Ed Hellwig, Executive Editor
Mention the term "station wagon" and most Americans think of old school Oldsmobiles with stick-on "wood" paneling and tail ends that bounced off the pavement at every dip in the road. A similarly unflattering reputation dogs hatchbacks, as they're generally associated with the underpowered rattle traps that invaded the U.S. in the fuel-starved 1970s.
Mazda is hoping to wipe away both reputations in one fell swoop with the arrival of two new versions of its well-regarded 6 sedan one a hatchback, the other an even larger sport wagon. There's no wood on the wagon and the hatchback looks similar to the sedan, but are Americans really ready to embrace the idea of good-looking and sharp-handling hatchbacks and wagons?
Drive either one of these new midsize Mazdas and previous notions of what a wagon and hatchback are like will be dispelled in an instant. Like their sedan counterpart, both vehicles display crisp handling, comfortable interiors and an overall feeling of agility that makes them instantly endearing to the driver and ultimately appreciated by those along for the ride.
Given that much of the historical backlash toward hatchbacks had to do with their awkward body lines, Mazda designed the five-door version of the 6 to look as much like the sedan as possible without giving up any of the inherent advantages of its more practical design. Company designers appear to have succeeded on this front, as the sleek hatchback is nearly indistinguishable from the standard sedan. At first glance, you would be hard-pressed to tell them apart, but a closer look reveals rear windows with a slightly different shape and a smoother transition from the rear glass to the tail.
In terms of equipment and trim, the hatch is, again, very similar to the sedan. There are two trim levels base "i" and uplevel "s" and two engines a 2.3-liter four-cylinder and a 3.0-liter V6. In order to reinforce the idea that the Mazda 6 five-door is every bit as sporty as its sedan counterpart, all hatchbacks come standard with 17-inch wheels and a sport appearance package. The package includes revised front and rear fascias, foglights, metallic interior trim, side sill extensions and a rear spoiler.
Beyond its sporty looks, the hatchback also boasts a reconfigured rear cargo area that opens up significantly more room for storage. With 22 cubic feet of available space, the hatchback configuration delivers nearly 50 percent more cargo space than the sedan. And not only is there more space, but it's easier to access thanks to the generous size of the hatch opening. Folding the rear seats down expands the cargo area to a maximum size of 58.7 cubic feet.
Should you need even more space and not mind a more traditional setup, the Mazda 6 wagon offers additional cubic footage in back while still managing to maintain a good-looking profile. In fact, with its gently sloping belt line and cleanly finished rear end, it's not a stretch to call the sport wagon the best-looking version of the three models. At 33.7 cubic feet, the wagon's rear cargo area offers substantially more room than the hatchback in its standard configuration, but its maximum capacity is only two cubic feet more at 60.4.
Available in s trim only, the wagon comes standard with the more powerful V6 engine to keep it quick even when loaded down. In a surprising move even for Mazda, the wagon also comes standard with a five-speed manual transmission, while a five-speed sport-shift automatic is an option. Like the hatchback, the wagon also gets standard 17-inch wheels but the sport appearance package remains on the options list. Additional dress-up items include smoked headlight lenses, an aluminum fuel door and a body-colored grille, as well as more traditional options like leather seats and side curtain airbags.
Not surprisingly, both the hatchback and the wagon feel much like the sedan behind the wheel. Standard seat-height adjustment combined with a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel puts you right where you need to be to get comfortable, and the leather-wrapped steering wheel is just the right size for quick spinning. The big analog gauges look more European than Japanese in their simplicity, another sign that these aren't your average point-to-point commuter cars.
With 220 horsepower, the 3.0-liter V6 in the wagon and uplevel hatches isn't the most powerful six in its class, but the way in which it delivers those ponies makes it more enjoyable than its raw numbers would suggest. This is an engine that loves to spin and the standard gearbox gives you the option of running it out at every opportunity. Although the hatch and wagon are slightly heavier than the sedan (by less than 100 pounds), there's no sense that the engine is straining any more than usual under the added weight. The slick-shifting five-speed is worth the effort if you're so inclined, but the five-speed automatic works well enough that those who opt for its convenience won't feel completely left out of the fun.
When the 6 sedan debuted last year, it garnered considerable praise for being so nimble that it felt more like a sport sedan than your average family four-door. Thankfully, little of that dexterity has been lost in either of the two new models, as both deliver a lively, fun-to-drive feel that few other cars in the class can match. The steering is light without being vague, and although both cars tend to plow into turns like most front-wheel-drive cars, easing up on the throttle brings the nose around predictably every time. The extra weight in back gives the wagon slightly better overall balance, but both cars are equally impressive when it comes to handling corners.
The fact these new vehicles deliver all the impressive dynamics of the sedan along with added practicality should be enough to score some attention. The hatchback almost makes the sedan obsolete given that it delivers additional cargo space in a nearly identical package. The wagon does the hatch one better by squeezing even more cargo room into a shape that's arguably better-looking than either of its smaller siblings. Will either of these iterations of the Mazda 6 mark the second coming of hatchbacks and wagons in the U.S.? Not likely, but for those who put aside those outdated reputations and get behind the wheel, the rewards will be worth it.
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