- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 27, 2004

When Mazda introduced its new-generation midsize sedan, the 6, it figured it finally had the right ingredients to compete with the class leaders, Toyota’s Camry and Honda’s Accord.

But that’s a tough venue. Those two models accounted for more than 811,000 sales in the United States in 2003. Nobody else even came close. Mazda 6 sales totaled 66,118.

So the idea is to take a good car and make it more appealing by extending its reach. That’s the rationale for two new 2004 Mazda 6 models, a four-door hatchback and a station wagon.

Of course, in today’s climate, Mazda doesn’t call them that, the reason being that most everybody in the car biz believes that American buyers are turned off by nomenclature, not configurations. So the company calls the hatchback its 5-Door and the station wagon becomes the Sport Wagon.

Both are imaginative efforts, with interesting features not available anywhere else. For example, there are remote releases for the rear seatbacks, so someone loading cargo through the back can easily flip the rear seatbacks forward. Moreover, the rear seat cushions are articulated. They move forward and out of the way so the seatbacks become part of a flat floor.

The wagon also has a feature that should endear it to dog lovers or anyone who hauls oddly shaped objects. A net is built into the security shade that covers the rear cargo area. The net unreels and hooks to the headliner with the rear seat up, forming an enclosed area.

In addition, with the rear seatback folded, the cargo shade can be locked in place behind the front seats, where the net also hooks to the headliner, making a larger protected area in back —say for two large dogs.

Despite that, the more interesting of the two new Mazda 6 models is the 5-Door. There are a lot of wagons in the midsize class, but nobody else has anything like the 5-Door. The only thing that comes close is the Chevrolet Malibu Maxx, which also is a hatchback. But the concept is so different from that of the 5-Door that few people are likely to cross-shop them.

The Maxx is a wagonlike four-door with limousinelike stretch-out space in the back seat, where the Mazda 6 5-Door is a sports sedan.

Moreover, the 5-Door doesn’t look at all like a hatchback. Except for some minor differences — a rear window wiper, for example — the 5-Door is almost identical to the sedan.

The sedan’s rear seatbacks fold down for longer objects, but it’s hard to imagine anyone choosing it after checking out the 5-Door, which features a huge hatch for easy loading and 22 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seatbacks up. That compares to just 15 cubic feet for the sedan. With the seatbacks folded, the cargo area expands to almost 59 cubic feet.

Despite that, the Mazda mavens expect that sedans will account for 40 percent of the sales, against 30 percent each for the 5-Door and the Sport Wagon. Guess there’s no accounting for the preferences of American car buyers, who also still reject the metric system and diesel engines.

On the sedan and 5-Door, two engines are available — a 160-horsepower 2.3-liter four-cylinder and a 220-horsepower 3-liter V-6. The Sport Wagon comes only with the V-6. All models are available with a five-speed manual gearbox or an automatic four-speed for the four-cylinder models and a five-speed with the V-6.

The test car was a 5-Door with a “blazing copper” paint job that looked dazzling in sunlight. With the V-6 engine and the five-speed manual gearbox, it had a sticker price of $23,415.

Included in the base price were antilock brakes, traction control, automatic climate control, a tilt-and-telescope steering wheel, remote locking, a stereo system with CD player, power windows and outside mirrors, a trunk-mounted spoiler, fog lights and 17-inch alloy wheels.

Options consisted of side air bags and side curtain air bags, a motorized sunroof, leather upholstery, heated front seats and outside mirrors, electroluminescent gauges and an upgraded audio system with an in-dash six-disc CD changer. That brought the suggested delivered price up to $26,840.

Unlike some of the competitors, however, none of the Mazda 6 models is available with a navigation system. Sirius satellite radio was on the schedule, but not available at the 5-Door and Sport Wagon introduction. The 5-Door is a marvelous melding of pleasure and practicality. Even with its wagonlike usefulness, it performs and handles as well as its sedan sibling.

On the test car, the five-speed manual had an effortless shift linkage combined with a light clutch action that kept shifting from becoming a chore even in stop-and-go traffic.

With the 220 horsepower and a relatively svelte weight of 3,336 pounds, the V-6 5-Door can snap off zero-to-60 acceleration times of under seven seconds. Though it plows forward in hard turns — a characteristic of front-wheel-drive sports sedans, even well-balanced ones — the 5-Door comports itself well enough through tight corners and delivers a decent ride, besides.

Inside, the front seats are supportive and comfortable, with bolsters to coddle the torso. The outboard seating positions in back have plenty of legroom but are tight on headroom, mainly because of the intrusion of the sunroof. The center position is not as bad as most, but there’s not much room for feet.

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