Car reviews - Mazda - Mazda6 - Classic sedan
Modern styling, clean-revving engine, excellent handling and ride compromise
Room for improvement
Industrial carpet in cabin, uses premium unleaded, ABS set-up on dirt
12 Dec 2002
By BRUCE NEWTON
A SLEEPING pill on wheels. That was the last Mazda 626, a car that was the very personification of mobile Mogadon.
It was the car that caught the mood of Mazda Motor Corporation in the 1990s. Cautious, conservative and only concerned with profit.
That car paid the price with a lukewarm reception and so did the company, its image for sportiness, innovation and a touch of prestige slumping badly.
Of course, the 626 was not the only cause of this somnambulant period. The 121 Metro and the 323 were just as boring. With the demise of the RX-7 only the MX-5 two-door provided any proof that Mazda still had something special.
Well, the good news is that the old sporty, confident Mazda is clawing back to the surface - that's what those zoom-zoom advertisements are all about.
The first sheetmetal proof here in Australia is the 626 replacement, which is called the Mazda6. In this case we are testing the popular mid-spec sedan called the Classic.
Mazda6 is a new name, but it also links back to its predecessor. Which is a bit like the look of the car as well, taking the 626's stodgy shape and transforming it into a more sleek and aggressive yet identifiably Mazda package.
Not only is the body of the 6 better looking, it is also sturdier and bigger than its predecessor in terms of key indicators such as body length, wheelbase, width and height.
Inside it is also a story of thorough evolution. There's plenty of space front and rear, an excellent split-fold facility, a good-quality velour trim and bright chrome rings surrounding the huge tacho and speedo dials in the instrument pod.
But the standout interior feature is the T-bar centre console, in particular the metal-look centre console which integrates three Alfa-like circular air-conditioning vents, the audio system including a six-stack in-dash CD and the climate control system.
Unlike many other cars in the mid-size category, the controls have a bespoke look and feel, promoting a feeling of upmarket quality for the entire car. It's a neat trick by Mazda, because it has added a lot more value than the extra care and attention would have cost.
The only disappointments in what is an otherwise straightforward cabin is the lack of reach adjustment on the grippy little steering wheel and the industrial quality of the carpet. Although mostly hidden by floormats, it really is not good enough for a car of this type.
Mechanically, plenty has changed from the 626. Under the bonnet there's still four-cylinder power driving the front wheels, but now it's a Mazda-designed all-alloy 2.3-litre four-cylinder unit that comes from the new MZR engine family - fitted with the company's Sequential Valve Timing (S-VT) system.
Producing 122kW of power and 207Nm of torque at 4000rpm, the new powerplant is the most powerful ever fitted to a mid-size Mazda model in this country.
It has 31 per cent more power and 14 per cent more torque than the 626's 2.0-litre engine, as well as a surprising 1kW more than the 2.5-litre V6 that was used in the upmarket 626 models until the mid-90s.
That engine is mated standard to an upgraded version of the 626's five-speed manual or - as in the case of our test car - the four-speed "Activematic" automatic transmission, which has a first-for-Mazda Tiptronic-style manual gear selection function but no sports mode, like many similar European transmissions.
Underpinning the drivetrain is a new platform with a new suspension design replacing the old MacPherson strut layout. Now it is a more sophisticated double wishbone set-up at the front and a compact multi-link design at the rear called "e-type".
Other key mechanical aspects include revised rack and pinion steering, larger brake discs and 16-inch alloy wheels mated to 205/55R16 tyres (in the case of the Classic).
So how does it all come together? Pretty darn well actually. There's nothing radical or innovative about what Mazda has done with the 6, but it meshes together very neatly indeed.
The engine revs cleanly well past the 6500rpm redline, producing its best punch in the range between 4000 and 6000rpm. It will keep on going beyond that but there's not much point, just proving it never becomes harsh or thrashy.
The noise level does build up, but in a pleasing mechanical way that lets you know a thoroughbred is charging hard. The only problem is that it prefers munching on premium unleaded fuel, which adds to the expense.
During our week in the 6, across all sorts of conditions, the average fuel consumption ended up being a tad under 10.0L/100km - a fair effort considering we gave it a bit of a thrashing.
Left to its own devices, the auto box displays a propensity to head for top at most opportunities and not hold gears intuitively. It is also a little bit laggy on the changes themselves, although the shift quality itself is high.
If you want decisive control of the engine it is best to knock the small, shapely gear lever across to the left and toggle it forward to change down and back to change up. The good news here is the semi-manual mode will not change gears without your prompting, even when the engine is bouncing off the soft limiter.
The chassis is a star, providing a class-leading combination of ride and handling. Compared to the class sales leader, the Toyota Camry four-cylinder, the base model Altise/Ateva versions actually ride better than the Mazda and the Sportivo versions are a little more fun to drive. But the Mazda is the better compromise.
The steering initially feels too light but over a drive feels chunkier, meatier and "feelier" the further you go - without annoying torque steer or rack rattle either.
Despite its front-wheel drive layout, the 6 also displayed great aplomb in soaking wet, tight conditions, resisting attempts to make the inside front wheel light up. And that's without any sign of traction or stability control.
Having sampled the Sports Luxury hatch on 17-inch wheels mated to lower profile rubber, the Classic's 16-inch combo seems a better compromise - not quite as harsh or noisy but still offering good grip.
On tar the brakes are also up to scratch with strong feel and retardation, although like many imports the 6's ABS struggles to adapt to Aussie gravel, coming to a sliding, stuttering stop - eventually.
The final part of the 6 equation is the equipment package. By the time you've cleared all your costs for a Classic auto, it is more than $35,000. For that money you get the features we have already mentioned like the alloy wheels, climate control, six-stack CD and ABS.
To that you can add dual front airbags, cruise control, remote central locking, power mirrors and windows, a height adjustable driver's seat with lumbar adjustment, velour trim, a leather steering wheel with spoke-mounted audio and cruise controls, and a four-function trip computer.
On value then it's a competitive if not standout proposition against the likes of the Camry, Subaru Liberty and, more than likely, the new generation Holden Vectra that will go on sale early in 2003.
But when you add in the quality of the 6's design and engineering, it emerges as a class leader. It is not the best at everything and it is certainly not an innovator - but it is a fine package that deserves success.
It says much more effectively than any "zoom zoom" ad on the television that sleep time is over at Mazda.
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