When it comes to mid-size sedans, who are the top four players? Toyota Camry. Honda Accord. Nissan Altima. Chevrolet Malibu. These cars sell in big numbers. Even though Mazda has had an entry in this 2-million-unit-per-year class, the previous Mazda6 never posed much of a threat to the sales leaders.
This may change with the new 2009 Mazda6
. The new 6 is designed expressly for the North American market. It is larger in every dimension than the outgoing car, has more power, is more refined than the model it replaces, and we think better looking. The car will be built in Mazda's plant in Flat Rock, Michigan, and the company's plan for quality is aggressive. Their target isn't the Toyota Camry, but the new class quality leader, the Chevy Malibu. If the fit and finish of our pre-production test models were any indication, Mazda is ramping up to crank out high-quality vehicles.
A major decision that significantly impacts quality is the paring down of the Mazda6 line from three body styles to one. The five-door and wagon body styles got the axe, so all resources could focus on designing, engineering, and building a really good four-door. The result is a sporty sedan with fine driving manners, plenty of room, and a surfeit of features.
Generally speaking, vehicles wearing a Mazda badge know how to hustle. This sensation is amplified with the new 6. To go with its new larger size there are two new engines, both larger; a 2.5-liter four-cylinder with 170 horsepower is a bored and stroked version of the 2.3-liter four cylinder used in a variety of Mazdas. Other internal improvements helped increase fuel economy (20 mpg city/29 mpg highway for the manual, 21/30 mpg for the five-speed automatic) while improving the power output.
The 3.7-liter V-6 producing 272 horsepower is an engine we've come to like in the CX-9 crossover. This is the same core engine as used in the new Lincoln MKS and Ford Flex but is built by Mazda in Japan. The V-6 benefits from variable valve timing and other expected technologies (overhead cams, four valves per cylinder, etc.), but unlike some other vehicles in the class, it hits its horsepower target running on regular gas, not premium. Mileage is 17/25 mpg with the only available transmission, a six-speed automatic.
In a trend we're seeing across the industry, the 2.5-liter four-cylinder is available across the Mazda6 trim levels: Sport, Touring, and Grand Touring.
We drove each powertrain and liked them all. The 2.5-liter/six-speed package is good enough to make you want to drive a manual transmission car again (or for the first time). Mazda expects that about 12 percent of those selecting the four-cylinder will go with the manual. The other 88 percent don't know what they're missing. This combination feels light and lively while maintaining a civilized ride.
With the big six (the 3.7-liter is the largest V-6 available among the Mazda6's competitors) performance was certainly zoom-zoomier than with the four-cylinder. The 272 horsepower comes on strong. With the 18-inch wheels and tires that are standard on the Grand Touring trim level, handling is sharp for a mainstream sedan. The improved braking system burned off speed smoothly and with great pedal feel.
Styling inside and out highlight Mazda's more aggressive driving personality. The boldly contoured front fenders tastefully draw attention to the 6’s wider stance. The whole shape is aerodynamically smooth, with a Cd of only 0.27—well ahead of the current Toyota Camry at 0.29.
Inside, the cockpit is also sporty with hooded gauges and top-flight materials. The exterior's expanded dimensions pay big benefits inside, as the 2009 Mazda6 is now on par size-wise with all of its competitors. The new sedan's trunk is the largest in the class at 16.6 cubic feet, and when the rear seats are both folded, the practical cargo room expands dramatically.
Our time spent behind the wheel of the new Mazda6 indicates that the company's efforts have created a wholly competitive entrant that could easily steal sales from the leaders. However, this will only happen if non-gearheads discover it. The broader market has often overlooked Mazda's products, but this could be the company's chance to go mainstream and duke it out with the big boys.