What's New for 2003
Mazda introduces the successor to its 626 and Millenia midsize sedans, known as the 6. Touted for its sporty characteristics, the 6 hopes to make a splash in the congested family sedan marketplace.
It's hardly surprising that Mazda's 626 is lagging behind in the all-important family sedan segment. When the previous-generation 626 came up for redesign, there was an impending fuel crisis and the Japanese company was undergoing a financial upheaval that resulted in its takeover by Ford Motor Company.
Cost-cutting was the order of the day. New engineering was not. Small and efficient was in; performance was out.
Unfortunately for Mazda, performance, luxury and roominess are today's buzzwords, even when it comes to bread-and-butter family sedans. Despite the recent economic downturn and hikes in fuel prices, big is in and small is out. Horsepower is in, fuel economy is out. Take even a quick glimpse at the current 626, and you see a car out of step with its marketplace. At the risk of sounding trite, the company had to take its advertising slogan to heart and add a little "Zoom-Zoom" to its family hauler.
Phillip R. Martens, managing director of Mazda Motor Corp., says the car that replaces the 626 is so completely different in terms of design and philosophy that it will no longer be called the 626. Instead, like Madonna and RuPaul, the new Mazda is now to be known by a singular moniker, "6," with the last two digits being dropped as superfluous. Mazda marketing types, echoing a sentiment most recently heard by Acura executives, say this is the first step in having the car branded a "Mazda" rather than being better known as the 626.
The look is all-new, too, with a decidedly Italian flair. Though Mazda's current plans include only the sedan, there are three variations on the 6 theme: the sedan, a five-door hatchback and a station wagon.
Although the sedan destined for our shores is quite attractive, it's the hatch that really caught our attention. It looks sporty and practical, and hopefully Mazda will see fit to import it to North America. It certainly would make for a great Zoom-Zoom commercial. It's worth noting that every Mazda official, from Martens on down, was anxious to gauge the reaction to the hatchback and especially the wagon version of the 6, eager for any excuse to bring both to our shores.
The sedan, meanwhile, strikes a pose somewhere between the ultra-conservative Camry and the new avant garde Nissan Altima. Shorter and with less overhang than a Camry, the 6 is almost as swoopy as an Altima but without the distinctive head- and taillamp treatments. There's also more than a hint of Audi's A4 in the way the rear C-pillars curve to meet the trunk.
The 6 is not just another pretty face, however. The redesigned chassis is much stiffer, according to Mazda. Not only does this allow sportier suspension calibration without twisting the structure into knots, but also the newfound rigidity contributes to the car's quiet cabin. In fact, Mazda claims the 6's interior quietness is superior to many German luxury sedans. The company also says that its new chassis, containing some novel harmonic tuning tricks, is so silent that engineers were able to reduce the sound deadening material by half.
The front suspension uses an unusual combination of double wishbones and a long strut-type damper/spring to suspend each wheel individually. The company has clearly targeted German touring cars (rather than Japanese family sedans) with its firm dampers, a sentiment borne out during our short drive around a local racetrack in a prototype.
Ditto for the rear underpinnings, which use something Mazda calls an e-type Multi-Link design. A double wishbone system, but with its coil spring inside the suspension arm rather than on top, the e-type's major claim to fame is its low, compact profile, which allows for a smaller wheelwell. Originally used on the 929 pseudo-luxury sedan, the system was resurrected to give the new 6 more usable trunk space.
Overall, the Mazda 6 driving experience is more European than Japanese, easily outshining a Honda Accord through twisty hairpins and long sweepers. Ditto when compared to a Euro-spec Volkswagen Passat. Turn-in was precise and understeer well contained while the minimal body roll reflected the firmer suspension tuning.
Like Nissan's Altima, a five-speed manual transmission will be standard with both the Mazda-engineered 2.3-liter four-cylinder and the Ford-sourced 3.0-liter V6 (optional on the four is a four-speed auto; the V6 can be equipped with an available five-speed slushbox). Both engines feature Mazda's S-VT Sequential Valve Timing mechanism that continuously varies inlet cam timing and phasing.
The base four gets a fairly substantial boost in power over the old engine, from the 125 horsepower of the current 2.0-liter four to the new engine's 160 hp. Thanks to the addition of the high-tech variable valve timing mechanism and swirl control valves in the intake manifold, the new 2.3 also has significantly more torque, at 152 pound-feet compared with the 2002 626's 127 lb-ft.
That puts the new Mazda in a very competitive position, splitting the difference between the Toyota Camry and Nissan Altima. The previously tepid 2.2-liter Camry now boasts 2.4 liters and 157 hp, while the Altima is now the segment's overachiever with 175 hp. Worth noting, however, is that Mazda has more powerful versions of the engine directed toward Europe and its domestic market. The reason North America gets the lower output version is our crappy gas, so write to your congressperson or regional oil company lobbyist. Needless to say, the boost to 160 ponies is a good excuse not to opt for the more expensive V6. Even hooked up to the automatic, the base four provides more than adequate acceleration and decent drive off the line.
The new four also features twin gear-driven balancing shafts that minimize unwanted noise, vibration and harshness (NVH). Initial impressions, at least, find engine vibration well contained even at elevated revs. Like the V6, the four's overhead camshafts are driven by a chain, instead of a belt, for greater durability and lower maintenance. Additionally, both engines meet the stringent ULEV emissions standards.
The 60-degree V6, though it's based on Ford's Duratec 3.0-liter, uses the addition of the S-VT system to produce 219 horsepower compared with the 200 hp normally generated by this motor. Maximum torque, however, is only slightly increased over the standard-issue Duratec with 202 pound-feet available at 4,750 rpm compared with 200 lb-ft at the same rpm. These ratings give the 6 a 27-horsepower advantage over the 2002 Camry V6, but leave it 21 ponies shy of the 240-horse Altima 3.5SE. The Mazda 6 is also short on torque, with the Camry generating 209 lb-ft at 4,400 rpm and the Altima producing a whopping 246 lb-ft. at 4,400 rpm. We think Mazda's got some more work to do on the Duratec V6.
The new 6 also isn't as large as its two primary Japanese competitors. Though the cabin isn't as voluminous as the Camry or the Altima, rear legroom has been increased to 36.5 inches, and there's a tad more headroom back there. Room for legs up front is slightly reduced, however, to 42.3 inches, and front headroom has also been reduced. Nonetheless, the cabin feels more than generous enough for four full-sized adults, even if it isn't as cavernous as the Camry or Altima. Cargo capacity measures 15.2 cu. ft., also less than Camry (16.7 cu. ft.) and Altima (15.6 cu. ft.).
New dual-stage front airbags head the extensive list of safety features present in the new Mazda 6. Although final specifications aren't yet set (the 6 is almost a year from going on sale), side curtain airbags will be available to protect the heads of both front and rear seat outboard passengers. Whether these will be standard or an option is yet to be determined. Mazda states, however, that the side airbags that pop out of the front seats in a side collision will be standard on all models. And following the lead of Volvo and Mercedes, the new Mazda's seats have been designed with greater anti-whiplash protection.