Mazda offers more body styles for the "6" than are available from any other midsize car, each engineered for the driving enthusiast. Delivering the sportiest driving experience in the category, the Mazda 6 is available as a conventional four-door sedan, a "five-door" hatchback, and as a station wagon. There are two series: the four-cylinder "i" version and the V-6-powered "s." Within each series are base, Sport, and Grand Sport trim levels. And new for 2006, a top-of-the-line Mazdaspeed 6 sedan has joined the lineup, with a turbocharged four-cylinder engine and all-wheel drive.
With its pointed nose, angular headlights, and standard 16-inch wheels, the Mazda 6 strikes a more aggressive pose than its midsize brethren. And that's just the base car. Variants other than the base-trim, four-cylinder sedan come with standard 17-inch wheels; 18-inch wheels are optional. With the Sport trim level comes deeper front and rear bumpers, side sill extensions, a body-colored grille, and a rear spoiler (even on the wagon, where it sits at the top of the tailgate).
These appearance items are also available for the more luxury-oriented Grand Sport, and even for the base-trim cars. As expected, the Mazdaspeed 6 is decked out even more conspicuously in high-profile plumage. Overall, the Mazda 6 range adopts the aggressive look of a hot-rodded import tuner car, helping distinguish it from the virtuous but staid competition.
The inside of the Mazda 6 isn't quite as extroverted as the outside, but you'll find a few sporty touches: red dash lighting, the three-spoke steering wheel, and brushed-metal-look trim. There's a bit more hard plastic here than in a Honda Accord or a Subaru Legacy, but the trade-off is that there's also a bit more style. Passenger accommodations are a bit tighter than in the class-leading Hyundai Sonata and Toyota Camry, but the hatchback and wagon body styles--which are not offered by Honda, Hyundai, Mitsubishi, Nissan, or Toyota--do add a great deal of cargo-carrying versatility. Like the sedan, both the hatch and the wagon have folding rear seats that conveniently can be flopped down via release handles in the cargo area. Loading bulky cargo is a snap with the wide-opening hatchback, or the wagon, both of which can carry far more cargo than their trunk-back rivals.
Traction control and anti-lock brakes, commendably, are standard. Stability control isn't offered. Side and curtain airbags cost extra only on the base-trim sedan; all other versions have them as standard. The Mazda 6 performed well overall in government crash tests, earning five stars in frontal crash tests. Side-impact test scores were three stars for the front seat, four stars for the rear. The sedan earned five stars in the rollover test, and the wagon earned four.
As is nearly always the case in this segment, Mazda offers a choice of four- or six-cylinder engines, and manual and automatic transmissions. What's unusual here--but in keeping with this car's sport-sedan persona--is that Mazda allows you to pair the V-6 and the manual. This combination is the most appropriate for this car, but those who pass up the stick shift in favor of an automatic are treated to the six-speed Sport AT automatic transmission. Either gearbox works well with the Ford-supplied 3.0-liter/220-horse V-6. All station wagons are six-cylinder "s" models--and, yes, even they offer the manual transmission, making a very sporty family hauler. Sedans and hatchbacks also are available with the 2.3-liter/160-horse four-cylinder engine.
The I-4 also can be matched with either the five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic. Starting with the 2006 models, Mazda will pair a five-speed, rather than a four-speed, automatic with the base engine, thus making the four-cylinder/automatic combo considerably more palatable. The additional gears in either the five- or the six-speed automatics allow for both better performance and fuel economy. Neither engine is a paragon of refinement, and the V-6's fuel economy still trails that of its competitors slightly. The high-performance Mazdaspeed 6 has a unique powertrain: It uses all-wheel drive in place of front-wheel drive and has a turbocharged four-cylinder engine that pumps out more horsepower than its siblings' V-6. In keeping with this car's hardcore nature, a six-speed stick shift is the only transmission offered.
Tuned for responsive handling, the Mazda 6 offers the tautest driving experience in the mainstream midsize segment. The full independent suspension setup favors lively response over blissful isolation, so the car doesn't ride as smoothly and silently as some competitors, but it's very fun to drive. The steering is a bit light at highway speeds, but is accurate and highly satisfying. At 38.7 feet, the turning circle is rather large for a midsize sedan, which makes parking more of a chore.
The manual transmission is a smooth-shifting unit with a nicely calibrated clutch. In the automatics, the SportShift feature allows the driver to "manually" move up or down through the gears by pushing forward or backward on the lever after moving it to a parallel gate. The Mazdaspeed 6 is the true hardcore performance car of the bunch, but despite its greater horsepower and the extra grip generated by its all-wheel drive, this hot-rod doesn't impress the way its lesser siblings do against their peers. The Mazdaspeed 6 is neither as smooth as the Subaru Legacy GT, nor as fun as a Mitsubishi Evo.
The Mazda 6 stands out in the faceless sea of midsize sedans, with its dramatic styling hinting at the car's involving, fun-to-drive character. Also drawing attention are the alternative body styles--the versatile hatchback and the practical wagon. For buyers seeking to minimize boredom in their midsize sedan, the Mazda 6 belongs at the top of their shopping list, along with the Nissan Altima and the Subaru Legacy. The Altima offers more interior space, but its chassis isn't as well sorted. The Legacy is a compelling alternative (and, like the Mazda, comes also in a station wagon), but its standard all-wheel drive can make the four-cylinder iteration rather pricey in comparison.
Buyers whose priorities are comfort and smoothness should look instead at a Toyota Camry or a Honda Accord. The Mazdaspeed 6 is a different animal than its siblings, with its high-strung turbocharged four and extra-stiff chassis. Unfortunately this version comes off as lacking the polish of its stablemates. The "6" range is protected by a four-year/50,000-mile warranty, augmented by a four-year roadside assistance program.
The driver's midsize hatchback, sedan, and wagon.
Expressive styling Choice of three body styles Sport-sedan driving experience
Firm ride Large turning circle Rear-seat space is limited
Mechanically, the biggest news is the new five-speed automatic transmission for the four-cylinder engine. Cosmetically, the Mazda 6 gets a bit of a makeover for 2006. The front and rear ends are restyled, and the headlamps, taillamps, and grille are new. Eighteen-inch wheels are a new option. The cabin undergoes a minor touch-up as well, with new door panels and the center portion of the dash picking up the flashier trim of the Mazdaspeed 6.
The side and curtain airbags are important safety features; buyers of the base car shouldn't pass them up. Mazda offers a vast array of sporty appearance options and accessories for the Mazda 6--far more than typically available for a midsize car--so buyers who are deep into the tuner-car look can really go to town.