If you're expecting the Mazdaspeed 6 to be a rally-style turbo rocket like the Subaru WRX and the Mitsubishi Evo, think again. This car is intended for mature audiences only and offers what Mazda claims is "sophisticated, understated performance." The masculine styling, created by the company's German design studio, definitely will look understated to fans of big wings and air scoops. Changes from the stock Mazda 6 include a subtle lip spoiler, rocker-panel extensions, resculpted front and rear fascias, an RX-8-inspired air dam, and eighteen-inch wheels.
There's also a higher hood, which houses a duct channeling air to the intercooler of a turbocharged, direct-injection version of Mazda's 2.3-liter four producing 274 hp at 5500 rpm and 280 lb-ft of torque at 3000 rpm. That's enough, according to Mazda, to propel the Mazdaspeed 6 from 0 to 60 mph in 6.2 seconds. (The Mazda 6 V-6 offers 220 hp and 192 lb-ft and took 7.1 seconds to hit 60 mph in our tests.) Direct injection improves low and midrange torque, allowing Mazda to forgo either a larger-displacement engine or a second turbo. "We aimed for the linearity and controllability of the BMW 330i," says program manager Seiichi Ohmoto. A new six-speed manual directs the engine's efforts to both axles via standard all-wheel drive with three torque-apportioning strategies: normal, sport, and snow. The driver is not able to choose these settings as in the Evo, and the microprocessors never send more than 50 percent of the torque to the rear.
The essence of the Mazdaspeed Proteg was the turbo engine and little else, but this car has been comprehensively reengineered. Torsional rigidity increases 50 percent thanks to diagonal braces behind the rear seat, additional floor crossmembers, and sundry other stiffening measures. Don't look for a wagon or hatch version, as they wouldn't be stiff enough. Control-arm front and multilink rear suspension carry over but with stiffer dampers, bigger antiroll bars, retuned bushings, and higher spring rates. Larger brakes and stability control round out the chassis changes.
Our driving was limited to a few runs around Japan's T1 racing circuit. Mostly a succession of tight corners, with only a couple of short straights, it was a good place to test the engine's ability to summon power very quickly, at low revs and in low gears, which it did brilliantly. Steering feel is great, just like the regular 6's, there was plenty of grip from the Bridgestone Potenza RE050A tires, and the brakes effectively scrubbed off speed at the entrance to every corner. Once in those corners, though, the car understeered excessively, and the all-wheel-drive system's transfer of torque to the rear axle was very abrupt, unsettling the tail. On the track, Mazda's most powerful car lacks the seamless, fluid feeling that the Evo and the WRX provide. We'll have to see how it is on the street, but with some further tuning, the Mazdaspeed 6, which arrives in April priced at about $28,000, could be a compelling choice that slips in between the Subaru Legacy GT and a WRX or an Evo.