Automotives: Mazda6 adds hatchback, Sportswagon versions

SAN DIEGO, Calif. -- Artistically and performance-wise, the Mazda6 proved an exceptional sedan a year ago, when it replaced the long-running and very successful Mazda 626. After a year, Mazda is expanding the reach of the 6, by adding a 5-door ha...

SAN DIEGO, Calif. -- Artistically and performance-wise, the Mazda6 proved an exceptional sedan a year ago, when it replaced the long-running and very successful Mazda 626. After a year, Mazda is expanding the reach of the 6, by adding a 5-door hatchback version and a Sportwagon.

The new versions will be available by summer, and I was in the first wave of automotive journalists who got to try out the whole line in the mountainous hills near Rancho Valencia, just outside San Diego. The power and performance of both the 5-door and the Sportwagon did nothing but reinforce my first impressions of the Mazda6 sedan, and that impression was very favorable, indeed.

The Mazda6 was my first pick for 2003 International Car of the Year, a vote that I would make again right now, a year later. The Nissan 350Z and the Mini Cooper came in 1-2, and they were my 2-3 picks, behind the Mazda6. The car has gone on to win car-of-the-year in more than a dozen different countries, most recently in China for 2004.

It is a tightly built, precise-handling car that exceeds Mazda's aim of creating the sportiest midsize sedan in the industry. "We're not going to try to out-Toyota Toyota, or out-Honda Honda, but we want to stay pure to our Mazda roots," said Robert Davis, senior vice president in charge of marketing and product development. "Our overall driving philosophy is to put the soul of a sports car into every car we build."

Davis was trying to define the catch-phrase "zoom-zoom," which Mazda is using as its trademark. "It means the emotion of motion," Davis added. "Having fun driving a car."


It must be pointed out that Mazda is clearly at the top of its game with every vehicle in its current lineup. The new Mazda3 is a jewel among smaller compact sedans; the Miata is the clear leader in low-priced sports roadsters; the RX-8 was the runner-up in the 2004 Car of the Year competition and is an innovative gem of sports car technology; the Tribute is an excellent small SUV, an original Mazda idea that was incorporated into a partnership venture with Ford's Escape, but the Tribute is firmer handling; and the MPV has completed a transformation into arguably the most stylish looking minivan, shorter than most but somehow managing similar interior space and features.

But the Mazda6 is the company's bread-and-butter car, because it jumps into the middle of the most competitive car segment against such heavyweights as the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima, Subaru Legacy, Volkswagen Jetta, Dodge Stratus, Chevrolet Malibu and the Pontiac Grand Am. In subjective terms, the Mazda6 stands on its sleek styling, wedging back from either a color-keyed or silver grille depending on whether you buy the sport package.

For the fun-to-drive quotient, I don't think it is subjective. It seems to be straight, hard-core fact. The Mazda6 zaps around an autocross course with the same ease it displays on winding mountain roads, always maintaining a flat posture no matter how hard you go into the turn. And that goes for either the V6 or 4-cylinder. The V6 has more power, being Ford's 3.0-liter Duratec after being reworked by Mazda's engineers for 220 horsepower and 192 foot-pounds of torque, but it costs a couple thousand more. The 4-cylinder is an exceptional new 2.3-liter engine from Mazda that is armed with chain-driven dual-overhead camshafts, and variable valve timing on the 16 valves, producing 160 horsepower and 155 foot-pounds of torque.

The Mazda6 platform will be appearing at Ford dealerships near you in the next few years, as the underpinning for eight or 10 new Ford sedans -- which indicates how good the design is. The 2.3-liter engine will be appearing in the new Ford Focus, and without alteration will become the cleanest engine in Ford's lineup -- an indication of how good the powerplant is. Frankly, I prefer the 4-cylinder version, because it's quick, responsive and runs up to 6,500 revs without the hint of hesitation or flat spots. Both come with a slick-shifting 5-speed manual, with the four offering a 4-speed automatic and the V6 a 5-speed auto.

That's all old business with the Mazda6 sedan, and it's all reinforced with the stylish new 5-door and Sportwagon. The 5-door has a high-rising rear hatch, which has five-point attachment when closed to make it a stressed safety member to improve rigidity. When you open the hatch you get 22 cubic feet of storage space, and if you fold down the 60-40 rear seat that increases to 58 cubic feet, improving by 50 percent the capacity of the sedan.

The Sportwagon, named to allow Mazda to avoid the much-maligned term "station wagon," has 33 cubic feet of storage space behind the rear seat, and over 60 cubic feet with the rear seat folded down. The wagon has a roll-up cargo net behind the rear seat, and one of those familiar roll-out covers for whatever you have behind the seats, but instead of becoming a nuisance with the seat folded down, the same device locks into the top of the seat and the cargo net can be pulled up to hitch to the ceiling. Just the thing in case you're carrying alligators back there and don't want them nibbling on the driver's ear.

Naturally, the 5-door and Sportwagon share the sedan's potent performance from the same engines, so it was with considerable eagerness that I awaited the chance to drive all three on a lengthy autocross course Mazda set up at Qualcomm Stadium. I was second in line, so I got first turn with a sedan.

Much to my surprise, the car's tires screeched and howled in protest as I flung it through the turns and came right back in. "How much air pressure is in these tires?" I asked. Ron Schramm, the top-ranked suspension guy on the premises said, "They're all at 32 pounds." I asked why so soft, and he said they wanted to make everything equal. I asked him how much air pressure would he have in the tires if these were his cars, and he said, "About 38. But these will get harder as they run."


I went back out, took out a half-dozen cones in the name of equality, and grumbled to other journalists about how soft the tires were. The more experienced drivers agreed. The 5-door wasn't much better. But I had to wait for a longer line to try the Sportwagon, which had an automatic transmission. By the time I got into it, it was late in our session, and the car had probably made 20 runs of three laps each. Much to my surprise, hand-shifting the automatic into second and leaving it there, the wagon zipped around the turns with more stability than the sedans.

"I will bet any amount there is more air in the wagon tires," I said to Schramm. He disputed that, and assured me they were all the same. When he checked, however, the air pressure was over 39 pounds in the wagon. I then made a second run in the sedan, and it felt much better. When we checked, it had 41 pounds of air pressure. I told him we were both right, because he put equal air into all the cars' tires, and I claimed the wagon had more air, but that's how much the pressure builds from extreme performance heat. Imagine what a long trip in July heat might do.

Mazda also held a pine-wood derby race for its staff and all the media, with no rules. I had my son, Jack, as crew-chief for the project, and he loaded up our black beast with enough weights taped to the underside that it had to be a threat. Unfortunately, when I went to race it, the low-slung underside rested on the rails and none of the four wheels touched the track. I peeled and pried it all off and retaped it to the top, but it wasn't the same. It was a disaster.

I'm content to leave zoom-zoom design to Mazda.

John Gilbert writes weekly automotive columns. He can be reached at .

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