by Richard Russell
Mazda had two ways to go with the replacement for the aging 626. Since it was up against two of the best-selling, most highly-regarded and rewarded sedans in all of car kingdom – Accord and Camry – it could try to fit in, take them on at their own game. Or go off in a different direction in an attempt to carve out a niche of this monster segment for itself.
This is Mazda and the age of Zoom-Zoom, so different it was. The 2004 Mazda6 will not to be confused with anything before or currently on the road. This newfound edginess is more than skin deep – the engineers joined the designers in developing an attitude for the newcomer. Extensive effort was poured into such esoteric areas as predictability; stability, steering response and brake feel, resulting in a far more sporty conveyance than the competition.
If you are going to pursue the sporty tag, you better be able to back it up when the rubber meets the road. The Altima upped the stakes when it burst on the scene last year. Now any self-respecting mid-size family car has to have more than 150 horses in four-cylinder guise and top 200 with a six. The Mazda6 can play in this league thanks to a 160-horsepower four or a 220-horse V6. Transmissions have been growing extra ratios recently in the move to maximize performance and fuel economy while minimizing emissions. Order the V6 Mazda6 and it will come mated to a five-speed automatic.
And, since Canadians are not only value-conscious, but also capable of seeing through hype, the Mazda6 is not available in a stripped version created merely for marketing purposes. Even the base $24,295 model gets ABS, Traction Control, air conditioning, power windows, power locks, remote keyless entry, cruise, height-adjustable driver’s seat, tilt and telescope steering wheel, dual exhausts, big 16-inch wheels and tires and three years of free roadside assistance.
The Mazda6 replaces not only the 626, but also the slow-selling Millenia in the lineup. It comes in four or six-cylinder models with two trim levels each – GS or GT. The base four-cylinder GS can be equipped with a Sport package consisting of revised interior trim, 17-inch alloy wheels and larger tires, fog lights and eight-way power driver’s seat. The remaining trim levels can be ordered with a GFX appearance package consisting of metal-look interior trim, front air dam, side and rear skirts and a spoiler. Our test vehicle was a five-speed manual, four-cylinder GT ($28,195) with the ($765) GFX package.
Let’s cut right to the quick – this is a driver’s car. The work on steering, brakes and suspension is readily apparent the first time you hustle a bit. The 6 will be right at home on your favorite bit of sinewy blacktop but equally adept at multi-hour cruising on the freeway. Mazda has publicly stated the new 6 has not been designed to attract the broad swatch of ride-happy consumers – rather to appeal to those who enjoy the driving experience. Mind you, this is not to say the new car has a stiff or unpleasant ride, quite the contrary. The Mazda6 feels tight, well balanced and more responsive than the competition but ride quality is at least as good.
The brakes have come in for special attention as well. Extensive work went into eliminating free play or mushiness. The pedal feels solid from the outset and braking is progressive and linear.
The platform for the Mazda6 is stout indeed. This stiffer structure not only allows the suspension engineers to go about their job without having to allow for flex, it imparts a feeling of structural solidity whether you are closing a door or traversing a nasty section of road.
While the pocket-protector set were hard at work ensuring the Mazda6 performed as it does when flogged, the interior designers and packaging folks were making sure it had a great deal more interior space and comfort than the old – more than much of the competition in fact. The driver gets a height-adjustable seat and the steering wheel can be adjusted for both rake and reach. For some reason Mazda didn’t utilize Ford’s electrically adjustable pedal set, but a height-challenged driver can still find a comfortable and safe position. Both front and rear passengers get considerable more leg, shoulder and knee room than in past efforts and the trunk is positively gargantuan. A tug on a trunk-mounted handle causes the rear seat to fold flat – unaided – for even more space. All that trunk space is useable too because there are no hinges or strut towers to pack around.
The ergonomics are spot-on and three cheers for big, round, functional knobs for sound and air control. There is a coin bin to the left of the steering wheel, another hinged cover atop the center dash and two more in the center console. Pedal spacing is ideal and there is a well-designed dead pedal to help keep you in place during enthusiastic motoring and red on black instrumentation.
Mazda was tasked with developing a new four-cylinder engine for Ford’s massive worldwide operations. It will be built in four plants around the world and appears here as well as in the European Mondeo, American Ranger pickup and Mazda’s own MPV. Next it will be found beneath the hood of the Land Rover Freelander, Ford Focus and a new Volvo. It is a strong performer. Silent and supremely smooth, it is responsive and yet delivers reasonable fuel economy. There is plenty of low and mid-range torque and when combined with the five-speed manual, performance is at least the equivalent of many six-cylinder competitors. We would like to see a little more work on the aural qualities but were impressed with this newcomer. The V6 used in the Mazda6 is a variation of the Ford 3.0 litre Duratec unit. The block is shared with the Tribute and several products wearing the Blue Oval, but the heads are unique to the Mazda6 and feature continuously variable intake-valve timing.
Car folks here’s a suggestion. When your domestic situation and significant other suggest a family car, nod sagely and head to the Mazda store. This is a dual-purpose, American-built, four-door family car that can haul the folks when playing taxi – or put a smile on your face on those occasions when you get to actually drive. Nice job of maintaining the practicality required in this class while eliminating boredom.
Technical Data: 2004 Mazda6 GT 4 cylinder
|Base price||$24,295 (GS), $28,195 (GT)|
|Price as tested||$28,960|
|Type||4-door, 5-passenger mid-sized sedan|
|Layout||transverse front engine/front-wheel-drive|
|Engine||2.3 litre 4 cylinder, DOHC, 16 valves|
|Horsepower||160 @ 6000 rpm|
|Torque||155 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm|
|Transmission||5 speed manual (optional 4 speed automatic)|
|Curb weight||1380 kg (3042 lb.)|
|Wheelbase||2675 mm (105.3 in.)|
|Length||4745 mm (186.8 in.)|
|Width||1780 mm (70.1 in.)|
|Height||1440 mm (56.7 in.)|
|Trunk space||430 litres (15.2 cu. ft.)|
|Fuel consumption||City: 9.6 l/100 km (29 mpg)|
|Hwy: 6.7 l/100 km (42 mpg)|
|Warranty||3 yrs/80,000 km|
|Powertrain warranty||5 yrs/100,000 km|