2006 Mazdaspeed6

Not an Evo or STI -but close enough for mature types.

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author photo by Conor Twomey November 2005

This is not - repeat NOT - a Subaru Impreza STI or Mitsubishi Evo rival, even if the similarities are undeniable.

Sure, all three cars are four-door sedans powered by turbocharged, four-cylinder engines. All have permanent all-wheel drive, manual transmissions, and all produce about the same power. But what sets the Mazdaspeed6 apart is that it wasn't really designed with the same customer in mind. Let the rally-replica Evos and STIs battle for the hearts and paychecks of the twenty-something tearaways.

The Mazdaspeed6 is for those of us who are a little more mature now; a little too old to be seen in a hardcore street machine, but who still enjoy driving and want something affordable, practical, and fun.

Grown-up fun

So what makes the Mazdaspeed6 such a grown-up car compared to the other two machines? Well, just take a look at it. Mazda has resisted the temptation to bolt on a big spoiler or slap on a ground-effects kit and have focused instead on subtly beefing up the basic Mazda6 shape. It looks as if they've made it go to the gym and the transformation is so well executed you really have to study it to see where the muscle has developed.

The most obvious difference is the new front bumper, with a massive air intake that's needed to feed the turbo intercooler's substantial appetite for fresh air, though on a dark-colored car, it's actually pretty difficult to spot so if you like the look of that gaping grille I'd recommend buying one in red or white. Other changes include new fog lights shrouded in black plastic, and the dark headlamp surrounds that add understated menace to the Speed6's glare. There's also a very subtly defined hood bulge to make space for the additional engine hardware and wider front fenders to accommodate the bigger 18-inch wheels. Personally, I love this muted aggression but then, at 32 with a small child, this car was designed to set off all my happy synapses.

Ixnay on the itzglay

It's the same story with the rest of the car. Those 18-inch wheels are rather pretty and definitely fill the wheel wells, but because they don't have a deep dish or a glitzy spoke pattern they really don't catch your eye when it's stationary or on the move. The deeper skirting down the rocker panels is, again, so well integrated you're not even aware of while 'round back, the chunkier bumper have large black sections to accentuate the dual exhausts while the neat trunklid spoiler rounds off the styling enhancements tidily. The Mazdaspeeed6 looks sporty in the same way an M3 does, eschewing traditional go-faster add-ons for understated muscle.

Inside, things are less exciting. The bucket seats don't look particularly sporty but actually hold you in place pretty well while the steering is exactly the same leather-covered wheel as you'll find in other Mazda6 models. There are nicely positioned aluminum pedals, a leather shifter, some new surrounds on the red-graphic dials, and dark gray paint plashed on the center console and door trims. Otherwise, it's pretty much the same as any other Mazda6, which means you have the same impeccable driving position, the same exemplary ergonomics and the same decent interior quality. It's also very well equipped for its $28,000 price tag, with power windows, doors, and locks; a seven-speaker, six-CD Bose sound system; front and rear center armrests; cruise control and climate control all standard, in addition to the wheels and styling kit. In fact, it's got a considerably more up-market and better-specified interior that you'll find in either the Evo or the WRX, despite being cheaper than all but the stripped-out, track-ready derivates of both cars, further underlining the Mazdaspeed6's more cultured outlook.

Track timing

On the move, the Mazdaspeed6 definitely has a sporting edge to it, with a firm ride and a little bit more tire noise than before, though not uncomfortably so. Initially, its comfy cabin and reasonably compliant ride quality might even have you thinking the Mazdaspeed6 is a bit of a softie - but one stomp on the gas pedal reveals that while the package is mature and tasteful, its performance is plain childish and definitely a little rude.

Its turbocharged, 2.3-liter, direct injection, four-cylinder engine pumps out 270 hp and 5500 rpm and 280 lb-ft of torque at 3000 rpm, enough to propel the Speed6 to 60 mph from rest in a little more than six seconds - not bad considering this is a 3589-pound car. However the raw figures only tell part of the story because the Mazdaspeed6s gearing is set up for the real-world rather than headline-grabbing numbers. While scorching across the some of my favorite roads inOrange County there was really no need to ever dip into second gear because flicking between third and fourth gear was all that was needed to make seriously rapid progress. In theory, I should have been able to leave it in fourth but there is a fraction of a second of turbo lag when you get on the throttle, which makes the car a little tricky to balance correctly in corners, so I took advantage of the light and precise six-speed gearbox to keep things on the boil.

Though the peak power and torque figures appear high, all you really need is about 2200 rpm for the Speed6 to take off. Even on the highway, where 70 mph translates to a little more than 3000 rpm, a light brush of the gas pedal causes it to scoot off like a frightened kitten. So if you value your driver's license, I'd recommend using the cruise control all the time. Mind you, given how understated the Mazdaspeed6 is, it's not likely to catch an officer's eye unless you're really clocking.

Tight bod

The 50-percent improvement in torsional rigidity and the car's new all-wheel-drive system play vital roles in making the Speed6 a willing and sporty car. A rear-mounted, electronically-controlled differential reads steering angle, yaw rate, G-forces, and engine speed to decide how much torque should be channeled to the rear limited-slip differential and can actually split the torque 50:50 front to rear if the need exists. On the open road you don't really feel the system doing its work because the torque transfer to the rear wheels is minimal, but in more extreme situations the 6 is an understeerer so even though you can attack corners and power through fast sweepers, you should drive this car more like a brilliant front-driver than a 4WD rally car.

Where the all-wheel-drive system really comes into its own is when you overcook things in a corner and need to tighten that line in a hurry. Even with the stability control turned off, a lift of the throttle is all that's needed without any danger of pitching the car sideways unintentionally.

So while the Speed6 doesn't really feel like a track-car special, it's still great fun on the street. It boasts a fine, direct steering with decent feedback and plenty of weight once you get it out of its over-assisted low-speed mode. Torque steer, even pulling out of a junction under full throttle, is not really an issue either so the steering always remains alive in your hands, which in turn inspires even more confidence in the Speed6's dynamics. Body control is excellent, with little roll and fine composure through all but the tightest of corners thanks to an excellently calibrated double wishbone front and multi-link rear suspension, while the brakes are powerful and effective, even if they do make some smoke if they're not properly bedded in. On our first drive I certainly didn't get to the Speed6's limits very often, simply because it really hasn't got the kind of chassis that begs to be pushed to the ragged edge at every available opportunity. It's much more fun just to let it do its thing, which is eat up country roads with GT-like composure.

All-in-all, the MazdaSpeed6 is a fine dynamic package - not scruff-of-the-neck mad but genuinely rapid and involving in an undemanding and polished way. As a sedan, it's well appointed and spacious and is actually a superb family conveyance, but on the right road at the right time it's a hoot, carving up the countryside with entertaining ease.

No, it's definitely not - repeat NOT - an Evo or an STI rival. It's too grown up and highbrow for all that. Once in a while you might miss that extra dollop of driver involvement when you happen to find yourself alone on a favorite country road, but on those endlessly dreary commutes or when you have to drive the kids across four states to get to holiday food, you'll be glad you went for the mature option rather than plum for the hardcore rocket.

2006 Mazdaspeed6

Base price: $27,995
Engine: 2.3-liter turbocharged in-line four, 274 hp/280 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed manual, all-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 186.8 x 70.1 x 56.3 in
Wheelbase: 105.3 in
Curb weight: 3589 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 20/26 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front, side and curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes and stability control

Major standard equipment: AM/FM/six-CD player; power door locks/windows/mirrors; air conditioning; cruise control; fog lights

Warranty:   Four years/50,000 miles

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2006 Mazdaspeed6 - Autotrader