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by Haney Louka
We make it sound so easy.
“Yeah, you should buy the 911 Turbo. It has all wheel drive and seats four in a
pinch, so it’s great for the family!”
In carrying out our admittedly pleasurable duties of reviewing and reporting on new
vehicles, we praise and condemn based on what we think the target buyer is looking
for. It’s really easy when we’re spending your money. But what happens when we’re
using our own hard-earned after-tax dollars to make a new vehicle purchase?
With the arrival of our second child, we quickly realized that our VW Jetta wasn’t
large enough to meet our needs, especially for camping trips or weekend adventures
talking Honda or Toyota reliability here – didn’t help the Vee-dub’s chances of
staying in our garage.
So where to now? Let’s see, I’m entering my fourth decade of life, I live in the
suburbs, and I’m married with children. Hmmmm, minivan anyone? After all, it seems
to be the vehicle of choice for growing families, and it is arguably the most
efficient use of space found in any vehicle type on the road today.
But there are drawbacks to Canada’s favourite family hauler for people who don’t
need all that space, and especially for those who understand the joy of driving. No
matter how “car-like” a minivan behaves, it’s still a minivan. And above all else,
that means a significantly higher centre of gravity and handling that is heavily
biased toward ride comfort rather than carving up mountain roads.
“How about an SUV?” you might ask.
A small sport-utility vehicle, or “mini-ute” would seemingly fit the bill as well.
High seating position, four-wheel-drive, and generous cargo capacity characterize
this other popular market segment. But the drawbacks in my book are insurmountable:
mini-utes are generally higher off the ground than minivans yet don’t compensate for
their lacklustre handling with ride comfort.
That’s right, they’re less capable in both the ride quality and handling
departments. In addition, mini-utes provide passengers with no more space than the
average econobox which can cost up to $10,000 less. Oh yeah, and fuel consumption
is significantly higher than that of cars with similar power characteristics. They
are better off-road than any car or minivan, but we’re talking about real life here
– you know, the daily commute, carting the family around, and generally staying
between the curbs.
Of course I’m generalizing here, and within each class one can find models that
cater more to the enthusiast than others. For the van buyer, both the Toyota Sienna
and Mazda MPV offer decent driving dynamics along with abundant passenger and cargo
room. Small SUV shoppers will find joy in a 5-speed equipped Toyota RAV4 or Subaru
Forester, and they’ll also get the all wheel drive and higher seating position (less
so in the Subie) that buyers in this segment consider essential.
So now it’s time for me to put my money where my mouth is: I bought a wagon. Yep,
the same basic format that 25 years ago proudly wore wood paneling and carried
families around in abundance is making a comeback. Only this time, it’s fun. And my
ride of choice? The Mazda6 Sport Wagon.
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This year has been a busy one in the wagon renaissance. New, smaller hatchbacks
have been arriving in an almost steady wave for the last four or so years, but
larger wagons have until now been only available from expensive European and more
utilitarian domestic brands.
First and foremost, you should know that of the half dozen cars I have owned since
my first Datsun 280 ZX, none have been saddled with an automatic transmission. Try
as I did, I couldn’t come to terms with spending my own dollars on a car with only
two pedals. A car with a manual gearbox allows its driver precise control whether
the mood is performance or fuel economy. It is a thoroughly more involving driving
experience that I cannot give up. And lucky for me, my wife doesn’t at all mind the
presence of a clutch pedal.
So given the above condition, two new entries in particular piqued my interest: the
aforementioned Mazda and Subaru’s new-for-’05 Legacy.
The Subie is an appealing package: thoroughly reworked for 2005 and equipped with
standard all wheel drive, it offers secure handling and finally an interior
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commensurate in style and quality with its price tag. The Legacy’s standard
equipment list is extensive: among the surprises are alloy wheels; a de-icer for the
windshield wipers; front, side, and head-curtain airbags; heated front seats; and a
On the downside, it’s a little pricey with the standard 168-horsepower flat-four.
And my engine of choice, of course, would be the new turbocharged 250-hp mill, but
that model wasn’t even in the ballpark of my budget.
That brings me to the other wagon that met my needs: the 6.
It all started when fellow auto writer Harry Pegg handed me the keys to a Mazda6
sedan last summer: “I would buy this car,” he said, singing its praises having just
made the trek to Winnipeg from Calgary. Since then the 6 won the “Best Family Car”
award at the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada’s annual Canadian Car of
the Year awards. And now both a wagon and five-door hatch have joined the capable
four-door in Mazda showrooms.
The 6 won me over because it does all of the mundane stuff it’s asked to do without
making an enthusiast cringe at getting behind the wheel. With a starting price of
$26,995, standard equipment includes a 220-horsepower V-6; four-wheel disc brakes
with anti-lock; traction control; four-wheel independent suspension; and a host of
other things that, for me, didn’t make too much of a difference. My model of choice
was the GS with GFX package which added (among other things) a power moonroof,
optional Bose audio system, exterior ground effects and rear spoiler, and leather
for the steering wheel and shift knob, all for a reasonable $30,160.
But it’s not what’s on paper that makes a vehicle a winner in my books: for the 6,
it’s the sharpness in the steering, the flatness in the corners, and the overall
solidity in its feel that won me over. That and knockout styling; something that’s
hard to achieve with a wagon. There are also some great convenience features, like
the rear seats that can be flipped down from the rear cargo area (without requiring
headrest removal) to produce a virtually flat load floor. And the standard cargo
cover that also incorporates a vertical separator net to keep things from sliding
forward into the passenger space. The contraption can also be installed just behind
the front seats to protect those passengers when the rear split bench is folded.
I decided to stick with the cloth seats because Mazda has done such a good job with
them, and paying the extra $3,000 to get leather that’s best described as mediocre
just doesn’t make sense. I did, however, give up the heated seats in the process.
Gripes? I don’t think folks should be required to buy the top-of-the-line GT version
to get side impact and head curtain airbags. Safety should not be optional.
And the Duratec-based V-6 does not play the same melodious tune as Mazda’s V-6s of
last decade. My 1994 Mazda MX-6 LS sounded much more eager to perform despite its
modest 164-horsepower power rating.
So now that I’ve walked the walk and actually done something that I’ve recommended
to readers, I can carry on spending your money instead of my own. At least for now.