Car reviews - Mazda - Mazda6 - Luxury Sports hatch
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
21 Jan 2003
By TIM BRITTEN
WE'VE heard it all before, from just about any Japanese car-maker you'd like to imagine, but it is claimed the new Mazda6 borrows much of its design and engineering influence from Europe.
The new mid-size car, boldly launched into a market segment more noted for downward sales trends than much else, brings style, quality, comfort and the dynamic edge for which its predecessor, the 626, was never really noted.
Thus, the new "6" (which we'll call it from here on) embraces European concepts which tend to favour the driving experience, and passenger comfort, ahead of practically anything else.
And, to Mazda's credit, the new car does indeed factor the driver into the design mix, much more than any mid-size, five-passenger vehicle it has produced in the past.
The 6 has a lithe, balanced, athletic feel and communicates nicely through its steering. The ride - in Sports hatch configuration - errs towards firmness but there is enough compliance to cushion all but the sharpest-edged ruts and bumps.
Other variants, which use slightly smaller, 16-inch wheels, retain the basic characteristics but proceed with just a little bit more absorbency.
The new car rides on a new, fully independent, double wishbone front and multi-link rear suspension that doesn't offer any special tricks but does a refined, very competent job.
The steering (powered, engine-speed sensitive rack and pinion) is light but accurate and, in our Sports hatch test car, resisted understeer well beyond normal front-drive passenger car limits.
The car feels maybe a little less substantial on the road than, say, a Magna or Camry - which weigh more anyway, by about 100kg in the case of the Magna - although Mazda says body strength and safety technology, in terms of crash characteristics, is state-of-the-art.
But the doors close quite nicely, and the controls generally convey a sense of quality in the way they sound and operate. Mazda claims quality, both perceived and actual, has been a major focus with the 6.
In terms of passive safety, the 6 comes with the normal complement of dual-stage front airbags, anti-whiplash front seats, an intrusion minimising brake pedal and, on Sports and Luxury models, seat-mounted front side airbags and full-length curtain airbags.
The anti-whiplash seat design isn't a complex design like Saab's or Volvo's, but uses a specially designed seatback, and repositioned headrests, to minimise rapid neck movement in a rear-end crash.
Active safety elements include three-channel anti-lock brakes on all models, plus electronic brake-force distribution to spread brake effort between front and rear wheels appropriately, even before the ABS kicks in.
The new, all-alloy, 2.3-litre four-cylinder engine is a suitable companion for the chassis. Using the customary four-valve, twin-camshaft layout, it adds variable valve timing as well as a balance shaft to combine efficiency with smoothness.
Mazda says its engineers also worked on making it sound the part, too, and they seem to have succeeded because the 6, from inside at least, has an engine note that is nice and crisp without being overbearing.
Long-stroke designs usually deliver better low-speed torque than short-stroke, or even square bore-stroke ratios and the Mazda uses the former to good advantage by delivering handy power at low rpm.
The 207Nm torque maximum comes in at a reasonably high 4000rpm but there always seems to be plenty well below that, while the maximum 122kW (1kW more than the 2.5-litre V6 Mazda once sold here) is developed at a free-spinning 6500rpm.
In fact, the engine is quite delightful, especially when hooked up to the five-speed manual gearbox, and contributes to making the 6 a zesty, agile point-to-point car. Gearbox ratios are quite closely spaced and help extract the most from the engine because of the minimal gaps when upshifting.
The economy is quite special, too, and there's little doubt a carefully-driven Mazda6 could cover Sydney to Melbourne on one 64-litre tank of fuel.
Officially, the 6 is quoted at 9.5 litres/100km around the city and seven litres/100km on the open road. Our experience was that these figures are easily attainable - although there is a downside in that Mazda recommends premium unleaded fuel.
And what of the new car's interior? Mazda says the 6 is bigger in all directions than its predecessor, so it's no surprise that head, leg and shoulder room are up on the previous car.
In fact, the Mazda is just 5mm less than a Mitsubishi Magna in width, even if it's in arrears by a fair bit more when it comes to wheelbase and overall length.
The result is that while the 6 offers better fore-aft stretching space than before it's still a mid-size car in terms of front/rear legroom.
The seats (Sports hatch provides powered adjustment for the driver, manual for the passenger) are well sculpted up front, comfortable on a long trip and offer enough adjustment to bring complaints from the back seat if it's all used up.
The back seat gets a centre armrest, as well as Mazda's clever, single-fold "Karakuri" 60-40 arrangement that allows a flat load space to be formed, headrests in place, with the pull of a lever. In hatchback form, the Mazda is a handy carrying device.
The instrument panel of the 6 is a nicely-conceived, well executed arrangement that is really the first line in the way the driver relates to the car. It's a basically conventional arrangement with a hooded binnacle featuring two main instruments and a centre console dressed up with generous satin-finish, mock-alloy trim.
The steering wheel rim and handbrake lever are leather-trimmed and there's a handy, felt-lined cubby high on the centre dash for storing sunglasses. A small, lidded cubby at the back of the centre console acts as an armrest.
All controls are big and logical to use and the Sports Hatch gets a quality seven-speaker Bose sound system complete with six-stack CD.
As the top-of-the-deck Mazda6, the Sports hatch also gets a lairy bodykit comprising side skirts, high-rise rear spoiler and deeper front and rear bumpers. Mazda mightn't like the comparison, but in Canary Yellow, the new car looks like a sort of scaled-down HSV Commodore.
Does the new Mazda rate as a significant newcomer? Unquestionably it does and, even though it's placed in what has been a shrinking market segment it has the looks, performance, quality and packaging to appeal to both pragmatic and image-conscious buyers.
Hopefully, for Mazda, it just might tempt buyers away from some of the "lifestyle" soft-road vehicles. The pricing has moved up slightly over 626 at entry level but the base model still gets most of the dynamic qualities of top-end versions as well as a decent serve of standard equipment that more than redresses the balance, according to Mazda.
The Mazda6 Luxury Sports hatch is a classy, rewarding drive - very much a sporting sedan that can hold its own on a fast, winding road while returning economy figures any four-cylinder driver would be happy to boast about.
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