Review and photos by Greg Wilson
Second Opinion by Laurance Yap

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Test Drive: 2006 Mazdaspeed6 car test drives mazda
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Despite being $2,200 more than a top-of-the-line Mazda6 GT V6, the new 2006 Mazdaspeed6 compares favourably, at least on paper, to other high-performance, all-wheel-drive sports sedans. Equipped with a 274 horsepower turbocharged 2.3-litre four-cylinder engine and standard 6-speed manual transmission, the Mazdaspeed6 comes well-equipped for $35,995. With leather and sunroof, the price tops out at $38,795 plus $1,195 for Freight — let’s say $40,000 all in.

Compare that to the Subaru WRX (base price $35,495) which produces 44 less horsepower from its turbocharged 2.5-litre boxer 4 cylinder engine, has a 5-speed manual instead of a 6-speed, and a smaller cabin. Or the mid-size Subaru Legacy 2.5 GT ($36,795) with the same engine and 24 less horsepower, and a 5-speed manual. Or the Audi A4 2.0T Quattro ($40,750) which offers 74 fewer horses from its turbocharged four cylinder engine. Or the Volvo S60 2.5T AWD ($45,620) which pumps out 66 fewer ponies from its turbocharged five cylinder engine.

Even normally aspirated six cylinder competitors like the Audi A4 3.2 Quattro ($47,885), BMW 325xi sedan ($42,900), Jaguar X-Type 3.0 ($41,995), Lexus IS 250 AWD ($41,900), and Mercedes-Benz C280 4MATIC ($45,850) have less horsepower, and a higher price, than the Mazdaspeed6.

Test Drive: 2006 Mazdaspeed6 car test drives mazda
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Only the Infiniti G35X ($42,890), and VW Passat 3.6 4Motion ($44,990) pack more power, but again, at a much higher base price.

The Mazdaspeed6 looks like a bargain, and it is. But it’s no BMW or Audi. The seat-of-the-pants driving experience is very different, and that is likely to be the deciding factor for the type of enthusiast who will buy this car, once they get behind the wheel. I’ll get back to this in a minute.

What you get for $35,995

Based on the front-wheel-drive Mazda6, the all-wheel-drive MazdaSpeed6 is a limited production model modified by Mazda’s performance division, Mazdaspeed — the same group that did the Mazdaspeed Protege and Mazdaspeed MX-5. The advantage of buying a Mazdaspeed rather than tuning a Mazda6 yourself is that all the additional Mazdaspeed parts are covered under Mazda’s standard 3-year/80,000 km warranty and 5-year/100,000 km major components warranty.

Test Drive: 2006 Mazdaspeed6 car test drives mazda

Test Drive: 2006 Mazdaspeed6 car test drives mazda
Click image to enlarge

The engine is a turbocharged 2.3-litre twin cam four-valve-per-cylinder 4-cylinder engine with direct fuel injection that develops 274 horsepower at 5500 rpm and a sizeable 280 lb-ft of torque at just 3000 rpm. A new 6-speed manual transmission is standard, but unlike some of its rivals, an automatic transmission is not available.

Its new “active torque split” all-wheel-drive system uses sensor input, including steering angle, yaw rate, lateral force and engine rpm, to adjust front/rear torque distribution anywhere from 100/0 to 50/50. The AWD system automatically adjusts between Normal, Sport and Snow, depending on conditions. As well, the Mazdaspeed6 features a limited slip differential in the rear differential to transfer torque left and right when needed, standard stability and traction control, and larger disc brakes with ABS and electronic brake force distribution.

Test Drive: 2006 Mazdaspeed6 car test drives mazda

Test Drive: 2006 Mazdaspeed6 car test drives mazda

Test Drive: 2006 Mazdaspeed6 car test drives mazda

Test Drive: 2006 Mazdaspeed6 car test drives mazda
Click image to enlarge

The Mazda6′s fully independent suspension was modified for the Mazdaspeed6: the front double wishbone set-up features spring rates that are 25% higher, stiffer shocks, and thicker stabilizer bar. The rear multi-link suspension has spring rates that are 37% stiffer, larger stabilizer bar, and reinforced cross member.

The car’s aggressive appearance is enhanced by a raised hood that helps suck air into an oversized airbox, unique front and rear bumpers with a large blacked-out air intake, Xenon headlights, fog lights, and driving lights, new grille, rear spoiler, side sills, two rear oval exhaust tips, and P215/45R-18-inch high-performance tires mounted on multi-spoke alloy wheels.

Inside are well-bolstered front sport seats with 8-way power driver’s seat; a 280 km/h speedometer, metal foot pedals, shiny metal-look trim on the instrument panel, 6-disc CD changer and subwoofer, automatic climate control, one-touch up/down for all the power windows, speed-sensing intermittent wipers, cruise control, front side and curtain airbags, keyless remote and entry, and anti-theft alarm.

The rear seatback does not fold down because Mazdaspeed added a diagonal brace behind the rear seat to improve the torsional rigidity of the body. The trunk however, at 429 litres (15.2 cu. ft.), is very spacious.

The only option is a $2,800 package that includes leather seats — single or two-tone leather — heated front seats, power moonroof, and a keyless entry and ignition system. The latter enables the driver to keep the rectangular flat key in their pocket or purse, and just press a button on the door handle to lock and unlock it. In the driver’s seat, the driver doesn’t need to put a key in the ignition — just turn a knob to start and stop the engine.


Driving impressions

Test Drive: 2006 Mazdaspeed6 car test drives mazda

Test Drive: 2006 Mazdaspeed6 car test drives mazda

Test Drive: 2006 Mazdaspeed6 car test drives mazda
Click image to enlarge

Acceleration is awesome. As tested by the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC) at the recent Car of the Year “Testfest”, the Mazdaspeed6 had a 0 to 100 km/h time of just 5.5 seconds — quicker than an Audi A4 3.2, BMW 330i, and Lexus IS350 – and 0.1 seconds faster than the smaller, lighter Subaru WRX. AJAC didn’t test the Subaru Legacy 2.5 GT Limited this year, but Subaru’s official 0 to 60 mph time is 5.7 seconds.

From 80 to 120 km/h, the Mazdaspeed6 took just 4.3 seconds, quicker than all of its rivals.

Indeed, once the single turbo is spinning and the engine is revving over 2500 rpm, any pressure on the gas pedal produces instant throttle response. Maximum torque is achieved at just 3000 rpm. Passing manoeuvres you may have hesitated to attempt in other cars can be achieved with confidence in the Mazdaspeed6. While blowing off Porsches and Corvettes, it’s hard to believe there’s a four-cylinder engine under the hood. Even in sixth gear, there seems to be a lot of pulling power, and there’s little need to change gear while cruising. However, from a standing start, there is a short delay until the engine revs past 2000 rpm, followed by a sudden, but manageable surge in acceleration. Thank goodness the Mazdaspeed6 has all-wheel-drive: otherwise, the torque-steer could be fearsome.

Test Drive: 2006 Mazdaspeed6 car test drives mazda
Click image to enlarge

The 6-speed manual shifter is a delight, requiring little effort to row from gear to gear. However, the clutch is difficult to engage smoothly because pedal pressure increases as it approaches the clutch engagement point. I almost stalled the engine a couple of times when pulling away from rest, and found it difficult to engage smoothly while driving.

The steering is rack and pinion with an engine rpm sensing power assist. It’s a little stiff when parking, and while responsive when cornering, it’s not very communicative.

With the help of its computerized AWD system, a limited slip differential, and stability control, traction and grip on wet roads is excellent, and handling is grippy — but none of this is a substitute for snow tires in winter, and they should be installed.

Test Drive: 2006 Mazdaspeed6 car test drives mazda
Click image to enlarge

Handling is nimble: the MazdaSpeed6 has a lower ground clearance (123 mm (4.8 in.)) than the Mazda6 but its 60/40 front/rear weight distribution gives it a nose-heavy feel, unlike more balanced cars like the BMW 325xi and Infiniti G35x. As well, the stiffer suspension doesn’t soak up pavement breaks and potholes very well.

The brakes are phenomenal. In independent AJAC braking tests from 100 km/h to 0 km/h, the Mazdaspeed6 stopped in 35.2 metres, 2 metres shorter than a 2006 Corvette Z06!


Crash tests and reliability

In 40 mph offset frontal crash tests performed by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the Mazda6 was rated a “Best Pick”, but in side impact tests, it was rated “Poor” without side airbags. In NHTSA 35 mph frontal crash tests, the Mazda6 received 5 Stars, but in side impact tests, it received 3 stars for the front seat and 4 stars for the rear seat. The Mazdaspeed6 hasn’t been tested, but it has side and curtain airbags.

In terms of reliability, Consumer Reports has no data on the Mazdaspeed6, but the Mazda6 4 cylinder model has been average and is “Recommended”, while the V6 Mazda6 has been below average.


Verdict

Lightning quick acceleration, fantastic brakes, sporty looks, and a reasonable price make the Mazdaspeed6 a force to be reckoned with — but a sensitive clutch and a front weight bias keep it from being a BMW killer.


Second Opinion

By Laurance Yap

Test Drive: 2006 Mazdaspeed6 car test drives mazda
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The second vehicle to be launched in our market from the company’s Mazdaspeed tuning arm, the Mazdaspeed6 (or, the Speed6, as I like to call it) takes the Mazda6, which is perhaps already the sportiest front-drive family car in the segment, and takes it to a new level of performance, style, and excitement. With a turbocharged engine, all-wheel-drive, and a superbly-trimmed interior, it looks and feels like a genuine Audi-chaser, which it’s going to have to be to justify a price that’s significantly higher than the regular sedan on which it’s based.

Certainly, it looks a whole lot faster and more expensive. While the Mazda6's basic body style has been retained, this performance model has a completely distinct identity thanks to a unique front bumper and grille, a hood that bulges powerfully to accommodate the turbo, flared wheel arches, extended side sills, and unique 18-inch alloy wheels. At the rear, there's the expected tail spoiler, but it's very nicely integrated, and two bazooka-size exhausts poke straight out of the middle of the bumper, a visually stunning touch that also demonstrates the exceptional quality of the Speed6's assembly; even expensive cars these days usually have the exhausts dangling in mid-air. The overall look is chunky and purposeful, and hints at the fun to come.

Twist the - well, there's not actually a key, just a knob on the side of the steering column - and you're initially disappointed. The 2.3-litre turbo four idles smoother and quieter than even the Mazda6 V6, with very little hint of any engine or exhaust note.

Test Drive: 2006 Mazdaspeed6 car test drives mazda
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Pull away, though, and it gets a lot better, ripping quickly up to its 6700-rpm redline, with the turbo's wastegate whooshing and popping as you shift gears. With 280 lb-ft of torque distributed to all four wheels and zero turbo lag, there's no waiting for big-league acceleration, whether you're roaring away from a stoplight or passing cars in clumps of 10 at speed. Abetting the smooth, powerful engine is a slick, perfectly-weighted six-speed shifter with nicely-defined gates and an action almost as good as the Miata's. Combine the superb drivetrain with all-wheel traction, and you have a sport sedan that can run with much faster cars - Audi S4s come to mind - in any weather.

But Mazdas have always been more about their handling finesse than their outright speed, and it's here where the Speed6 falters a bit. It's not that you can't go screeching around corners faster than would ever be prudent on a public road, though you can. It's not that the car's brakes aren't powerful, because they are, and quite easy to modulate, too. It's not even that the steering isn't super-accurate. It's more that Mazda's trademark sensitivity, the feeling of lightness you get through the wheel and pedals, isn't quite there. Perhaps it's the extra weight of the all-wheel-drive system, or the 245-mm width of those low-profile tires, but the Speed6 feels kind of heavy through tight corners, and its stiff suspension clumps and clomps over bumps where a regular 6 would dance. At lower speeds in town, the powerful engine, short gearing, and aggressive ride make it tough to drive smoothly, too.

What the Speed6 would rather do is dominate the left lane of the highway. Even at speeds well above the posted limit, the cabin is whisper-quiet (you'd never know the engine is a four-cylinder), and the high-speed ride really settles down. The seats, which are available in a unique black-and-white leather combination, are exceptionally comfortable over long hauls; you emerge after a couple of hours behind the wheel totally fatigue-free.

Test Drive: 2006 Mazdaspeed6 car test drives mazda
Click image to enlarge

The stereo, a Bose system with a 6-disc CD changer, is powerful enough to blow out your eardrums but clear enough that you hear instruments you've never heard on your favourite tracks. And the overall level of fit and finish - with a dark-brushed finish on the console and door grab handles, and a piano-black audio faceplate - is not only a big step up from the regular Mazda6, but also the equal of any BMW or Audi. The only disappointments inside the spacious interior are a lack of memory for the power driver's seat, and a lack of adequate side bolstering for fast corners.

If the Speed6 isn't quite what I was expecting, it is certainly still a very fast, very capable, and very attractive car, and one that stands up quite well in comparison to some pretty highfalutin German autobahn-bashers. If you want that traditional Mazda sensitivity and adjustability - if you're looking for something more sports car than sports sedan - head for the similarly-priced RX-8 instead; but if, like me, you're looking outside at a winter's worth of slick roads and longing for a combination of creature comforts and high-speed cruising ability, the Speed6 may just be for you.


Technical Data: 2006 Mazdaspeed6

Base price $35,995
Options $2,800 (leather package, moonroof
Freight $1,195
A/C tax $100
Price as tested $40,090 Click here for options, dealer invoice prices and factory incentives
Type 4-door, 5-passenger midsize sedan
Layout transverse front engine/all-wheel-drive
Engine 2.3-litre inline 4, DOHC, 16 valves, turbocharged
Horsepower 274 @ 5500 rpm
Torque 280 @ 3000 rpm
Transmission 6-speed manual
Tires P215/45R-18 high-performance tires
Curb weight 1628 kg (3589 lbs)
Wheelbase 2675 mm (105.3 in.)
Length 4745 mm (186.8 in.)
Width 1780 mm (70.0 in.)
Height 1430 mm (56.2 in.)
Cargo capacity 429 litres (15.2 cu. ft.)
Fuel consumption City: 11.6 L/100 km (24 mpg Imperial)
  Hwy: 8.2 L/100 km (34 mpg Imperial)
Fuel type Premium
Warranty 3 yrs/ 80,000 km
Powertrain Warranty 5 yrs/100,000 km
Assembly location Hofu, Japan

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