- The Washington Times - Friday, July 25, 2008

Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Nissan Altima own roughly 50 percent of the midsize sedan segment and Mazda intends to capture a measurable chunk of that share with the rejuvenated 6.

And, here’s what you need to know about the sedan itself: Featuring larger dimensions, more powerful engines and oodles of technology, the 2009 Mazda6 has the chops necessary to achieve its marketing goal.

In redesigning the Mazda 6, Mazda earmarked three areas for improvement based on responses from owner and focus groups: size, power and quality. Mazda addressed the size issue by stretching the wheelbase 4.5 inches, the width 2.3 inches and overall length 6.9 inches. The larger footprint translates into slightly more front legroom and an inch and a half of additional rear legroom as well as a 10 percent boost in trunk space to 16.6 cubic feet.

Both the inline-four and V6 engines deliver more power and slightly improved fuel economy than the engines in the 2008 sedan. Based on the I-4 found in several Mazda products, the 2.5-liter engine delivers 170 horsepower to the front wheels via either a six-speed manual or an optional ($900) five-speed driver-shiftable automatic transmission. Borrowed from the CX9, the 3.7-liter V6 generates 272 horsepower — 60 more ponies than the previous V6 — that it sends to the wheels by way of a six-speed driver-shiftable automatic transmission. The Environmental Protection Agency rates fuel economy for the I-4 at 20 mpg in the city and 29 mpg on the highway when equipped with the manual transmission. Both numbers increase by 1 mpg with the automatic. For V6-equipped versions the numbers drop to 17 mpg in the city and 25 mpg on the open highway.

Quality issues have really been more perceived than actual. When polling focus groups, Mazda found that consumers generally believed its quality didn’t measure up to that of its primary target competitors. Because there really wasn’t anything to fix, Mazda decided the solution for raising perceptions was improving content. To change the quality perception, Mazda increased the quantity and sophistication of the standard features and options. Small details such as moving the fuel cap tether more to the side of the fuel cap from its center eases the tightening procedure. Brake dust buildup on the wheels has been nearly eliminated by improving wind flow around the spokes and changing the brake pad formulation to reduce the amount of dust generated. More obvious are content adjustments, such as Dynamic Stability Control and traction control are standard across the 6 lineup, as are steering wheel-mounted redundant audio controls, a tilt-telescoping steering wheel and six airbags. Options include blind spot monitoring system, DVD-based navigation system with voice activation, and a Bose 10-speaker audio system with subwoofer. More strategically placed insulation has nearly muted road and wind noise. A more substantial frame has reduced flex and increased overall rigidity.

Essentially, each engine can be paired with one of three trim levels: Sport, Touring and Grand Touring. There is also a very base version ($19,220) available with the I-4, but will probably be tough to find on a dealer lot.

Otherwise prices begin with the $20,920 I-4 Sport with manual transmission and migrate upwards to $28,930 for the V6 Grand Touring. All versions have power accessories, air conditioning, 60/40 split fold-down rear seat and a six-speaker audio system with CD player and MP3 capability. All but the base I-4 also have cruise control and an audio auxiliary input jack for personal listening devices.

Retained, but highly modified, the suspension architecture is a double-wishbone arrangement up front and multi-link in the rear. Thanks to Mazda’s Zoom-Zoom heritage, the suspension is tuned more for control than ride comfort, yet the ride isn’t the least bit harsh. The steering is acute and very responsive. The four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes are carried over from the 2008 sedan, albeit with a larger master cylinder. Overall the 6 feels stable and athletic.

Inside, Mazda has upgraded every surface, knob and feature. Extremely contemporary in its styling, the cabin contains a gaggle of cupholders and storage bins. Although the interior is larger, it retains the intimacy of the previous cockpit. The controls look and feel expensive. A three-spoke steering wheel sits between the driver and a sporty-looking quad gauge cluster. The seats are well bolstered and comfortable. All systems operate transparently with only the optional ($2,000) navigation system perhaps provoking drivers into an owner’s-manual consultation.

One of the advantages the Mazda6 has over its target competitors is that the four-cylinder Grand Touring trim level is as fully equipped as the V6 version. This makes it possible to enjoy the fun of the manual transmission, excellent fuel economy and all the amenities available in the most expensive V6-equipped 6 with the less expensive I-4. Consequently, you may indulge yourself with all the luxury the 6 has to offer and still feel good about your fuel economy - the best of both worlds.

Mazda defines Zoom-Zoom as the emotion of motion. In its redesigned Mazda6, it believes it has taken Zoom-Zoom to the next level. No argument here.

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