YOKOHAMA, Japan — Is there a tougher market segment worldwide than the mid-size family sedan? It's hard to imagine.
This part of the market is dominated by the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. A variety of players fight for what's left. These include Mazda.
The Japanese carmaker has always been here, with the ever-capable 626. But recent versions of that car have given the consumer little reason to stray from the usual choices. You can't compete by building an Accord/Camry clone — the consumer will go with the original almost every time.
So for 2003, Mazda is taking the opposite tack — building a family car with flair.
Mazda's managing director of product strategy, design and development, Phil Martens, says the new car is so different that it needs a new name. So Mazda 6 it is.
Which conforms to the global trend toward alphanumeric nomenclature. Global except in Japan, where consumers have yet to buy in to this idea. There, it will be called Atenza, a non-word supposedly connoting the Italian attenzione, a reference to "attention to detail." Great cars begin with great styling. The 6 looks Italian, with a wheels-to-the-corner stance and tightly contoured sheet metal.
Of the three available body styles, the sedan is the least dramatic, and it's the only model we are sure to get in North America.
It's still handsome, although the street-racer-style, clear lens covers for the taillights are rapidly achieving cliche status. The four-door hatchback looks terrific and has added practicality. Mazda Canada hasn't given up on this model — if the hatch trend sweeping the compact segment migrates to bigger cars, it's a shoo-in.
Great cars better perform — Mazda is cranking up the power on both engines that we'll get. In Ford's worldwide scheme of things, Mazda will be the centre of excellence for inline four-cylinder engines. The base four in the 6 is an all-new unit displacing 2.3 L (from 2.0 L in the current car). It gains sequential valve timing and a variable intake manifold for added mid-range torque and reduced emissions.
Power is 160 horses, up from 125; Japanese and European-market versions make 165 hp, but that's with 100-octane premium fuel; Mazda will spec 91-octane regular for here.
More pertinent, the 6 is badly outgunned by the new, class-leading Nissan Altima whose 2.5-L four cranks out 175 hp.
Mazda has apparently given up on its own V6 engine; the one-up powerplant in the 6 is Ford's Duratec V6, found in a variety of Ford products (and the Jaguar X- and S-TYPES, too). In the 6, the twin-cam, 24-valve six-pack also gains sequential intake valve-timing and a variable intake manifold.
Three transmissions are planned. A five-speed manual is base with the four-cylinder engine; a four-speed automatic is the option. V6 models will get a five-speed, either manual or automatic.
Great cars have to handle, too. Mazda has aimed the 6, not at other Japanese sedans, but at Europeans such as BMW's 3 Series and Ford's Mondeo.
The front suspension is essentially double-wishbone geometry, with double lower pivots at the hub carrier end. At the rear is an independent set-up off the parts shelf.
Powerful four-wheel disc brakes are standard, but an ABS/Electronic Brake Force distribution package is still an option. That's the trouble with market-driven car design — you can't get the customers to buy stuff they need if they don't know how good it is for them.
Directional Stability Control will also be an option. Mazda will spec chunky 205/60R16 rubber for our market, with alloys and 17-inch tires.
The automaker calls the 6's body structure "Triple H," but there really are four Hs. Both body sides, the floor and roof all have a pair of side rails and a central pillar for added rigidity and protection in a crash.
That rigidity also generates benefits in handling, ride quality and noise reduction. Side airbags are expected to be standard in North America; side-curtain bags for added head protection for front- and rear-seat riders will be optional. The interior is intended to be a sportier environment than typical of Japanese mid-market sedans.
Dimensionally, the interior is larger than the old, though it lags in some measurements against the new Camry and Altima.
Still, the car feels spacious, and few customers walk around with a tape measure.
The split rear seatback folds, adding cargo-carrying flex-ibility. Mazda says the added structure, plus extra care with sound-deadening and wind noise reduction techniques, makes the 6 the quietest car in the class, and superior even to some high-priced German sports sedans.
All of the above was revealed to selected members of the world's automotive press at a series of presentations in Japan a few weeks prior to the car's world debut at the Tokyo Motor Show. The seminars were held to highlight Mazda's new approach to designing cars. Since the 6 launch is more than a year away, no full-production models were available to drive.
But Mazda did schlep us out to Tsukuba, a racetrack north of Tokyo, for a preview test drive in a prototype, alongside several European and Japanese contenders.
Since some journalists don't seem to know the meaning of "off-the-record," Mazda has had to relax that restriction for the rest of us, too.
So we can tell you that, by and large, Mazda has done a nice job with the new 6. Our four-cylinder, five-speed manual pulled strongly and was quiet and smooth enough to give V6 intenders pause.
Then again, there were no V6s available to try. The shift linkage felt a bit vague, but there are plans to improve it.
The Mazda clearly liked the racetrack much better than the Honda Accord or VW Passat, although the European Ford Mondeo was the champ in this regard.
The 6's steering was crisp, the cornering flat; on a track, there's little chance to evaluate ride quality. The car pointed well into a corner, although it may be a bit too quick for those used to numb, boring family sedans.
When the Mazda 6 goes on sale next fall, it will no doubt be a huge improvement on the current car.
The problem is, the competition isn't standing still. I've mentioned the 2002 Nissan Altima several times. It's already here, it's gorgeous, it has more power now than the 6 will have, it handles well and has very impressive interior room. It is also a tremendous value, an area where Mazda has always had an advantage.
Mazda says the new 6 will shine not merely on the spec sheet, but in performance delivery. We'll see.
The mid-size sedan battle has been joined, and it will surely get tougher when this car arrives.
It's going to be fun to watch.