Bigger, Stronger and the Most Fun You Can Have in a Family Sedan
Ed Hellwig, Executive Editor
Car companies don't admit mistakes, but Hiroshi Kajiyama doesn't have a problem fessing up to a few missteps. He's the chief program engineer for the forthcoming 2009 Mazda 6 and although his English isn't perfect, it's clear he knows the current car has problems.
Weak engines, a tight backseat and a dull interior were all on his fix-it list. He talks to us about maintaining plenty of zoom-zoom in the new car, and of course, an exciting exterior design wouldn't hurt either. "We sought an exterior design capable of stirring emotions and distinguishing the Mazda 6 from the competition. We also strived to achieve a character that encourages a strong level of interaction with the driver," says Kajiyama.
He'll need all those things to make the 2009 Mazda 6 a success. Sales of the Mazda 6/626 have stagnated at roughly 80,000 units for more than a decade. Over the same time period, the Hyundai Sonata and Nissan Altima have come out of nowhere to pass it by. Mazda is aiming for over 100,000 yearly sales this time around. Here's what Kajiyama and his team did to make it happen.
Make It Bigger Unlike the current-generation model, the 2009 Mazda 6 that goes on sale here later this summer is unique to North America. And like so many things that are uniquely American, the 2009 Mazda 6 is bigger in almost every dimension than its European and Japanese counterparts.
At 193.7 inches long and 72.4 inches wide, the 2009 Mazda 6 is larger than a Toyota Camry, yet smaller than a Honda Accord. The Mazda's 109.8-inch wheelbase is within an inch of the Nissan Altima and considerably shorter than both the Accord and the Chevrolet Malibu.
All those extra inches add up to a far more spacious interior than the current model. The Mazda 6 now gives rear passengers more leg-, shoulder and hiproom than the Accord, Altima and Malibu. Only the Toyota Camry offers more room in back and it's not by much.
Add Some Power Super-sizing the Mazda 6 means more weight, of course. In this case, the Mazda 6 with the four-cylinder engine packs an extra 141 pounds, while the V6 model adds 169 pounds. That adds up to 3,547 pounds with the V6 in place — about average for the class.
To compensate, Mazda did the American thing and upped the displacement of both the base four-cylinder engine and the top-of-the-line V6. With 170 horsepower and 167 pound-feet of torque, the slightly larger 2.5-liter inline-4 no longer gets roasted by its peers. Along with its bump in displacement from 2.3 liters, the four-cylinder features a new two-stage intake, more efficient cylinder head and a less restrictive exhaust manifold.
When connected to the standard six-speed manual, the Mazda 6 with the four-cylinder delivers 21 mpg city and 29 mpg highway. Switch to the five-speed automatic and the Mazda 6 returns 1 extra mpg in the city and on the highway.
If $4-a-gallon gas doesn't faze you, the 3.7-liter V6 delivers 272 hp and 269 lb-ft of torque. These are class-leading numbers, but the fuel mileage figures drop to 17 mpg city/25 mpg highway, similar to the Chevrolet Malibu V6 (17 mpg/26 mpg) and significantly less than the Honda Accord V6 (19 mpg/29 mpg). A six-speed automatic is the only available transmission for the V6, and every Mazda 6 sends its power to the front wheels.
The Payoff on the Road First we drive a Mazda 6 with the four-cylinder engine and an automatic transmission, and the extra weight of the bigger chassis doesn't drag it down. There's plenty of midrange torque and a smooth, refined feel near the 6,200-rpm redline. For anyone but the truly power-hungry, the 2.5 is plenty of motor for day-to-day driving.
There's no sport shift program for the automatic, but there's no need for one. Kajiyama says that the U.S.-specification transmissions were recalibrated to take advantage of the extra torque generated by the larger engines we get here. Downshifts come easily and upshifts are quick. A manual gate is there if you want to choose your own gears.
We drive a four-cylinder car equipped with the six-speed manual and it's just as enjoyable. The clutch take-up is easy to modulate and the shift lever notches from gate to gate cleanly. Then again, with poorer EPA mileage numbers than the automatic, the case for buying the manual transmission is pretty weak.
We expect some torque steer from the V6-powered model and feel almost nothing. Not bad considering how strongly it pulls away from a stop. Along with all the extra power, the V6 also sounds a bit quieter than the admittedly unobtrusive four-cylinder. Kajiyama tells us that all V6-powered cars get an extra layer of insulation at each corner of the bumpers and under the rear seat. It makes a noticeable difference, certainly enough for Mazda to consider adding it to the base models if costs allow.
Didn't Change the Good Stuff One element of the Mazda 6 that hasn't changed is the way it communicates with the driver. The lively feel of the current-generation Mazda 6 has been one of the few reasons to consider it over the competition, and none of that responsiveness has been lost.
The steering is lightly weighted, yet the feel of the pavement still filters through the three-spoke steering wheel. Strong, easily modulated brakes and a tightly controlled suspension allow you to push the Mazda 6 hard before surpassing its modest handling limits. It feels like an Audi A6 that's had several hundred pounds removed.
Base models get 16-inch wheels and tires, but the upgraded Touring and Grand Touring versions of the four-cylinder "i" model are upgraded with 17-inch wheels and 215/55R17 rubber at each corner. The base V6 has the same 17-inch setup, while top-of-the-line V6s get 18-inch wheels and 235/45R18 tires.
Less Interior Shine Is a Good Thing Quality is a theme Kajiyama repeats often. Sometimes he's referring to the sound of the engines, while other times it's the feel of the interior. The effort has paid off, as the new cabin looks and feels like a top-tier midsize sedan.
Unlike the cheap-looking design of the old 6 with its metallic trim, the new cabin goes easy on the metal accents in favor of a starker, almost Germanic look. Yeah, it's a little on the dark side, but the quality of the materials and clean overall design keep it inviting.
Simple features like the continued use of a three-dial climate control system and large, easy-to-read analog gauges are a welcome sight. The steering wheel is just the right size, and the seats have a good range of adjustment. Even the optional navigation system is fairly simple to use and adds little to the dashboard clutter. The layout is less confusing than the Accord and more visually appealing than the Camry's odd attempts to look fashionable.
With the driver seat adjusted to suit a 6-footer up front, we're more than comfortable sitting in back. There's plenty of knee room, decent toe room and ample headroom despite the sloping C-pillars. At 16.6 cubic feet, the trunk offers the most room in the class and its cleverly mounted support struts don't intrude on the space either.
Consider It Fixed So with all of its major flaws corrected, the 2009 Mazda 6 now sits squarely in the middle of the midsize family sedan segment. It's no longer the sedan to buy just to be different, although its appealing shape still counts for something in a class dominated by soulless styling.
Going bigger and heavier usually means stripping away any notion of agility, but the Mazda 6 remains closer to a sport sedan than any of its competitors. Throw in an expected starting price of just over $19,000 for the base four-cylinder and the Mazda 6 competes well on the value scale, too.
It's a solid overall package with few faults. The next time Kajiyama introduces a new Mazda 6, he won't have to admit to mistakes on the old one.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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