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2009 Mazda6

Published July 26, 2008


WESTLAKE VILLAGE, Calif.—Most of the previous generations of mid-size Mazda sedans have been pretty nice cars.

But sales-wise, the Mazda6 and the previous 626 haven't quite been able to break into the territory occupied by the likes of Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.

Mazda is taking another shot with the 2009 Mazda6, which goes on sale in August, starting at a very reasonable $22,495.

The new Mazda6 has a couple of major things going for it.

First, the car we get in North America will no longer be the so-called "world car." Like its main Japanese-branded competitors, the new Mazda6 will be significantly different from the car that will be sold in Japan and Europe.

Second, the three-word mantra that drove the development of this car is: "size, power and quality."


Let's face facts: North Americans are fat. So their cars have to be fat, too. The 2009 Mazda6 is 195 mm longer overall, 115 mm longer in wheelbase and 60 mm wider than the outgoing car, which ranks it at or near the top in all dimensions for mid-size family sedans.

The increased volume has been put to good use. The interior ranks among the largest in its class, with rear seat legroom being the major beneficiary.

Trunk space is also up by 10 per cent, to 467 litres, aided by four-link hinges that don't intrude into the cargo area.

A wider pass-through into the split-folding rear seat also improves luggage-carrying flexibility, and helps compensate for the fact that hatchback and wagon versions have been dropped.

Both of those ultra-practical body styles were fairly popular in Canada, accounting for about 35 and 15 per cent of Mazda6 sales respectively.

But because Americans remain ignorant of the obvious benefits of either, U.S. dealers couldn't push them off buildings onto unsuspecting customers. So the bigger market rules — sedan only.

Bigger, sadly, also means heavier — depending on equipment, the weight gain is 100 to 150 kg.

The challenge then became how to maintain the Mazda6's superiority over its competition in the area of driving dynamics.

Virtually every suspension part is new or modified, with reduced noise and vibration, smaller turning circle, increased anti-dive under heavy braking, and improved high-speed stability among the objectives.

All this is enabled by a much stiffer body, which comes wrapped in a handsome sheet metal with an almost coupe-like profile.

Suffice it to say it is a good-looking car, whose major difference from other mid-size sedans are the front fenders, reminiscent of the broad-shouldered RX-8.

Two engines are offered in Mazda6. Both GS and GT trim levels start with a Mazda-engineered and built aluminum 2.5-litre four that's essentially a bored and stroked upgrade on the 2.3-litre four that currently powers a boatload of Mazda and Ford products. Its horsepower and torque are class-leading, or close to it.

A Mazda-built six-speed manual or five-speed automatic with manual override are the transmission options.

Optional on both GS and GT is the 3.7-litre multi-cam, multi-valve, variable valve-timing V6 adopted from the big CX-9 crossover. Again, its horsepower and torque are class-competitive.

An Aisin six-speed automatic, again with manual override, is the only available transmission with the V6.

A spate of new Mazda6s and a handful of competitive vehicles were laid on for our edification. Lots of well-paved, twisty and hilly two-laners and chunks of the California 101 Freeway were on hand.

My first mount was a loaded GT V6 with SatNav. The expectations promised were largely met. The best summary I can offer is that despite considerable increases in bulk and weight, the new car never feels like it's bigger. The nimbleness has been preserved, but not at the expense of ride quality or noise.

The big V6 pulls strongly and silently. If it has a flaw, it is perhaps that tip-in — the initial few mm of throttle pedal travel — is almost too abrupt, which can make launches a bit jerky.

The new transmission is very smooth when left to its own devices.

Next up came a GS manual. The four-cylinder engine is a jewel — strong, and amazingly smooth and quiet for such a large-displacement four-banger.

Manual gearboxes are pretty rare in this segment, but perhaps with increasing concerns about fuel economy, there may be renewed interest.

Certainly, there's a lot to like with this one. Clutch take-up is near-perfect, and the shift linkage is light, direct and positive. A slightly lower final drive ratio would make off-the-line sprints even better.

Last up was a GT four-cylinder automatic. This powertrain (albeit in in GS trim) is expected to be the volume seller.

Again, this auto-box shifts well, and has the same back-up forward-down manual shift pattern.

I had a brief spin in both the four-cylinder Honda Accord and Toyota Camry as benchmarks.

The Accord had much better front seats with better lateral support than the Mazda, but I was very surprised at how coarse and rough the engine sounded.

The Camry was predictably soft and disconnected from a handling perspective. Its seats fell between the Accord and Mazda for support, as did its engine for smoothness and power.

Which brings us to quality. The Camry looked remarkably low-rent inside, with Accord and Mazda significantly better. The Mazda was clearly the quietest of the trio as well.

It would appear that Mazda has largely succeeded in building what they believe to be the best car in this very competitive class.

Travel was provided to freelance writer Jim Kenzie by the automaker jim@jimkenzie