Poor Mazda. The Japanese automaker long ago assumed the role of perennial also-ran to market leaders Toyota and Honda, as its lineup of capable but unassuming vehicles just never raised the brand to top-tier status. Sure, there has been the odd product that piqued enthusiasts’ interest, such as the rotary-engined RX-7 sports car and the Miata roadster, but those cars have been exceptions, and, despite Mazda’s optimistic “zoom-zoom” advertising campaign, the company’s recent history has been defined by the anonymous 626, the overlooked and overpriced Proteg, the runty MPV, and the clone Tribute. So, when Mazda started hyping its new mid-size sedan, the 6, our expectations were modest. In the most competitive segment of the market, long dominated by the very capable and , Mazda needed something special to grab not only our attention but that of the car-buying public. Could the 6 possibly be that car?
To answer that question, we brought the brand-new Mazda 6 along on our annual All-Stars test back in October 2002. On the undulating, twisting two-lanes of Kentucky and Tennessee, the 6 impressed us with its sport-sedan handling and family-car versatility, and we quickly realized that it was definitely no 626 re-dux. It came away from that eye-opening week as the year’s only unanimous All-Star. Naturally, when we extol the virtues of a car as highly as we did the Mazda 6’s, we feel the need to confirm our impressions via a long-term test. Six months later, our Four Seasons test vehicle arrived.
The Mazda 6 is available in two trim levels: the i, with a 160-horsepower, 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine, and the s, with a 220-horsepower, 3.0-liter V-6. We spec’d an electric blue manual-transmission Mazda 6s with a base price (including destination charge) of $21,620, adding $3825 worth of options, including side and side curtain air bags, leather upholstery, the Sport package with seventeen-inch wheels, and a Bose audio system with a CD changer.
During our original drive in the 6, we’d focused on its driving dynamics, but once we started living with our Four Seasons car, attention turned toward the aesthetics, both inside and out. “The stippled, squishy plastic of dash and door inserts is very nice stuff, and the faux carbon trim looks great,” enthused contributor Ronald Ahrens. However, in the next breath, he admitted to “disliking the red lighting of the instruments. And the turn signal sounds like a grandfather clock.” A relatively minor complaint, perhaps, but Ahrens wasn’t the only one who didn’t like those red dash lights, which come as part of the Sport package. “They are really cheesy and remind me of the old Dodge Avenger, which tried to masquerade as a sports car with racy red dash lights. The Mazda would be better served by the clean dash lights on new Hondas or the cool blue of Volkswagens. The red lights are for teenagers,” opined a friend of the magazine who spent several weeks with the car. Perhaps he’s right, as the one member of our staff who is nearest to being a teenager, twenty-year-old motor gopher Stuart Fowle, noted that “the red gauges are cool.”
On the other hand, the 6’s attractive but not exactly groundbreaking exterior styling was popular with drivers in all age brackets. Comments ranged from “Exterior styling is catchy. The fenders flare out right stylish!” and “The car turned heads” to “Its styling is sleeker and more self-aware than your usual box on wheels.”
The ergonomics also came in for praise. The bucket seats are comfortable and well bolstered, and there’s plenty of room in the rear for average-size adults. The trunk is spacious, and the fold-down rear seats add cargo capacity. Door pockets for the driver and the front passenger have a large storage area plus an extra cup holder that can hold a large beverage container. Large round dials on the titanium-look center console for both climate and stereo controls are easy to operate. The round vents are almost infinitely adjustable-they can be turned 360 degrees in their mounts or closed completely-so that the air can be directed exactly where it’s wanted.
There was some mewling, however, about the performance of the HVAC system, particularly the defogger. As one staffer noted: “The rear defogger/defroster sucks. Why, oh why, is it so bad and not congruous with the overall performance of this car? I think the one in my 1989 Ford Tempo worked better (eww).” This doesn’t seem to be an isolated problem, either, as we’ve seen owner complaints about the defogger on the Mazda 6 owner forums of various Web sites. It’s been noted that the A/C starts up automatically when the defogger is turned on and that manually turning off the A/C will help. We’re not convinced, but it’s worth a try.
On a more troubling note, in what appears to have become standard operating procedure for first-year products from Ford Motor Company (Ford currently owns 33.4 percent of Mazda), the Mazda 6 was twice subjected to the recall wrench (our and Ford Escape Four Seasons vehicles both suffered from numerous initial quality problems). The first recall required the service technician to check the fluid level sensor in the brake reservoir, whose possible malfunction could result in a problem with the parking brake indicator light. We had that item inspected, but no repairs were necessary. The second recall required the fuel tank to be replaced because the fuel sender unit had been improperly installed, which could have resulted in an inadequate seal and a fuel leak. That last item would have cost $473.38 to repair, but it was covered under warranty. It should be noted that in both circumstances, we didn’t notice any trouble with our vehicle prior to the recall notification, and other than the two recalls, the only service items required were regularly scheduled maintenance and a new tire.
What originally attracted us to the Mazda 6, of course, was its driving dynamics. Not simply content to build a mid-size family sedan, Mazda touted the 6 as a sport sedan, a car that the enthusiast driver would be just as happy to take out on a country two-lane as to drive to the shopping mall. And in that respect, even after 30,053 miles, the Mazda 6 never disappointed. Just about everyone found the balance between ride and handling to be just right. There was a minor disagreement over the steering, with one writer saying that “the finely tuned steering is the best feature-always a delight” and another feeling that “on the highway, the light steering feels a bit nervous.” In general, though, while the steering may not have been as intuitive as that of, say, a Honda Accord, it did the job quite well.
We opted for the five-speed manual transmission in our car and were generally happy with it, although it did exhibit an odd quirk, described by executive editor Mark Gillies as follows: “I love everything about our 6 except the goofy emissions-mandated V-6 behavior when shifting. I always thought revs went down rather than up when you lifted off the gas.” It took a little getting used to, but few complaints were registered. There were also a few drivers who longed for a shorter-throw shifter, similar to those found in the Miata and the RX-8, and others who complained about the long clutch takeup, but in general, we found-as we usually do-that the manual tranny enhanced the driving experience instead of detracting from it. The Mazda 6 exhibits a bit more body roll during fast driving than a true sports car, and if you press a little too hard, the chassis loses some of its composure, but compared with a Camry, the 6 delivers a far more exhilarating driving experience.
During the twelve months the Mazda 6 was in our possession, we tested it on the race-track on our annual driving day at Waterford Hills, flogged it during a multicar sport-sedan comparison test, and loaded it up with groceries and kids. It endured the year no worse for the wear: “Anyone who has doubts about the Mazda 6 should drive this Four Seasons car,” said West Coast editor Michael Jordan. “It’s been driven at full throttle every step of the way, and it seems to have stood up to the abuse pretty well.” Sure, the interior may not have the top-of-the-line quality found in Volkswagens, and it doesn’t have the faultless reliability of the Toyota Camry, but as an all-around mid-size car that’s fun to drive yet functional, the Mazda 6 is hard to beat. And to top it off, two new body styles were added for 2004. Now available not only as a sedan but also as a four-door hatchback and a sport wagon, the 6 has versatility unmatched in the segment.
Mazda long has been known as a builder of charismatic niche products, but somehow that charisma never translated into the company’s mainstream vehicles. With the 6, however, Mazda finally has produced a class-leading car in a volume market segment. And it appears the 6 was just the beginning, because the compact Mazda 3, which debuted in 2004, is selling well and getting very good reviews. As of June, Mazda had posted nine consecutive months of sales increases. Perhaps that “zoom-zoom” marketing campaign wasn’t overly optimistic after all.