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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 Mazda 6 is the sportiest of the midsize sedans. Visually, it has more personality than the Accord and other midsize cars. It has a strong front-end treatment that's consistent with other Mazdas. Cat's-eye headlamps and big, multi-element tail lamps enhance the action at each corner of the car.
The Mazda 6 benefits from a kind of muscular conservatism inside and out. Everything in, on and under this car makes sense, and it all looks good doing it. The relationship of the lower body to the upper body looks perfect, yet the roof shape is designed for people, not for style. Its sporty profile makes the Mazda 6 look smaller than it is.
2006 brings some styling revisions to the Mazda 6 line. New headlamps, revised tail lamps, new front and rear bumper fascia, and new side sills add more edge to the styling. Fog lamps are incorporated into the front spoiler. A new sport grille, dark gray headlamp bezels, and a rear spoiler add distinction for top-line models. Also, 18-inch wheels have been added to the options list. Bright Island Blue and Tungsten Gray have been added to the color palette for 2006, and we really liked the new Dark Cherry, which will be mistaken for black in some lighting conditions.
The shape of the Mazda 6 is truly fetching when painted a hot color and accented by Sport-level trim, which includes a body-color front grille, gray headlight bezels, clear-lens halogen fog lamps, dual oval exhaust outlets, front and rear air dams, and side sill extensions. These bits are also available on base and Grand Touring models. The outside door handles are well designed and easy to grab.
The 5-Door hatchback features an extended rear roof pillar sloping rearward into a raised deck lid. As Mazda says, it looks fast even when standing still. Casual observers may not notice the difference between the 5-Door and the sedan.
The Sport Wagon looks sleek, clean and aggressive, if not as overtly sporty as the hatchback.
The new MazdaSpeed6 is distinguished by its slightly lowered stance and by its exclusive front fenders, hood, and grille, among other body panels. An aerodynamic front bumper and lower grille section hint at high performance, while flared side skirts draw attention to 18-inch aluminum wheels. A rear bumper with built-in diffuser for the integrated exhaust pipe combines with a compact, functional rear lip spoiler to finish off the exterior package.
Of the three body styles, the sedan offers the stiffest structure. The wagon has a stiffer chassis than the 5-Door due to the large rear opening of the hatchback. The Mazdaspeed6 offers the stiffest body structure, 50 percent stiffer than the standard sedan due to extensive reinforcements. A stiff chassis is a key element to achieving sharp handling and a smooth ride.
The front seats of the Mazda 6 are comfortable through a wide range of adjustments and have been improved for 2006. We found them suitable for hard driving, with good upper body support and enough lower back support with the optional lumbar adjuster for all-day comfort. The leather Package adds cowhide to all the right places, with thankful perforations on the seating surfaces.
The Mazda 6 interior is designed to be comfortable for front and rear passengers in the 95th percentile of all body shapes. The rear seats are quite comfortable, whether in the sedan, hatchback or wagon. There's more than 96 cubic feet of useable space inside the Mazda 6 sedan, according to the EPA measuring system, and that translates to plenty of room for four. You can squeeze in five in a pinch.
The interior design is complemented by carbon fiber, titanium and body-color finishes. The optional electroluminescent gauges are illuminated in red light, but are conventional white-on-black during the day, with nice, large and pleasing graphics. Switchgear is labeled well, legible during the day and illuminated in red at night. The heating/air conditioning system is easily controlled by three big knobs. The Bose radio does not look upscale, however, with shiny black buttons that are flush-mounted and similar in appearance. The seat heater switches are tucked away on the center console, however. Lots of open and covered storage is available, and the seat pockets and door pockets are huge. Cup holders are provided in the front and rear center consoles as well as in the door pockets.
The MazdaSpeed6 features exclusive bucket seats up front, scuff plates with stainless-steel inserts, and aluminum pedals. We found them comfortable and supportive both in leather and cloth. The cloth interior is a nice mix of fabrics, with durable looking seat bolsters and attractive door fabrics. A limited-edition model we drove had striking black and white leather with beautiful black cherry exterior paint. The available Advanced Keyless Entry and Start System allows owners to open locked doors and activate the ignition just by having the electronic key with them.
The trunk of the sedan measures 15.2 cubic feet, and the compact, lateral-link rear suspension allows for a perfectly flat trunk floor. The trunk lid is designed with hinges that do not impinge on the storage space. The standard 60/40 split rear seat folds to expand luggage space. The release levers are in the trunk for security and the seat backs are spring-loaded so they fold instantly with just one pull of the release. The Mazdaspeed6 sacrifices fold-down rear seats for increased body rigidity.
The 5-Door hatchback has a rear liftgate that opens to reveal a covered cargo compartment with 22.0 cubic feet of space, nearly 50 percent more than that of the sedan. Cargo space more than doubles to 58.7 cubic feet when the rear seats are folded, nearly as much as the wagon. The 60/40 split seats fold with the touch of a button and no need to remove the head rests revealing a nearly flat cargo floor. Cargo tie-downs and two hidden compartments in the side panels add versatility.
The Sport Wagon offers 33.7 cubic feet of luggage space with the rear seats up and a generous 60.4 cubic feet with them folded. Open the liftgate and you can stand fully upright, a really nice feature and a pleasant surprise the first time you discover it. Adding greatly to the wagon's utility are a retractable cargo cover shade and a barrier-type net, or dog fence, that emerges from the floor and attaches to the interior roof. Tie-down hooks are provided to secure your cargo.
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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