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Improved for 2006, the Mazda 6 is the sports sedan of front-drive midsize cars. While the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord are designed for mass appeal or, stated more cynically, for people who don't like cars, the Mazda 6 is designed for the driving enthusiast. Mazda6, as the company calls it, is not for everyone, and that's just fine with Mazda.
The Mazda 6 looks leaner than its competitors and the driving experience backs that up with agile handling and responsive engines. The Mazda 6 feels tighter in corners and holds the road better than Camry, Accord or Nissan Altima. It's lighter on its feet and stops quicker. In short, it's a better driver's car. Four-cylinder and V6 engines are available, each available with five-speed manual gearboxes or five- or six-speed automatics.
The Mazda 6 comes in sporty 5-Door hatchback and Sport Wagon styles in addition to the four-door Sports Sedan. The 5-Door excels at carrying cargo, yet it doesn't look like a hatchback; in fact, it takes a sharp eye to distinguish it from the sedan. The wagon is truly a sport wagon, better than the hatchback in terms of driving enjoyment, and it offers excellent cargo-hauling versatility with a flat cargo area when the seats are folded and practical features such as a dog fence and a cargo net integrated into the cargo cover.
The 2006 model year brings revisions to the entire Mazda 6 line. Mild styling revisions give it a cleaner look. New front seats are designed for greater comfort and support, new cloth fabrics, a new center console, new door panels, and other features make the cabin more comfortable and more convenient. The 3.0-liter V6 offers slightly more torque for 2006, improving performance off the line and improving drivability by making the engine more tractable. Fuel economy has been improved for both engines, and the four-cylinder engine used on 2006 Mazda 6i models is available with a new five-speed automatic, replacing the old four-speed. The brakes have been upgraded for 2006 with bigger ventilated front disc brakes designed to reduce stopping distances, resist brake fade and improve pedal feel. Also, 18-inch wheels and tires are available.
The new 2006 Mazdaspeed6 is a turbocharged, all-wheel-drive sedan carefully tuned by Mazda's performance division. The Mazdaspeed6 offers impressive levels of performance and handling yet we found it sufficiently comfortable for the daily commute. All-wheel drive helps tame its 274-horsepower turbocharged engine, its close-ratio six-speed manual gearbox is remarkable for its easy, smooth-shifting action, and its suspension is firm but not unbearably so. It comes with sporty fabric or leather upholstery and other luxury features. Think of it as an alternative to the Audi A4 quattro or BMW 330xi.
The Mazda 6 earned product awards and accolades from the motoring press for its handling, performance and sports appeal, yet its relative obscurity means you won't likely see it in your neighbor's driveway. Driving one of these means you're something of a non-conformist, and the variety of body styles adds to this distinction. For those of us who like cars, that's a good thing.
The 6i sedan ($19,110) comes standard with air conditioning; cruise control; six-speaker AM/FM/CD audio; tilt and telescope leather-wrapped steering wheel; leather wrapped shift knob; power windows, mirrors and door locks with remote keyless entry; and 16-inch steel wheels. A five-speed manual transmission is standard; a five-speed automatic ($900) is optional. A convenience package ($1,000) adds an eight-way power driver's seat with manual lumbar, 17-inch alloy wheels with P215/50R17 all-season tires, and an anti-theft alarm.
Safety features that come standard on all models include ABS, traction control, and advanced dual-stage front airbags. Side-impact and side-curtain airbags ($500) are optional.
Moving up to the 6i Sport sedan ($21,810) and 6i Sport hatchback ($22,210) adds the front side-impact and side-curtain airbags, the eight-way power driver's seat, fog lights, bright-tip exhaust outlets, side-sill extensions and a wing-type rear spoiler. Wheels and tires upgrade to P215/50VR17 on 17-inch aluminum rims. The hatchback comes with a rear wiper and washer.
The 6i Grand Touring sedan ($24,710) comes with leather upholstery, heated power driver's seat, the Bose stereo, heated mirrors, power glass sunroof, and red-illuminated electroluminescent gauges. Grand Touring comes standard with the five-speed automatic transmission (a manual transmission is not available). The Sport bits are dropped, but are available as options.
The Mazda 6s models are identically equipped to their 6i counterparts, except they come with the V6 engine. This goes for the 6s sedan ($23,010) and 6s wagon ($23,610); 6s Sport sedan ($23,910), 6s Sport hatchback ($24,510), and 6s Sport wagon ($24,610). The standard transmission is a five-speed manual; a six-speed automatic is optional ($950). The 6s Grand Touring sedan ($27,260) and 6s Grand Touring wagon ($27,160) come standard with the six-speed automatic.
For 2006, a new Grand Sport package combines features of Grand Touring and Sport models and comes with high-intensity discharge headlamps for superior illumination and lower maintenance.
The new 2006 MazdaSpeed6 ($27,995), a high-performance version of the Mazda 6 sedan, powered by a direct-injection 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine turbocharged to 274 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque. A six-speed manual transmission, electronically controlled all-wheel drive, electronic stability control, and enhanced brakes and suspension complete the package. The MazdaSpeed6 is available in Sport or Grand Touring trim. Both come with the Bose audio.
Options for all Mazda 6 models include a navigation system ($2,000), an in-dash 6CD player ($500), a cassette player ($200), and a long list of accessories.
When it comes to sporty handling, the 2006 Mazda 6 is among the best in the class. It offers better road holding than the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, and Nissan Altima, as well as better transient response in quick lane-change maneuvers. The Mazda 6 just feels sharper and more agile than those other cars.
Zoom-zoom is in plentiful supply regardless of which model you choose. The four-cylinder Mazda 6i is a hoot to drive. Order it with the five-speed manual and the fun zone starts at about 4000 rpm, where the engine is very responsive. The 2.3-liter, double-overhead-cam engine loves to rev and acceleration is on par with that of other four-cylinder mid-size sedans. The Honda Accord may be a little quicker, but the Mazda feels younger and sportier. Below 3000 rpm, however, the four-cylinder lacks strong throttle response. We like it best with the manual gearbox, but we have not tried it with the new five-speed automatic. The manual shifter felt mushy to us at first, but that initial impression quickly faded and we found it fun to shift. Four-cylinder models with automatic transmission are classified as Partial Zero Emissions Vehicles, or PZEVs.
The 3.0-liter V6 in the Mazda 6s greatly increases the fun. It benefits from continuously variable valve timing (VVT) for its intake camshaft, providing strong torque at low rpm, a willingness to rev, good gas mileage, and nice sounds from the air intake and dual exhausts. The Mazda V6 doesn't feel like it has as much low-rpm torque as the Toyota and Honda V6s, but it loves to rev and it's a lot of fun to drive. Mazda retuned the V6 slightly for lower emissions for 2006 and says tractability has been improved. Torque has been increased to 199 pound-feet at 5000 rpm (from 192). Rated horsepower has dropped by five to 215 horsepower. Mazda 6i models with manual transmissions are certified as Low Emissions Vehicles, or LEVs.
The six-speed automatic is really smooth, yet shifting is crisp. All those gears provide improved gear spacing for the V6, keeping it in its power band under all circumstances. Having six forward gears allowed Mazda engineers to select low ratios for first and second to maximize off-the-line acceleration, tall top gears for effortless cruising, and mid-range gears optimized for snappy acceleration from highway speeds. The Sport Shift mode allows the driver to shift manually by pulling back to upshift, pushing forward to downshift.
Handling is excellent. The Mazda 6 doesn't lean much in corners, body roll being nicely controlled by the front and rear anti-roll bars. The Mazda 6 comes standard with a sports suspension with double wishbones up front and a lateral-link layout in the rear and coil springs all around. Tires on the base sedans are generously sized at 205/60VR16, with beefier 215/50VR17s on V6, Sport and Grand Touring models, including all hatchbacks and wagons. And 18-inch wheels and tires are available. Both engines are made of aluminum to keep the Mazda 6 from getting too heavy, which it isn't, at 3347 pounds for the V6 automatic sedan.
Grip is tenacious, right up to the point where the front end pushes, telling you to lighten up, and this understeer doesn't occur until you've reached competition-level speeds. Other mid-size sedans lose grip far sooner than the Mazda 6. The amount of power-steering assist backs off the faster you go, to give good road feel, although it's still on the light side at high speeds.
Though it's more fun to drive, the Mazda 6 doesn't feel quite as refined as the Accord. Ride quality is generally good, bit it can get a little jouncy on certain types of pavement and some road vibration comes through. Road noise is relatively pronounced on broken pavement, especially with the Sport trim. Wind noise comes through as well; we noticed this was particularly true with Sport trim and suspect the aerodynamic enhancements may be the cause. None of this is as uncomfortable as it sounds when
The Mazda 6 is the sports sedan of the mainstream midsize cars. It boasts style, agility and performance. In short, it's more fun to drive than other cars in this class. It's a great choice for someone who wants a more exciting car. The sedan offers the best handling. The hatchback and wagon offer the same driving excitement with increased versatility. The Mazdaspeed6 a special factory performance car with a turbocharged engine and all-wheel drive that's fun for charging down back roads yet comfortable for everyday driving.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Jim McCraw reported from Detroit, with Mitch McCullough reporting from Laguna Beach, California.
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