- The Washington Times - Friday, April 18, 2003

As much as anything, Mazda has been a victim of perceptions. Over the years, the Japanese company has offered American buyers a series of decent and innovative cars and trucks that should have brought resounding success.
Instead, despite such flashes of genius as the Miata two-seat sports car, the company has faltered. In 2002, for example, the U.S. sales of all of its automobiles slipped to 158,556 barely more than the 150,104 sales by Cadillac, a luxury nameplate and not even the leader in its class.
In contrast, Honda sold 838,603 cars and Toyota came in at 985,835. The model that should have been a mainstay of the Mazda lineup, the midsize 626, sold just 40,689 copies. That compared with 398,980 Honda Accords and 434,145 Toyota Camrys, which the 626 directly competed against.
Hardly anybody has ever faulted Mazda on quality. In fact, some of its cars and trucks have been as dependable and long-lasting as anything available.
Yet Mazda was criticized for not knowing how to sell its cars. Some models, notably the 626, also were disparaged for their styling as if somehow there were objective standards for judging what is, after all, a matter of individual taste.
All of that contributed to the perception that a buyer was better off ordering a Toyota, Honda or Nissan.
That's likely to change, at least somewhat, with the introduction of the 2003 Mazda6, an all-new replacement for the unfairly maligned 626. The 6, which replaces both the 626 and the former Mazda flagship, the Millenia, has been playing to rave reviews on all counts styling, performance and bang for the buck.
There are two models: the Mazda6 i, powered by a 2.3-liter, 160-horsepower four-cylinder engine, and the Mazda6 s, which is the subject here. It is motivated by a 3.0-liter, 220-horsepower V-6 engine. The four-cylinder model starts at $19,050 and the tested V-6 starts at $21,620 with the five-speed manual transmission. The latter price included air conditioning, a power driver's seat, power windows, remote locking with an alarm system, a stereo with CD player, and anti-lock brakes with traction control.
Options included side air bags, leather upholstery, a motorized sunroof, heated front seats and outside mirrors, a Bose stereo system with a six-disc in-dash CD changer, fog lights, 17-inch alloy wheels and a trunk-mounted rear spoiler. All that brought the suggested delivered price to $25,345.
Although the two 6 models compete roughly in the same size and price class as the Camry, Accord and such others as the Ford Taurus, Mitsubishi Galant and Nissan Altima, the Mazda folks set out to distinguish the Mazda6 by infusing it with the character of a sports sedan.
That was apparent with the tested 6 s with the five-speed manual gearbox. It was possessed of a taut suspension system, biased more toward flat cornering than a cushy ride, though the ride was supple enough to be comfortable in most circumstances.
The five-speed's shift linkage had a positive feel, making it easy to find each of the gears, though it occasionally was slightly balky. Clutch action was commendably light and smooth. With 220 horsepower and good low-speed grunt, the 6 s can easily make its way to 60 mph from a dead stop in just under seven seconds. Surprisingly, that's only marginally better than the 1988 626 with a four-cylinder turbo, which could cover the same ground in about 7.5 seconds with an automatic transmission.
Nevertheless, an under-seven-second time is competitive in today's sports sedan market.
With all of its orientation toward sport, the 6 s is a surprisingly serene highway cruiser, without intrusions of wind, road or engine noise. About the only time you are aware of the engine is under hard acceleration.
Inside, the 6 s has a quality look and feel. Some of the trim mimics the look of titanium considered by some to impart a sporting personality and the layout of the instruments and controls is ergonomically correct. Both the climate and stereo controls trigger readouts at the top of dash, making a visual connection easy though they sometimes wash out in bright sunlight.
The instruments, surrounded by bright bezels, are lighted in a bright Halloween orange on black. As on an increasing number of cars these days, the steering wheel is adjustable for both rake and reach, making it easy for almost anyone to find a proper driving position. Dashboard vents allow a broad range of adjustments.
The front seats are well-shaped and comfortable, though they could use a little more lateral support for hard cornering. Outboard rear passengers fare almost as well, where there is room for two six-footers. As in most sedans, however, the center seating position is an uncomfortable perch.
Out back, there's a large and well-shaped trunk, with more cubic feet of space than on the Accord or Camry. If extra cargo space is needed, the rear seatback is split 60-40 and folds down.

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