2003 Mazda 6 Road Test

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2003 Mazda MAZDA6 Sedan

(3.0L V6 5-speed Manual)

Mazda Wants to 6 You Up

The year was 1972. An obscure young actor, who made his bones in only two previous movies, gets the attention of a promising director for his next project, and despite objections from the studios, joins a cast filled with luminaries. Will he make it on his own? Does he have enough presence to equal, if not outshine, all the sheer wattage of talent that grace the set? Or is he destined to drown in that sea of celebrity, to be a mere footnote as a bit player, an answer to one of those questions in Trivial Pursuit that makes everyone exclaim, "Who on earth would know that?"

The actor was Al Pacino. The movie was "The Godfather."

Similarly, the Mazda 6 enters a forum crowded with such established stalwarts as the Honda Accord (the Marlon Brando of family sedans), the Toyota Camry (as the versatile Robert Duvall), the Nissan Altima (as the volatile James Caan) and the Volkswagen Passat (as the refined Diane Keaton). And by the looks of things, the 6 can compete with, if not outshine, its competitors, with its wealth of character, class and, most importantly, talent.

Mazda hasn't always taken such an aggressive stance in the midsize sedan market. The 626, while an earnest attempt, had steadily declined in appeal since its heyday in the mid-1980s (for more details, read our First Drive). The Millenia, which the 6 is also replacing, was a half-hearted attempt by Mazda to create a premium division (like Toyota with Lexus and Honda with Acura) that was killed in its nascent stages, and while it had a few fans, it never had a broad following.

But in the past couple of years, Mazda seems to have regained its focus and infused new life into its products. (Must be that big-eared, tie-and-blazer-wearing tyke whispering "zoom zoom" into executives' ears.) "Make it sporty!" became the law of the land, and now the company is imbuing a sense of fun in all its vehicles, from its almost-perfect roadster, the Miata, to what is usually considered the antithesis of fun, the minivan MPV. Accordingly, the company's new sedan had to "have the soul of a sports car" as well, and from our week's worth of driving, Mazda's 6 delivers.

"Sportiness" is an increasingly common trend for many new sedans. Toyota is offering a sporty SE edition of the Camry, Honda is emphasizing the Accord's sporty nature in its advertising campaign (no more calming Jack Lemmon voiceovers or shots of a child snoozing soundly in the rear, eh?), and the Altima was fashioned from the beginning as a sport sedan. Credit this movement to the popularity of the Volkswagen Passat, which proved that family cars aren't limited to a ride that's smooth, quiet and, consequently, boring. With Germanic handling and a beautiful interior that borders on the entry-luxury level, it set a new standard in family transportation, which stated that the driver can actually enjoy the driving experience even as the passengers bicker over the last Pringle left in the can.

And indeed, the 6 also derives its spirit from the joy of driving. Although all of the above-mentioned Japanese sedans are much more nimble and playful than their predecessors, the handling dynamics of the 6 are a step above. Steering performance from the power-assisted rack and pinion setup is exemplary, with drivers citing the likes of the BMW 3 Series as a comparison. Its turning circle of 38.7 feet is on the wider side for this class, but none of the others can match the 6 in terms of feedback from the road and linearity.

Complementing the steering is its all-independent suspension, composed of double wishbones in the front and multiple links in the rear. It's one of the most well-controlled front-drive cars we've driven, remaining balanced and responsive even when pressed toward its limits. We were able to thread it through a 600-foot slalom at 63.1 mph, a good number for this segment.

In terms of its performance on the road, let us relate this tale from one of our drivers: "I drove the 6 down one of our oft-used canyon runs, a 14.6-mile loop of some of the best switchbacks and hairpins in the Malibu hills, thinking that I'd have time for a quick run to McDonald's before I had to have the car back at the garage by a certain hour. Fun, fun, fun. Alas, when I reached the bottom of the run, a fairly major accident had required the closure of the entrance to the main highway that leads back to the office. The officers at the scene made all drivers go back up the hill and down the other side. I was sweating bullets — it would add a significant amount of time to my commute. But with the confidence that the 6 instills and a divinely providenced deserted road, I made it back to the office with four minutes to spare. Never did get to McDonald's, though."

Confidence can also be derived by the excellent stopping power of the four-wheel disc brakes. Our test vehicle was assisted by optional ABS with Electronic Brakeforce Distribution and traction control, which combined to bring the car from 60 to zero mph in 120 feet, outperforming all the other cars of this class. With little fade and a firm and linear pedal progression, the brake system's authority corresponds with the rest of the drivetrain. We think there's room to add BrakeAssist and stability control to the safety features list, though. In addition, front side airbags are standard while front and rear passenger side curtain airbags are optional.

Grip to the road was supplied by Michelin P215/50VR17 tires that came with our sport package-equipped test car, providing excellent adhesion with a minimum of noise. Other amenities that came with the package include improved handling and steering response as well as appearance changes like clear-lens halogen foglights, dual exhaust outlets, a front air dam and rear apron, ground effects kit and a rear spoiler. While we were happy with the increased wheel size, we hope that Mazda will offer them as a stand-alone option; many of us felt that the 6's clean lines were interrupted by the extraneous body styling, which made the car look corpulent.

Not that it felt too heavy. Our 3,311-pound test vehicle was inspired to move by a 3.0-liter V6 that uses variable intake valve timing to produce 220 horsepower at 6,300 rpm and 192 pound-feet of torque at 5,000 rpm. Power delivery is smooth, save for a slight deficit in the low-end area. Passing force is plentiful, with a burst at the mid- and upper ranges when you need to merge into traffic, accompanied by a cheery exhaust note to enhance the experience of forward motion. While its 0-to-60-mph acceleration time of eight seconds is perfectly acceptable for this class of vehicle, the 6 falls short of the 240-horsepower benchmarks set by the Nissan Altima and, more recently, the Honda Accord, both of which provide sprints of seven seconds or less.

Depending on your preference, you can equip your six-cylinder 6 with a manual or automanual transmission, both with five forward gears. Having the choice of a manual to manage your V6-powered family sedan is almost unheard of, and if you're a driving enthusiast and you want to take advantage of the high horsepower peak, we'd suggest you try out the stick shift. But for those who prefer to let the car row the gears for them, the automatic will serve you well, as ours did. Leave it in Drive for no-fuss shifting, or if you prefer, slot it into the manual mode for more control on hills and for merging into traffic.

So we've seen that the driver of the 6 will be very happy. But people buy cars with four doors for a purpose, ostensibly to ferry passengers around. Will they be as pleased? Rear-seaters may not be; passenger accommodations proved to be the one big Achilles' heel of the 6. While legroom is generous at 36.5 inches, shoulder room at 54.9 inches falls 1.2 inches short of the Accord and 1.8 inches of the Camry. Those two also offer more headroom and a more comfortable rake to the seat back. We should note, though, that the Mazda has slightly more shoulder room than the Passat, in which we've previously taken three passengers with little complaint. Rear-seaters get a fold-down armrest with cupholders and rear vents, but we were perplexed by the lack of real adjustable headrests. What existed were small swellings in the seat back, which didn't do much for our rear passengers' comfort.

What about driver comfort? That, too, got mixed reactions. While most of our drivers found optimal driving positions thanks to a tilt and telescoping steering wheel and lumbar support adjustment, one of our larger editors thought the cabin felt cramped, although most thought it cozy. The Honda Accord and the Toyota Camry seem airier and spacious, but it's really a matter of taste, as some prefer a snug environment, especially when piloting a sporty vehicle.

The interior of our sport package-equipped car had much more personality than that of its competitors, with convincing faux titanium trim on the dash and clearly marked and easy-to-read Optitron gauges that glow red like those of an upscale Audi. Most materials around the areas where hands would rest were soft touch and pleasing. Our Mazda had most of the goods that were once in the realm of luxury vehicles, but are now part and parcel of the family sedan segment. Among them are an in-dash six-disc CD changer operated by redundant buttons on the steering wheel. A chubby tuning knob always wins our favor, and the controls are clearly marked, all complementing a terrific-sounding stereo system that rated a 9 from our reviewer. V6 models come equipped with automatic climate control, governed by three big easy-to-use knobs in the dash. Unfortunately the display is near the top of the dash so it requires some time with your eyes taken off the road in order to corroborate your hand movement to the display. An item that some might miss is a navigation system; it could very well make its way into the U.S. market, though, as it's available in 6s sold in Japan and Europe.

We liked the driver and passenger door bins that can accommodate big one-liter water bottles — this makes up for the nonadjustable cupholders in the center console and rear fold-down armrest. The felt-lined center console is medium-size but has a 12-volt power outlet and cubbies for coins. There's also a large bin on top of the dash that would otherwise house a navigation system screen. A sunglasses holder on the left side of the steering wheel was convenient, and while 15.2 cubic feet of trunk space is bested by the Camry's 16.7, the strut-type hinges don't impede on the space, and the 60/40-split rear seats fold to create a flat floor.

As stated in our First Drive, the Mazda 6 will be manufactured in Flat Rock, Michigan (go figure — the Accord, Altima, Camry and 6 are produced right here in the good ol' USA), and will soon boast a lineup composed of a wagon and hatchback. According to Ford, Mazda's parent company, the 6 will also be the basis of the new MPV minivan, a crossover SUV and a Ford sedan to replace the Taurus. Those are pretty high expectations for an unknown, untested entity, but based upon our week in the vehicle, we think it's a favorable bet. While it may lack some passenger comfort levels and electronic gewgaws, the 6 offers an exciting ride, a substantial interior and solid value. And a star is born…

Second Opinions:

Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says:
Mazda has decided to forego trying to please everyone with the new 6 and, instead, is targeting the enthusiast segment of midsize sedan shoppers. The company's newest people mover replaces both the upscale Millenia and the mainstream 626 with a sedan that is superior to both models. Between the sleek body lines, athletic suspension and user-friendly interior controls, it would seem the 6 has it all over the competition.

But drive the Mazda 6 back to back against an Accord, Altima and Camry (as we did recently when voting for our Most Wanted awards) and several factors become apparent. First, like the Ford Focus, the Mazda 6 is a "world car." What this means is that the 6 has to work for markets all over the world, including Europe and Asia. And as you might guess, most of the world likes their cars smaller than we do. The result? When you hop out of the Honda Accord, Nissan Altima or Toyota Camry the 6 feels about one-half-size smaller. Not cramped, not uncomfortable, but smaller. If the Mazda 6 fits your lifestyle, this size discrepancy likely won't even register on your radar. But it bears mentioning that the Accord, Altima and Camry are targeted directly at the American consumer while the Mazda 6 must try to please everyone.

My only other issue with the new 6 relates to a lack of low- and midrange torque from both engines. Drive a V6 by yourself, especially with a manual tranny, and everything will seem fine. But load a few friends into the four-cylinder version (or even the V6) with an automatic, and highway passing on uphill grades will prove challenging.

This is clearly the best sedan ever offered by Mazda. Depending on your wants and needs, it could easily be your best choice in what's become a merciless market segment.

Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
The 6 is the latest of Mazda's products that shows this company has rediscovered its raison d'etre: to provide performance-minded vehicles for the mainstream. Whether it's the Protegé, which is perhaps the best-handling econocar, or even the MPV, which is likewise for the minivan class, Mazda makes driving fun.

The 6 feels like the Protegé, with the same sharp reflexes, communicative steering and overall athletic personality. This is a car that thrives on being put to the test when the road gets twisty. Add the peppy V6 along with a rare-in-this-class manual transmission, and you've got a bargain sport sedan.

This sounds great, but nothing's perfect, right? Right. Though the 6's handling may make it feel like a smaller car, so does the rear seat. Not only might the driver get the sensation that he's piloting a smaller, nimbler car than a midsize sedan, so will the rear passengers. The rear-seat dimensions don't seem much greater than a Protegé's. And although I like the 6's profile, the grille is a bit exaggerated and serves to make the front light clusters look like they're squinting. But those are minor quibbles; were I considering a midsize sedan, the 6 would be on my short list of candidates.

Stereo Evaluation:

System Score: 9.0

Components: This system begins with a head unit that offers the utmost in ergonomics and design. While loaded with scads of features, you never get the sense that the faceplate is crowded or cluttered. Niceties include large, round, detented knobs for both volume and radio tuning, plus steering wheel controls for volume, seek-scan, mode and mute. An exceptionally wide topography keeps the controls separated and easy to use. All of this is topped off with an in-dash six-disc CD changer.

The speakers are very impressive. They include a 10-inch subwoofer on the back deck, plus 5-by-7 full-range drivers in all four doors. Separate tweeters occupy their own enclosures beside the A-pillars.

Performance: This is an excellent-sounding system, and rivals the best in its class. While it doesn't play as loud as some other vehicles in its segment, the frequency response is exceptionally warm and smooth. Except for a slight stridency in the upper register, this is one to write home about. Bass response is excellent, pounded into the cabin by the rear deck-mounted Bose sub. Percussion has great attack, with thumpy bass response and sizzling snare and cymbals. Horns blare delightfully, and acoustic strings exhibit excellent warmth and a natural sound. All in all, a great-sounding system.

Best Feature: Overall sonic excellence

Worst Feature: Slightly brassy higher frequencies

Conclusion: This is as good a sound system as Mazda has produced in any of its vehicles. It performs well across a wide spectrum of musical styles and genres. We can't imagine anyone being disappointed in the sound of this system. One note: The cosmetics take a little getting used to. It looks like something out of a bad episode of "The Jetsons." But you can't judge a book by its cover, so we'll cut these guys some slack — Scott Memmer

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