"Attenzione, per favore," said the smiling signorina behind the counter as she began the final boarding announcement for our return flight from the Leonardo da Vinci airport to Detroit Metro. Having just driven all over the Roman countryside, we were a bit reluctant to leavenot just because of the Italian women, food, and scenery but because we had also become quite taken with the object of our trip, Mazda's latest mid-size sedan.
Coincidentally, attenzione is the word that inspired the name of that car: Atenza. When it arrives Stateside, however, we'll know it as the Mazda 6, a rather uninspired abbreviation of the outgoing 626. Whether the 626's lackluster sales should be blamed on its three-digit name or (more likely) on the fact that it was never truly competitive with the larger, more powerful Toyota Camry or Honda Accord, one thing is certain: The new 6 is a wholesale improvement.
Standout stylingwhat Mazda calls "a speedy and strong shape"should help the 6 claim its share of attenzione from mid-size-minded customers. In the words of one of Mazda's project managers: "The front is designed to look like a wild beast staring into the eyes of its prey." While it may not keep the neighbor's cat out of your garage, the exterior design displays more aggression than the benign faces of the Camry and the Accord. Wide horizontal headlights are made up of four round lamps apiece, and they highlight the chiseled visage, drawing the eye from a chrome-topped grille and deep air dam to strong hood lines that flow up into the A-pillars. The car's clear taillight lenses will be red for the American market, which is too bad, but optional seventeen-inch wheels add a welcome sporty look. Late next year, an even comelier hatchback sedan arrives, followed by a wagon.
The interior is also quite stylish, accented by a bevy of circular air vents, audio buttons, and climate-control dials that are inviting to the touch. Even the plastics are of high qualityadd some faux stitching, and the dashboard polymer could almost pass for leather. The cabin feels plenty big, although it's not much more capacious than the 626's; several competitors boast larger interior dimensions. The 105.3-inch wheelbase is still relatively short-legged (the Nissan Altima's wheelbase, for example, is five inches longer), but track width is up almost two inches, which translates to added shoulder room front and rear.
Moving the wheels farther apart doesn't hurt the car's handling, either. Exhibiting a predictable, controlled cornering attitude, the 6 rides on a combination double-control-arm and strut-type front suspension and a multi-link rear setup. Although understeer can be negated easily by lifting the throttle in a corner, a stability-control system is optional. Most impressive is the 6's steering, which feels as if it took a few lessons at the Miata finishing school. Turn-in is sharp, and the variable-assist rack-and-pinion system provides good feedback and little need for correction at higher speeds.
Two engines are available, both of which compete well in this segment. We drove the economical choice, a 2.3-liter in-line four that uses Mazda's Sequential-Valve Timing (S-VT) to produce a respectable 150 horsepower (up 25 from the 626's 2.0-liter four). An optional DOHC 3.0-liter V-6also fitted with the S-VT systemprovides 219 horsepower (a significant 49 horsepower more than the old V-6 and still 27 more than the Camry's six). Both come with either a five-speed manual transmission or a four-speed automatic.
Attractive sheetmetal, intelligent packaging, and strong performance give the Mazda 6 a competitive edge, albeit in a category that's defined by unexceptional automobiles. We left Italy having discovered that the Mazda is pretty and composed and has a great personality. We just wish it had a more memorable name.