2009 Mazda 6

Wouldn't the world be a better place if people could just admit when they'd done something wrong? Well, to our surprise, Mazda did just that at a recent preview of its new Mazda 6 sedan. Rather than spinning the numbers to make it look like the last Mazda 6 was a sales triumph, Mazda told us the truth. While its key competitors (Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, and Nissan Altima) sold more and more units, the Mazda's sales were flat. "One of its weaknesses was its size," said a senior vice president. The chief engineer admitted, "It was clear that we needed to improve wind and road noise." The R&D director acknowledged, "Our engines had worst-in-class displacement, output, and efficiency." All of those shortcomings aside, however, the biggest turnoff to customers was the 6's relative lack of quality.

The engineers working on the second-generation Mazda 6 had a clear goal: keep the sporty handling, but give the new sedan a big dose of power, room, and quality. And, boy, did they ever. The new 6 (which is 6.9 inches longer) looks two or three price classes more expensive than its predecessor. When viewed from behind, its clean design and twin sculpted exhaust diffusers (on V-6 models) are pure Lexus. Its curvaceous body panels look elegant and aren't ruined by any fussy details - a nice departure from many of today's overwrought and clichéd designs.

Our top-of-the-line test car's interior was outfitted with perforated leather seats and high-gloss black plastic interior trim that looked like dark-stained wood. The interior is more elegantly designed and feels of equal or better quality than Mazda's main competitors - and it's also much larger than before. Whereas the last 6 was at the bottom of its class in interior space, the new one is at the top, boasting key measurements on par with all of its supersize rivals.

The front seats are too wide to offer serious lateral support, but the 6 feels a full size smaller than it is once you're moving. The Accord and the Camry feel like Buicks by comparison, because the Mazda's body motions are so tight and well-controlled. The 6's steering, administered through a small-diameter, leather-wrapped wheel, is precise in the way none of its competitors' is. Effort builds naturally and progressively off center, and torque steer is admirably absent.

And don't for a minute think that's because the 6 has a lack of torque. It's obvious that this Mazda was conceived before gasoline hit $4 per gallon, because the optional V-6 has grown in displacement by almost 25 percent. The 3.7-liter engine (first seen in Mazda's CX-9 crossover) produces 272 hp and 269 lb-ft of torque, more than even the drag-strip-scorching Accord. With increases of 60 hp and 72 lb-ft of torque, the new engine more than makes up for the 169 pounds the Mazda 6 has gained, and it's quite easy to light up the front tires at half-throttle off the line. The V-6 is available only with a new Aisin six-speed automatic transmission, which performs perfectly smooth, rev-matched downshifts and quick, well-timed upshifts.

Like before, the 6's base engine is a four-cylinder, and it has also been upgraded. Courtesy of more displacement (2.5 liters, from 2.3 liters), the new engine makes 170 hp and 167 lb-ft of torque (up from 156 hp and 154 lb-ft) and comes standard with a six-speed manual transmission. The engine - and indeed the character of the car itself - is much better suited to the Mazda-sourced six-speed automatic, which isn't quite as silky smooth as the Aisin unit.

Without question, though, the four-cylinder Mazda 6 is the handling champ in this segment. The V-6's optional eighteen-inch wheels generate loads of grip, but the lighter engine gives the four-pot 6 balance unlike any other large front-wheel-drive car. At-the-limit handling is nearly neutral, with all four tires generating their share of grip - quite the opposite of the understeer-only Camry, for example.

Mazda learned the hard way that zoom-zoom handling doesn't necessarily translate to zoom-zoom sales. Combine that back-road prowess, however, with gorgeous styling, high-quality materials, and loads of interior and trunk space, and suddenly you have a zoom-zoom winner.

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