- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 23, 2006

Even in the automobile business, which normally is addicted to growth hormones, smaller sometimes is better, and more powerful.

Case in point: the 2006 Mazdaspeed 6 GT four-door sedan. It’s a high-performance version of the Mazda 6 midsize family sedan.

Mazda is a company that always has been something of a puzzle. It is one of the more innovative vehicle manufacturers anywhere, and yet it usually winds up a few cars back in the import caravan.

In 2005, the company sold 121,862 cars and 65,028 trucks in the United States, well behind the Big Three of Japanese manufacturers — Toyota, Honda and Nissan — and ahead of only Mitsubishi, Suzuki and Isuzu. Total car and truck sales also trailed Subaru.

Yet Mazda offers a full range of cars and trucks. True, several of its slower-selling truck models are borrowed from Ford. The Tribute is a Ford Escape and the B Series pickup truck is a Ford Ranger.

But its cars are all its own and have been in the forefront of technological advances. Back in 1988, Mazda offered Japan’s quickest four-door sports sedan, which featured a turbo four-cylinder engine as well as hydraulic four-wheel steering.

Today, the company’s RX-8 sports car not only has four doors, but uses the only rotary engine available in a production car. The now-defunct Millenia model had a Miller-cycle engine. And the MX-5 Miata sports car is the best-selling two-seat roadster ever.

Moreover, the 2006 Mazda 6 offers a more comprehensive lineup of models than any other midsize Asian import. There’s a four-door sedan, a classy four-door hatchback, a station wagon and the all-wheel-drive, high-performance Mazdaspeed 6, the subject here.

The sedan and hatchback both are offered with either a 160-horsepower four-cylinder or 215-horsepower V-6 engine, with a choice of a manual gearbox or automatic transmission. Station wagons also come with automatics or stick shifts, but only with the 3-liter V-6.

For the high-performance Mazdaspeed model, however, the company chose the smaller, 2.3-liter four, but added a turbocharger and other tweaks to boost the horsepower to 274. So in this case, smaller is definitely better and more powerful.

With the six-speed manual gearbox, the only transmission available, the turbo Mazdaspeed 6 scoots to 60 mph in a smidgen more than five seconds. That’s right up there with the best sports sedans, regardless of price.

There are two versions: the base Mazdaspeed 6 starts at $28,555. The tested GT model, which comes with such features as leather upholstery and heated seats, opens at $30,485.

The base car took a few lumps from critics for a shortage of pizzazz, but the more upscale GT needs to apologize for nothing. On the test car, a classy interior was highlighted by leather seats with white bolsters and perforated black inserts.

Aluminum pedals with rubber inserts had a sporty flair, as did the instruments, lighted both day and night in aviation red.

Standard GT equipment included stability and traction control, antilock brakes, side air bags and side-curtain air bags, seat belt pretensioners, 18-inch alloy wheels with high-performance summer tires, remote locking, heated outside power mirrors, automatic climate control, power driver’s seat and an audio system with a six-disc CD changer.

There’s also a sort of silly keyless credit-card-shaped entry system. The transmitter fob can be kept in pocket or purse, but you still must twist a knob on the steering column to start the car, much as you would do with a key.

Options on the test car were few: a motorized sunroof, a cargo net and wheel locks, which brought the sticker price up to $31,265. The Mazdaspeed 6 GT makes no apologies for its sport-sedan orientation. Handling is tight, with nicely weighted steering that provides good feedback, and the driver’s seat has a supportive feel akin to some of those aftermarket seats designed for rally cars.

Not surprisingly, with the taut suspension system, the ride is choppy on rough surfaces, so if comfort is a priority, it’s better to choose one of the other Mazda 6 models. Moreover, the high-performance tires are designed for dry surfaces and don’t handle slick roads very well.

The clutch engagement is somewhat abrupt, so you have to exercise care to get a smooth launch from a stop. Gear ratios are well spaced, but the shift linkage is a bit clunky and resistant.

There’s almost no turbo lag, and torque steer — that feeling of the steering wheel trying to jump out of your hands under hard acceleration — is nonexistent, a benefit of the all-wheel-drive system.

Power comes on with a surge in any gear at about 2500 rpms, but flattens out around 5000. But by then you’re going too fast to notice.

In many respects, the Mazdaspeed 6 GT is the answer for someone who needs a family sedan but wants sports-car performance. The back seat can accommodate two 6-footers in comfort.

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