Mazda hasn't had much success in the midsize sedan segment in the US, until the new Mazda 6 replaced the bland 626. The Mazda 6's sporty styling and rare combination of a V-6/5-speed manual transmission make it a standout in the crowded midsize sedan field.
The tested Blazing Copper Metallic (orange) Mazda 6 was equipped with the 3.0L 220-bhp V-6, coupled to a 5-speed manual transmission. One look at the exterior of this sedan shows that all the requisite performance oriented styling cues are present: rear spoiler, aggressive 17-inch 5-spoke alloy wheels, dual exhaust outlets, and lower side skirts. An angular, wedge-shaped profile accentuates the sleek lines of the Mazda 6. Round taillights with the 'jewel' lens treatment are distinctively styled. The blade-like headlight bezels house projector low beams and fog lights, coupled with separate high beams and turn signal indicators. Unfortunately, no optional xenon HID headlights are available. The overall impression of the Mazda 6 is of a sharp, aggressively styled sedan, similar to the Nissan Altima in design philosophy, although not in appearance.
A dark gray interior contrasts with the flamboyant exterior color. The center console and door trim accents are painted in attractive matte metallic silver. Round chrome-rimmed gauges and audio controls complement the circular HVAC vents. Orange-red gauge markings are easy to read. A fat leather wrapped steering wheel has audio and cruise controls conveniently mounted on the spokes. Optional power front leather seats are supportive and comfortable, although taller side bolsters would be appreciated. Rear seats are roomy, but legroom may be a little restricted for taller passengers. An integrated center armrest folds down if needed. Audio quality from the optional Bose CD system was excellent, with tight bass and clear treble. Overall, the interior theme is best summed up as that of sporty functionality. Mazda emphasizes only the essentials for serious driving, without distracting luxury features.
Enthusiasts will gravitate towards the V-6/5-speed manual transmission combination for good reason (a 5-speed automatic is also available). Clutch effort is light, with progressive engagement. Shifter actuation is positive and intuitive, with no balkiness in fast shifts. Engine torque is a little weak below 3000 RPM, but improves significantly above 4000 RPM to redline. The V-6 revs freely and sounds racy at higher RPM. Overall, the transmission ratios are well matched to the engine characteristics. A 6th gear would be useful when cruising above 80 MPH to reduce engine revs. However, the engine note is never overly obtrusive.
Mazda tuned the suspension to reward the driver with crisp turn-in response and minimal understeer. Excessive fore/aft suspension compliance creates noticeable brake dive and acceleration squat when the Mazda 6 is driven aggressively. Despite the sporty suspension calibration, the suspension remains comfortable and composed over poor road surfaces. Road noise from the Michelin MXM4 tires is noticeable on concrete highways. The steering wheel accurately transmits road texture and responds linearly to driver inputs.
The Mazda 6 is a spicy alternative to the typical midsize sedan. Although the Mazda 6 gives up some interior room and luxury features compared to its mainstream rivals, the payoff is a significantly more engaging driving experience. An ideal combination of performance, handling, and styling makes the Mazda 6 a superb sports sedan for under $25K.