- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Dedicated to the proposition that family transportation can be affordable, stylish and fun to drive, Mazda created its 6 as the antidote for dowdy, uninspired people movers. Available as either a four- or five-door sedan, as well as a wagon, the Mazda 6 can fulfill a variety of transportation needs. Likewise, the choice of a 160-horsepower four-cylinder or 220-horsepower V-6 tied to either a manual or automatic transmission can help a buyer tailor the 6 to specific budget, performance and fuel economy requirements. It is a utility player that doesn’t feel at all utilitarian.

A tough car to pigeonhole, the 6 is at times lumped in with compacts, but at other times included among midsize entries. The Environmental Protection Agency calls it a midsize, so despite the fact it has a shorter wheelbase and overall length than most others in that segment, midsize it is.

Mazda provided both a four-door and a five-door for this evaluation. In an attempt to keep things simple, we’ll concentrate on the five-door. The only substantive difference is the five-door has 4 cubic feet of additional cargo space.

Park the 6 next to a Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima, Volkswagen Passat or any other of its midsize competitors and it will be the 6 that attracts the eye. This is particularly true of the S models with their rear spoiler, 17-inch wheels and side sill extensions. Looking more European than Asian, the 6 is simply a bolder styling statement than is typically found among midsize family sedans.

In terms of engine performance, the 6 stacks up well against the rest of the segment. Whether comparing the four-cylinder (“i” trim level) or the V-6 (“S” trim level), the 6 is in the hunt. While a competitor such as the Accord uses a V-6 with 20 horsepower more than the 6, the Passat V-6 has 30 fewer horsepower. As should be expected, the 6’s four-banger doesn’t offer the acceleration of the V-6, but it isn’t a slug either. On the other hand, the V—6 is great fun to drive. Its five-speed manual shifts cleanly, optimizing the engine’s output. While a four-speed automatic is optional for the 6 i series, the S versions get the more sophisticated five-speed automatic with manual shift mode. This is a segment first. It combines the convenience of a traditional transparent automatic with a driver-shiftable feature for added driver input.

Fuel economy is about average for both the four-cylinder and V-6. The Environmental Protection Agency rates the four-cylinder with manual transmission at 23 miles per gallon in the city and 31 on the highway, while the V-6 with the same transmission earns a rating of 20 and 27 mpg respectively.

Mazda doesn’t offer a sport-tuned suspension as an option on the 6. It says the fully independent suspension has already been tuned for nimble handling and sure-footed cornering. Indeed, the suspension does manage to walk that thin line between ride quality and crisp handling. Well balanced, the 6 inspires high-spirited driving. The steering is precise with very little play in the steering wheel. An antilock system oversees the disc brakes on all four wheels. Traction control and Electronic Brake Distribution are standard on all versions of the 6.

Inside, the 6 also compares well with its toughest competitors. Although roughly three inches shorter than the Accord and Camry — both with a wheelbase about two inches longer than the 6 — the 6 manages similar front and rear seat legroom.

A bit narrower than the Honda or Toyota, the 6’s back seat is better suited for two passengers than three.

Whether in a four- or five-door configuration, the 6 has more trunk space than either Camry or Accord.

There is more, though, to the 6’s interior than simply space. The exterior’s sporty styling continues inside. Perhaps a tad edgy for some tastes, the plastic surface of the center stack has the appearance of aluminum with somewhat funky-looking buttons controlling the audio and ventilation systems. Well contoured and offering lots of side support, the front bucket seats are up to the task of holding their occupants upright in the twisties. A three-spoke steering wheel with redundant audio controls fronts the large, easy-to-read gauge cluster. There is plenty of storage scattered about and the rear seat has a fold-down center armrest with cup holders.

Standard equipment on all 6 five-doors includes air conditioning, power windows and door locks, tilt-telescoping steering wheel, cruise control and an audio system with CD player. The S adds such features as automatic climate control, eight-way power driver’s seat and 17-inch wheels.

Priced a couple of thousand more than the four-door, the five-door 6 i has a base sticker of $22,570 with destination charge. Opting for the automatic transmission adds $850.

The 6 S has a base price with destination charge of $23,840. An extra $950 is added for the five-speed automatic.

A refreshing alternative to some of the other midsize family cars, the Mazda 6 is family transportation with an attitude.

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