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First Oz drive: Mazda takes aim with 6-shooter

Lap of luxury: The range-topping Mazda6 Luxury Sports features a full bodykit and 17-inch alloy wheels.

Mazda kicks off its revitalisation program with the launch of the 6

22 Aug 2002

AS far as Mazda Australia is concerned, the next phase in the life of the Mazda motor company begins right here, right now, with the launch of the Mazda6.

As a replacement for the fifth generation 626 model - as well as marking the end of the 626 nameplate - the Mazda6 represents the first of a wave of new models to come from the restructured and revitalised Japanese car manufacturer.

The 6 is also the first medium car to enter what is about to become a thoroughly rejuvenated segment, with three of the leading four models to be all-new.

Mazda6 goes on sale later this week, while Toyota will release the next generation Camry in early September and Holden will have a new Vectra on its hands before year's end. Subaru's Liberty is the only one of the four not receiving a substantial upgrade this year - the fourth generation Liberty not due to arrive until mid-2003.

Mazda's medium contender has undergone a major, new from the ground up transformation in the move from 626 to 6, as the company attempts to return to its roots building innovative and stylish cars.

External dimensions have increased in every direction on the 6 - except for the height of the wagon - while the styling is contemporary and undeniably attractive, but without ignoring evolutionary links with its predecessor. Styling cues from this car will be visible in the new generation Mazda models due to follow shortly, such as the Mazda2 and RX-8.

The sixth generation Mazda6 line-up continues along the path worn by the 626, as it comes in three body styles: sedan, hatchback and wagon. The sedan is offered in entry-level Limited guise, as well as Classic and Luxury, while the hatch comes in Classic, Luxury and the range-topping Luxury Sports. A sole wagon variant is available in Classic specification.

With only one engine powering the new line-up, the powertrain choice comes down to five-speed manual or 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.

The single engine is a Mazda-designed all-alloy 2.3-litre four-cylinder unit - it 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.

The new front suspension set-up mates double wishbones with MacPherson struts to form a multi-link arrangement, while at the rear a new "E-Type" multi-link system has been employed for its compact dimensions and minimal intrusion on cabin packaging.

Standard equipment for the entry level Limited model includes anti-lock brakes (ABS), dual front airbags, air-conditioning, remote central locking, electric mirrors and windows, cloth trim, a CD player, 15-inch steel wheels with plastic trims and a height adjustable driver's seat.

The Classic model adds cruise control, a six-disc in-dash CD player, climate control air-conditioning, a leather steering wheel with spoke-mounted audio and cruise controls, 16-inch alloy wheels, velour trim and a four-function trip computer.

Luxury models feature side and curtain airbags, leather trim, an electrically adjustable driver's seat, seven-speaker Bose audio system with a separate boot-mounted subwoofer, 17-inch alloy wheels and an electric glass sunroof. The Luxury Sports variant tops off the range with a full bodykit comprising new front and rear bumpers, side skirts, rear spoiler and front fog lights.

Pricing for the 6 starts at $28,270 for the manual Limited sedan, which is an increase of just over $2000 on the equivalent entry level 626 model, but Mazda claims the 6's additional standard features are worth more than $2500 in extra value. The range tops out at $43,250 for the Luxury Sports hatch, which is well into the prestige end of the large car market occupied by models like Holden's Berlina and the Mitsubishi Verada.

As a result, Mazda only expects the Sports hatch to account for about five per cent of Mazda6 sales, while Classic variants will grab the biggest slice of the sales pie with 60 per cent of total volume.

Despite the shrinking nature of the medium segment - it has dropped from 12 per cent of the overall market in 1994 to just five per cent in the first six months of this year - Mazda believes it can double the average 300 sales per month it achieved with the 626 to around 600 units of the Mazda6.

Much of that increase will have to come from conquest sales, particularly of the dominant Camry model, if the 6 is to achieve its lofty sales targets, although Mazda's market research apparently indicates interest in mid-size cars remaining well above actual sales numbers.

PRICING: Mazda6 sedan
Limited - $28,270
Limited (auto) - $30,350
Classic - $31,705
Classic (a) - $33,785
Luxury (a) - $40,270 Mazda6 hatch
Classic - $32,705
Classic (a) - $34,785
Luxury (a) - $41,270
Luxury Sports - $41,170
Luxury Sports (a) - $43,250 Mazda6 wagon
Classic (a) - $35,335


MAZDA claims to have benchmarked prestige European models such as BMW's 318i and Audi's A4 when designing the Mazda6, in an effort to deliver "class-leading dynamics" and "mechanical sophistication" to the mid-size class.

The Mazda6 is a good car and much improved over the 626, let there be no doubt about that, but the self-congratulatory nature of such professed class-leading abilities is a little premature.

It is not especially bad in any one area, but neither is it good enough to wipe the floor comprehensively with all of its current competitors, let alone the new breed waiting just around the corner.

While smooth and quiet on the freeway, the 6 does not cope quite so well with typical Australian country roads and moves around on its suspension more than a true sports-focussed model should. Subaru's Liberty, one of the 6's key mid-size competitors, does a much better job in those conditions by combining competent and responsive handling with a supple, absorbent ride and well-insulated interior.

A connection between the 6 and the A4 can be seen in the over assisted, light steering that the two vehicles share - in both it lacks feel, masks feedback and suffers from kickback. The steering improves slightly on the larger, 17-inch wheel/tyre-wearing Luxury and Sport models but the trade off is a significant increase in road and tyre noise over the always quiet, 16-inch Bridgestone Turanza ER30's worn by the Classic models (also used on Holden's Calais and certain Mercedes-Benz models).

The type of suspension tune is also quite similar, as both the 6 and A4 tend towards ride comfort rather than body composure and have a tendency to float over successive bumps and undulations, lacking adequate levels of rebound damping to provide consistently stable body control. In comparison, the 3-Series feels firmer, but manages to perform its ride/handling duties with more compliance and control, and simply a greater level of competence. In that regard, direct comparisons with the 318i are a little ambitious for Mazda's medium contender.

The new, larger 2.3-litre engine delivers sprightly performance, particularly when mated to the manual transmission, but the sporty quality of the exhaust note Mazda supposedly tuned into the system is overcome to a great extent by the engines raspy nature at high revs.

So what's all that add up to in a nutshell? Well the 6 is a good overall package, but it's not the class-leading drive Mazda believes it to be. Build quality is on the mark, the exterior styling contemporary and easy on the eye, while the interior is stylish, ergonomically sound and well equipped. But it could take some lessons from the Liberty, out of its direct competitors, when it comes to ride/handling composure and combining quiet ride comfort with sporting dynamics.

It has certainly moved the game on from the 626 and on looks alone, should attract a whole new group of buyers to the Mazda brand. But whether it offers the complete package needed to eat into the Camry's sales dominance and keep Holden's upcoming Vectra at bay, is now in the hands of the buying public.

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