http://www.businessweek.com/stories/2006-09-28/mazdas-sexy-6

Lifestyle

Mazda's Sexy 6


True to form, Mazda’s spruced and super-powered main line sedan is an exercise in fun. The name says it all, go go MAZDASPEED

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The below-$30,000 sport-sedan market is populated by an astonishing abundance of well-powered, well-rounded offerings from manufacturers both foreign and domestic, Japanese and European. The field of fast four-doors—designed in part to compromise between pedal-to-the-metal driving and traditional family values—is currently so crowded that it's become increasingly difficult for even big-name brands to make a splash whatsoever. A sports sedan that's baby-seat compatible, you say? Yawn.

But, Mazda's managed to make waves with its excellent MAZDASPEED6 sedan, which starts at $28,555. The company has of late all but proven the efficacy of staying on message, happily letting its "zoom-zoom" campaign stand in as shorthand for "we make dependable cars that don't drive like cardboard boxes." And, given that rep, a superpowered version of its mainstream sedan, the Mazda 6, was a no-brainer.

Mazda, which is partially owned by Ford (F), is obviously hoping its tuned version will help accelerate sales of the 6 series, which are down nearly 18% from the same time last year, even as the company's sales overall are holding steady. Luckily along with a MAZDASPEED incarnation of the popular 3, the company is preparing a duo of crossovers, the CX-7 and CX-9, for market.

Mazda lent me the Grand Touring edition of the MAZDASPEED6, which tips the scales over the magic 29-grand figure. It has leather seats, 8-way power driver seats, heated mirrors and front seats, and a neat keyless entry system. That's on top of the base model's standard 18-in. wheels, 200-watt, 7-speaker Bose stereo, stability control, and ABS breaks. With $40 wheel locks, a $700 power moonroof, and $560 delivery fee, the total racks up to $31,225.

BEHIND THE WHEEL.

The star of the show, of course, is the 2.3-liter, intercooled, turbo-charged inline-4, which produces 274 horses and 280 lb.-ft. of torque. On paper, that's quite a jump from the 156 horses $19,525 gets you in the baseline Mazda 6. But the MAZDASPEED improves in substantially more interesting ways, including a sticky all-wheel-drive system, a much stiffer suspension, and more rigid torso.

The total package feels well thought out, and I found myself thanking the Mazda engineers who came up with the little sedan's underpinnings. That's because the engine doesn't seem to have been designed to simply and boorishly impress passersby with booming theatrics, but actually develops its power usably for the driver. The turbo spools rapidly between 2000 and just over 5000 rpms, keeping nasty turbo lag at bay and confirming the technology's worth. (It's no wonder that Ward's named it one of its 10 best engines of the year.) The clutch is brilliant between third gear and sixth, if a bit stubborn before that.

Handling, meanwhile, really shines. The three-spoke wheel feels right out of a much more expensive sedan, and is reminiscent of BMW's 3 Series for balance and weight. Better yet, punching the gas stiffens and livens the steering, no doubt to giddying appeal. Cutting up curves is a pure delight, even if the back bench can reasonably accommodate a baby seat.

Overall, designers have produced a car that handles and accelerates deliberately and intently, rather than souping up a pre-existing everyman sedan as an afterthought. My single criticism is that some drivers will miss the breakneck, all-or-nothing kick-in of other turbos, given this emphasis on power development and delivery.

Such sedans are appealing because their sporty performance is one that families can live with day-to-day. I tested the car over a longer period of time, in mixed circumstances. Not happy to simply take the sedan for a weekend curvefest in the country, I commuted in busy Manhattan traffic over the course of a week. I also took the 6 over 900 miles of very boring, curve-deprived highway driving.

With its sport bona fides firmly fixed, this kind of driving really bring out the sedan's long-term character. Driving dads rejoice, the experiment tipped in Mazda's favor. While the abrupt clutch can sometimes be a nuisance in stop-and-go traffic, the 6's smoothness makes it a real trooper on the long-and-straight of highway driving. The MAZDASPEED6's ace in the hole is this, its willingness to abide by the quotidian without making you pay a penalty for it.

That's particularly good news. Because of the car's looks, you'll look forward to showing it off as much as possible. To accommodate the bigger engine, the front rises not once, but twice, to muscular but not overly macho effect. The xenon headlamps cut across the front fascia with ninja speed. The only downside, of course, is how pedestrian and mundane the regular 6 now looks in comparison.

Inside, the cabin is replete with useable details likes a dual-level center armrest and a myriad of cubby holes. Front seating was surprisingly comfortable over the long haul. The Bose stereo system performs well, even at highway speeds when, I'll admit, a good deal of road noise manages to enter the cabin.

Some of the dash materials, while they maintain the exterior's good looks, feel a bit chintzy to the touch. I have doubts as to how well the center console plastic will hold up over time. While buttons feel solid, the controls on the center stack could use some more polish. Everything looks great, but on close scrutiny some cabin pieces feel flimsy.

With the upgraded package—which for the small premium seems eminently worth it to me—you get a standard grab-bag of goodies like leather-trimmed, power seats and heated this and that. Mazda also throws in a neat keyless entry system that replaces the traditional ignition key with a credit card-like wireless key, which the car senses automatically when you approach. The system works as well as, if not better than, those on cars costing twice as much.

BUY IT OR BAG IT?

The market for sport sedans loaded with power and cocky bravado is littered with good cars, including offerings from Honda (HMC), Pontiac (GM), Volkswagen, and Subaru. Because each takes a slightly different take on the balance between driving for fun and everyday usability, careful consideration and many test drives lie ahead if this type of vehicle appeals to you.

One thing's for sure. If you're considering the original twin bad boys of the segment, the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo or Subaru's Impreza WRX, you should definitely throw Mazda's offering into the fray. It is by far more sophisticated and easier to live with day-to-day. This 6 may not yet have the same street cred, but with its combination of stellar looks and real-deal performance, it undoubtedly will someday soon.

To see more of the MAZDASPEED6, click here.


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