- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 26, 2004

Battling the popular Toyota Camry and Honda Accord in the midsize sedan category, Mazda officials knew they had to do something different.

So they did.

This year, they introduced hatchback and wagon versions of the Mazda6 sedan, which becomes the only midsize car in the United States with such an extensive lineup of body styles.

Besides providing considerably more cargo space than the Mazda6 sedan, the new models have a surprisingly sporty flair, both in appearance and zippy performance.

They also have higher starting prices than the sedan.

Starting manufacturer’s suggested retail price, including destination charge, for the 2004 Mazda6 five-door hatchback is $21,315 for a four-cylinder model with manual transmission.

This compares with the $19,415 starting price for a base 2004 Mazda6 sedan.

The 2004 Mazda6 wagon, which comes only with a V-6, starts at $22,745 and compares with the $22,045 starting price for a V-6-powered Mazda6 sedan.

Mazda officially calls the hatchback the Mazda6 “5-Door,” while the station wagon is called the Mazda6 “Sport Wagon.”

Both include seats for five people as well as versatile cargo room.

For example, behind the rear seats of the 5-Door, there’s a full 22 cubic feet of storage space, which is nearly 50 percent more than the 15.2 cubic feet in the trunk of a Mazda6 sedan.

And when the 5-Door’s rear seats are folded down, there’s 58.7 cubic feet of room, which is approaching the capacity of some small sport utility vehicles.

I didn’t need to remove the rear-seat head restraints in the Mazda6 5-Door, and I didn’t have to climb inside the back seat to get the seats down.

I just pulled two levers — one for each seat back area — that were at the lift gate opening.

Mazda even designed the rear seat cushions to automatically slide forward a bit to help the seat backs lay nearly flat on top.

In the Mazda6 wagon, cargo space behind the rear seats is even greater — 33.7 cubic feet. With the rear seats down, there’s 60.4 cubic feet of storage room.

I had to look carefully to make sure that the test car, an uplevel Mazda6 s 5-Door, was a hatchback.

The prominent rear spoiler and stylish slope of the rear of the car drew my eye, but the changes to the body from the already sporty-looking Mazda6 sedan are subtle.

Styling at the front is the same as that of the sedan, except every 5-Door comes standard with body-color grille, gray headlamp bezel, sporty side sill extensions, fog lamps and 17-inch wheels and tires. Many of these items are available on the base sedan only as options.

Changes at the back of the 5-Door include a more dramatic slope of the roof in the back, which reduces the Mazda6 sedan’s rear-seat headroom by 0.4 inch, to 36.7 inches.

The thick side window pillar back there also blocks a driver’s view when backing out of a parking space.

But commendable legroom of 36.5 inches and shoulder room of 54.9 inches in the back seat remain the same as in the sedan.

The lift gate at the back of the 5-Door is huge, creating a large opening for loading cargo.

Engineers spent time reinforcing this lift gate and the back of the 5-Door to ensure the body structure of the entire Mazda6 remains rigid.

The result is a lift gate latch that’s much larger and stronger than that on the sedan trunk or wagon lift gate.

The 5-Door’s back glass was designed as an integral part of the structure, and rear wheel wells are reinforced for rigidity. A rear window wiper is standard. There was nary any wind noise during highway travel in the test 5-Door. But there was some road noise from the tires.

Suspension is the same as in the front-drive sedan. There’s an independent double-wishbone design with stabilizer bar at the front and an independent multilink configuration with stabilizer bar at the back.

Combined with the large tires, this setup allowed the 5-Door to move confidently on twisty canyon roads.

With power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering, the car handled slalom maneuvers in an easy, predictable manner.

The ride has a rather rigid, yet not punishing, feel. In the test car, passengers felt road bumps mostly as vibrations.

Note that the 5-Door is between 100 and 130 pounds heavier than the sedan, with much of the additional weight added to the rear of the car, where it helps improve driving dynamics.

The 5-Door is available with either Mazda6 engine.

A 220-horsepower, 3-liter, double-overhead-cam V-6 is the top engine and was in the test car.

The Mazda6 5-Door had a spirited driving personality as I worked the gears of the standard five-speed manual transmission.

A four-speed automatic is available as a $900 option.

The base Mazda6 engine is a 160-horsepower, 2.3-liter, double-overhead-cam four cylinder that can produce 155 foot-pounds of torque at 4,000 rpm.

The fuel economy rating of the Mazda6 5-Door test car with V-6 and manual transmission is 19 miles per gallon in city driving and 26 mpg on the freeway.

Inside, the environment of the 5-Door is much the same as in the sedan. There’s a diverse mix of textures and pieces on the dashboard that keeps this car from looking spartan and cheap.

Front bucket seats are more sculpted and sporty than expected for a family car, and bright orange letters and numbers in the instrument panel contrast in a sporty way with their black background. But a driver wearing polarized sunglasses can find these gauges difficult to view.

Silver-colored knobs for ventilation are sizable and rich-looking, and the optional luxury package added sporty perforated leather trim on the seats of the test car.

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