV equipment includes cloth upholstery, a 60/40 split-folding rear seat, an AM/FM/CD stereo, power accessories, and P205/65R-16 tires on steel wheels with wheel covers.
Sport trims add cruise control, remote keyless entry, and P215/55R-17 tires on alloy wheels. Touring versions get a power driver's seat, keyless access and starting, a trip computer and fog lights. Grand Touring trims are fully loaded with dual-zone automatic climate control, leather upholstery, heated front seats, Bluetooth cell phone link and streaming audio, a universal garage door opener, Xenon headlights, and Mazda's Blind Spot Alert system.
Standard safety equipment on all models includes dual front airbags, front side airbags, side-curtain airbags, a tire-pressure-monitoring system, anti-lock brakes with electronic brake force distribution, traction control, electronic stability control, and active front head restraints.
Under the Hood
Both engine choices get more power for 2009. Mazda6 i models trade a 156-horsepower 2.3-liter 4-cylinder engine for a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder powerplant that makes 170 horses, putting it in the same ballpark as other four cylinders in the class. The base engine is offered with a 6-speed manual transmission or a 5-speed automatic with manual shift capability. EPA fuel economy ratings are 20/29 mpg (city/hwy) with the manual and 21/30 mpg with the automatic.
Mazda6 s models get a more substantial upgrade. Gone is the Ford-sourced 3.0-liter 212-horsepower Duratec V6, and in its place is the Ford-designed, Mazda-built MZR 3.7-liter V6, which makes 272 horsepower. It comes with one transmission: a 6-speed automatic with manual shift capability. EPA fuel economy ratings are 17/25 mpg.
All Mazda6 models have front-wheel drive, and Mazda says there are no plans for an all-wheel-drive version.
Mazda aims for an upscale look and feel in the Mazda6 and comes pretty close to achieving that goal. Nice, soft-touch materials on the dash, armrests and center console certainly help, but some of the graining is mismatched and there are a few thin plastics that we fear may rattle later on. Add the available leather seats and the interior takes on a more luxurious look.
Most of the controls are easy to spot and reach. The readouts for the radio and climate controls are found in a small screen at the top of the dash. This can be a bit of a distraction because drivers have to look in two places when adjusting those controls.
Small item storage is just adequate. The center console is rather small and drivers can plop things in the cupholders behind the shifter, but we'd like an additional tray or bin for items such as cell phones. An auxiliary input jack is standard and Mazda offers a Bluetooth hands-free cell phone link that can also play streaming audio. These are nice, but we'd prefer a USB port to provide an iPod interface.
Thanks to a tilt/telescoping steering column, most drivers should be able to tailor a comfortable driving position. Available power seat adjustments help. Drivers should also have plenty of headroom and legroom. Rear seating is improved considerably over the last model. There is now enough legroom for a 6'2" passenger to fit behind a 6'2" driver. Headroom in back is also quite good, although really tall passengers will want more. A fold-down center armrest aids comfort in the rear-seat area.
Trunk space is also improved. At 16.6 cubic feet, the Mazda6 has a larger trunk than most competitors, bested only by the Chevrolet Impala. Standard 60/40 split-folding rear seats allow loading longer items, but the trunk opening is rather short, so the Mazda6 won't swallow larger boxes.
On the Road
From behind the wheel the Mazda6 acquits itself well. It's sportier than most competitors, though the Nissan Altima is probably more agile. The small-diameter steering wheel feels sporty in the driver's hands, steering is fairly quick and direct for a midsize family car, and the Mazda6 is quite stable at highway speeds. If Mazda was aiming for an all-out sports sedan, the car should provide a bit more road feel and feedback.
The balance between handling and ride is impressive, and never beats up on passengers. Small road imperfections are handled well, and large ruts rarely intrude. Some drivers may find the ride a bit too firm with the available 18-inch wheels, especially those coming out of supple cars such as the Camry. We found the 18-inch rims tended to patter over consistently broken pavement.
The brakes have a linear pedal feel and deliver confident stopping power, although they may be a bit small for heavy braking conditions such as twisting mountain roads or racetrack driving. Mazda says it has worked to eliminate the brake squeal problem experienced by owners of the previous generation.
Engine performance is improved for both available powerplants. The 2.5-liter four cylinder is adequate for most needs, and it's nice that customers can opt for all the amenities with a 4-cylinder model. The engine provides decent pickup from a start and we found that the 5-speed automatic transmission shifted quickly enough to help give the 2.5 decent passing punch. The standard 6-speed manual shifts easily and drivers can use it to wring a little more out of the engine. With either transmission the 4-cylinder is exceptionally quiet.
Probably the biggest demerit of the last Mazda6 was the performance of the V6 engine. The 3.0-liter V6 paled in comparison to the strong V6s offered by Honda, General Motors, Nissan, and Toyota. On paper the new 3.7-liter V6 has best-in-class power, and on the road it performs well. The V6 makes mincemeat of freeway on-ramps and has passing punch to spare. It comes with a smooth-shifting 6-speed automatic transmission that was sometimes tardy delivering downshifts. Drivers can use the manual shiftgate, but steering wheel paddles would provide more sporty flair.
Right for You?
Midsize sedans are right for most buyers, and the Mazda6 is one of the nicer examples of the breed. The roomy interior offers comfortable seating for five, the firm unibody structure provides a comfortable yet sporty ride, and the available V6 has power that matches any vehicle in the class. A final concern is quality. While the previous model scored low in J.D. Power Initial Quality Study ratings, Mazda says it has addressed those issues.
Kirk Bell has served as the associate publisher for Consumer Guide Automotive and editor of Scale Auto Enthusiast magazine. A Midwest native, Bell brings 18 years of automotive journalism experience to MSN, and currently contributes to JDPower.com and Kelley Blue Book's kbb.com.