Mazda 6 i
Mazda's mid-size 6 has stood on our Automobile Magazine All-Stars pedestal unchallenged for two strong years. In that time, we have praised the car's sport-sedan driving dynamics and unique styling. We are obviously not the only ones impressed with the 6, as parent company Ford seems to be releasing 6-based concepts more frequently than the average Focus makes a service visit.
On the road, the 6 i is delightful to drive, and the 160-horsepower 2.3-liter four is actually smoother than the 3.0-liter V-6 found in the 6 s. We would welcome an extra infusion of torque, however, as the Mazda can feel a bit doggish in city driving. Clutch and shifter feel are also a bit disappointing, especially in comparison with Mazda's other products (specifically the RX-8 and Miata). Steering is almost perfectly weighted, which contributes greatly to the car's nimble feel. This sedan's prowess does have its pitfalls, though, as the suspension is jittery in comparison with the Subaru and Honda.
The stylish, modern cabin still looks good but is beginning to seem a bit dated compared with the beautifully done Mazda 3 and the BMW-like Subaru Legacy. The 6's silver plastic trim that was so modern two years ago now seems like a bad clich. Otherwise, the seats are comfortable and supportive, the controls are easy-to-use, and the air vents are simple and user-friendly. The vents actually seem quite popular in the Ford family parts bin, as they are now found in both the new F-150 and the 2005 Mustang. The Mazda's 15.2-cubic-foot trunk will gobble up more than a cubic foot more than the Accord and nearly four more than the Legacy. And with wagon and hatchback versions now available, the sedan's cavernous trunk is just the beginning.
There is no better word to describe Subaru's history than quirky. The past few decades have brought us the odd (in both looks and name) Brat, the cult-classic SVX, and the rally-bred Impreza WRX of recent success. The Legacy, now in its sixteenth year and fourth generation, has never had much success outside a following of soccer moms and granola lovers who enjoy the Legacy and its Outback variant as safe, clean SUV alternatives. With the WRX putting Subaru on the map, the new Legacy sets out to strengthen the company's growing grasp on the market.
The first thing we noticed about the Legacy was the dashboard, which appears to be transplanted directly from a BMW 3-series. Going rearward from the dash, the style continues, with an interior a class above the competition. Seats are well bolstered, material quality is outstanding, and gauges are easy to read and good-looking. Wrapping up the interior is a handsome body that may be a bit anonymous but is a step up from the even less exciting previous generation.
If the ride of the Mazda is too stiff and that of the Honda is too soft, the Subaru is just right. The tenor tone of the 168-horsepower flat-four is a delight to the ear, and the motor packs a more powerful punch down low than do the competitors. The clutch pedal, despite an oddly short range of travel, is a friendlier companion than the Mazda's. Driving dynamics in the new Legacy are quite neutral, and it takes only a few bends in the road to show that German similarities extend far past the elegant dashboard. And while the car may not provide the twisty-turny thrills of the 6, the Subaru demonstrates a higher level of refinement and has a pleasing overall balance.