Review: 2006 Mazda 6

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.

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