One of the most crowded automotive categories is that of “mid-size sedan,” and it’s one that Mazda is quite familiar with. The 626 sedan competed for years against the likes of the Honda Accord and the Toyota Camry, but it was never able to steal anyone’s thunder. Until now.
In case you haven’t noticed, car prices have been on the increase. It wasn’t too long ago that a $20,000 car was “expensive.” But take a cruise through your local dealership and you’ll be hard pressed to find a car for less than 20-large. Now, Mazda has managed to do the unthinkable: Build an awesome car that’s fun to drive, “cool,” and give Honda and Toyota a run for their money – all while keeping the price below $20k.
Well, ok, the price does eek it’s way past $20k if you get happy with the option list, but as we discovered, the 6 doesn’t require a lot of extras to keep the “fun needle” firmly pegged. Our 2004 MAZDA6i stickered at $19,975 (including destination charges) and featured a 2.3-liter inline 4-cylinder (I4), a great “Sport Shift” 4-speed automatic transmission, superb 4-wheel disc brakes, a competent suspension package that was neither harsh nor vague, and a handful of nice interior amenities.
The first thing that you’ll notice (as will others) about the MAZDA6 is its looks. For some reason, the crowded mid-size sedan category has been cursed with a slew of drab, unexciting, “me too,” vehicles that place a lot of weight in the ‘ole mantra, “Form follows function.” Mazda’s designers have given the 6 a great shape – one that drew looks from other motorists, and had our office staff praising the athletic, performance-inspired body lines.
More praise was garnished on the Mazda’s interior. While our 6i was fitted with budget conscious cloth upholstery, it didn’t spoil our opinion of the interior. Gauges were large, well placed and easy to read. Controls for the radio, climate control, lighting and cruise control were also perfect. Everything was easy to operate and felt completely natural – a feat that few cars can boast.
Front seat room was ample – our lanky 6-foot-plus editors had more than enough leg and head room. The seats were comfortable and supportive, without being overbearing. Rear passengers commented that the seats offered abundant leg room, but some reported feeling a little crowded in the head and shoulder area. The rear seats fold down in a 60/40 manner to provide more space in the already massive trunk. The trunk is wide, deep and easy to load. For those that require more space, Mazda introduced the Sport Wagon and 5-door models earlier this year.
To borrow a line from Mazda’s marketing department, the MAZDA6 really is “all about the drive.” Simply put, the 6 is a blast to pilot, be it to the grocery store, the office, or (as we did) on tight and twisty back roads. And on the right roads, it’s quite hard to believe you’re driving a “family sedan.”
Our tester came outfitted with Mazda’s base engine, the 2.3-liter I4 that develops a total of 160 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 155 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm. It put power to the ground by way of an optional, 4-speed Sport AT transmission with manumatic controls (via the center console mounted stick lever). While it certainly won’t set the world afire with performance, the car drives effortlessly, and thanks to the manual controls, is easy to keep in the heart of the power band.
With our Beltronics GX2 fired-up, we observed 0-60 times of 8.6 seconds, and quarter-mile runs of 16.5 at 87 mph – not bad for a car of this size and weight. Braking distances left a little to be desired, but we place blame on the tires, as the 4-wheel disc brakes had an excellent feel with zero fade and plenty of bite. Our best 60-0 stop came in at 145 feet. Fuel economy during our test averaged just over 26 miles per gallon.
Did we mention how much fun it is to drive the MAZDA6? We did? Well, we need to say it again, because it really does remind you what driving should be all about. The suspension inspires bucket loads of confidence as it swallows up road irregularities and provides tremendous grip with oodles of feedback. Body roll is very minimal, but we did detect a hint of under steer, a trait common to almost all front wheel drive cars. Torque steer was completely absent.
Winding the 6 through hilly back roads, snicking the manumatic up and down through the gears, we took delight in the responsiveness of the small engine and the raspy growl that accompanied the revs. Were it not for us pushing the motor hard, we’d never have heard a thing – the cabin is completely quiet at cruising speed (save for some tire noise).
Thanks to the quiet ride characteristics, we were able to contemplate what made the MAZDA6 so darn likable. We eventually conceded that it wasn’t any one thing, but rather a sum of the parts. The 6 draws on a slew of goodies to deliver a rewarding drive, no matter the driver or environment.
We give the MAZDA6 high marks for its gorgeous styling, comfy and perfectly designed interior, balanced chassis, superb brakes, peppy powertrain, superb crash-test ratings, and the comfortable and quiet ride. The fact that you can get all of this for such an affordable price makes the MAZDA6 all the more attractive.
When you add up all of these wonderful characteristics, the MAZDA6 equals a perfect 10. As we watched the 6 leave our office, we ran some other numbers through our heads – MSRPs, optional packages, fuel economy figures and performance numbers… And then we raced to our desks to find one final set of numbers – the digits to our local Mazda dealership. Simply put, the MAZDA6 is a must have.