Mazda6: Sporty but Thirsty

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Sportiness, rebates, more space and better engines than previous Mazda6

The Bad: Mediocre fuel economy with V6 engine, relatively high base price

The Bottom Line: Mazda's midsize sedan goes mainstream

Up Front

If you're the kind of person who always chooses chocolate or vanilla ice cream, you're probably not in the market for the 2009 Mazda6. When it comes to family sedans, vanilla is the Toyota (TM) Camry and chocolate is the Honda (HMC) Accord, the perennial No 1 and No. 2 in the U.S. market. Including hybrids, Toyota sold 436,617 Camrys last year, down 8%, while Honda sold 372,789 Accords, down 5.3%.

If the midsize, front-wheel-drive Mazda6 were an ice cream flavor, it would be Rocky Road. The previous version of the Mazda6, introduced as a 2003 model, was adapted from a European model and never caught on very big in the U.S. Mazda sold only 52,590 Mazda6s last year, down 8.2%. The Japanese company, in which Ford (F) retains a small stake, is hoping the redesigned '09 Mazda6 sedan will have greater appeal to American shoppers. Meanwhile, the company has dropped the unpopular station wagon and hatchback versions of the car.

The new Mazda6 sedan is much more mainstream than the old one. The sedan is 7 inches longer and 2.3 inches wider, making it roomier and giving it a bigger trunk. The '09 also has more power under its hood. It's available either with a 2.4-liter, 170-hp inline, four-cylinder engine, or a powerful 3.7-liter V6 rated at 272 hp (the same one that's in the Mazda CX-9 crossover SUV). Both are considerable improvements over the 156-hp four-banger and 212-hp V6 in the previous Mazda6.

A six-speed manual transmission is standard on the four-cylinder versions of the '09, but can be replaced with an optional five-speed automatic. The V6 models only come with a six-speed automatic transmission.

The '09 Mazda6 isn't particularly cheap, but it comes packed with standard equipment. Even the base model i SV Mazda6 comes with such standard niceties as stability and traction control, full-power accessories, a six-speaker sound system, and a tilting and telescoping steering wheel with audio controls mounted on it. The V6 Grand Touring model comes with just about everything included except a navigation system ($2,000), satellite radio ($430) and a remote engine starter ($350).

An entry-level Mazda6 starts at $19,220, rising to $28,420 for a top-of-the-line Grand Touring model. However, in the current car market you should be able to pay considerably less than list: Through Mar. 2 Mazda is offering $1,000 to $2,750 cash rebates or zero-percent financing on the Mazda6.

Keep in mind, though, that rival models, including the Camry, Nissan (NSANY) Altima, Hyundai Sonata, Ford Fusion, Chevy Malibu, Saturn Aura, Pontiac G6, and Volvo S40 are also being discounted right now.

With an automatic transmission and powered by the smaller engine, the Mazda6 gets a respectable 21 mpg in the city and 30 on the highway (it does 1 mpg worse with a stick shift). However, fuel economy falls dramatically in the V6-powered version of the car, to 17 mpg in the city and 25 on the highway.

The '09 Mazda6 doesn't yet have crash-test ratings, but in addition to stability and traction control it comes standard with antilock brakes, and front, side and head-protecting airbags.

Behind the Wheel

If, like me, you like a sporty car but are worried that gasoline prices may soar again, stick with the four-cylinder engine in the Mazda6. I test-drove that version of the car with a stick shift and found its performance more than adequate for a family sedan. I wasn't able to get a zero to 60 time, but Motor Trend magazine has clocked the four-cylinder version at 7.8 seconds.

By comparison, the V6 version of the Mazda6, which accelerates from zero to 60 in 6.2 seconds, seems like overkill. It's about the most powerful V6 in the segment, and the Mazda is quicker off the mark than a comparable Accord, Camry, or Altima.

However, the fact that the Mazda's average fuel economy drops to 20 mpg with the V6 would be a deal-killer for me. Among major sellers, only the six-cylinder '09 Chevy Malibu does as badly as the Mazda6. Six-cylinder versions of the Camry get 23 mpg; the Accord, Altima, and Hyundai Sonata get 22 mpg; and the Ford Fusion 21.

Either version of the new Mazda6 has the relatively sporty driving characteristics you expect from a Mazda. In terms of its curvy good looks and sweet handling, the competitor it most resembles among the major sellers is the Nissan Altima (if you don't go with the stick shift, the Mazda6 has the advantage of not having the Altima's annoying continuously variable automatic transmission).

Everything about the Mazda6 seemed lively to me. The steering required little effort but provided a fair amount of feedback to the driver. The car's body felt taut, and double wishbone independent front suspension did a very good job of smoothing out bumpy roads. The ride was well controlled, with little body roll in curves, but without the harsh suspension some sporty cars have. There also was virtually no torque steer (the phenomenon in which a front-wheel-drive vehicle pulls to the side during acceleration).

If (also like me) you live in the snowbelt, you can also save money by not paying more for a four-wheel drive vehicle, and instead investing in a set of state-of-the-art snow tires for a front-wheel-drive sedan like the Mazda6. I live in rural Pennsylvania and drove my test Mazda6, which was clad with excellent Bridgestone Blizzak snow tires, in some horrendous ice and snow. Trust me, with good snow tires most suburban drivers don't need four-wheel drive.

The Mazda6 is quite practical in other respects, too. The cabin has been upgraded and is roomier than in the previous Mazda6. Headroom is a little tight in back because of the car's swooping roof line, but otherwise there's plenty of room for two normal size adults in the rear seats (three, as usual, is a stretch). Rear legroom is 38 inches, 1.5 inches more than before.

The 16.6 cu. ft. trunk is huge, big enough to handle four golf bags. The rear seats fold down to create an even larger hauling space.

Buy it or Bag It?

The Mazda6 competes in a very crowded field, but the four-cylinder version of the car is now highly competitive. If you're considering one of the sportier offerings in the segment, such as the Altima or the VW Jetta or Passat, the Mazda is definitely worth a test drive. The six-cylinder Mazda6 is equally nice, but its lousy fuel economy bugs me.

The Mazda6's price is relatively high. According to the Power Information Network (PIN), its average purchase price is about $24,000, after an average rebate of less than $300. That price is about $600 less than that of the '09 Chevy Malibu ($24,598), about the same as the '09 Accord ($23,905) and well over the price of the '09 Camry ($22,201) and Altima ($22,965). (PIN, like BusinessWeek, is a unit of The McGraw-Hill Companies (MHP).)

That said, given the size of the current rebates, the Mazda's average price is probably coming down rapidly. Factor in the standard equipment on the car, and its price seems much more reasonable.

However, discounting is rife and there are numerous cheaper alternatives. Here a few of the bargains being offered right now: Through Mar. 31, Ford is taking $3,500 off on the '09 Fusion and Volvo takes $1,000 off on the S40. Through Mar. 2, Nissan and Toyota are offering $1,500 rebates on the '09 Altima and Camry; General Motors (GM) is giving $1,250 rebates on the Chevy Malibu, Pontiac G6, and Saturn Aura; Hyundai $2,000 or more off on the Sonata; and VW $500 off on the Jetta and Passat.

Many models now sell for under $20,000, on average, according to PIN, including the Ford Fusion ($19,344), Pontiac G6 ($18,415), and the Saturn Aura ($19,967), as well as the Kia Optima ($18,808) and Hyundai Sonata ($18,824). The bottom line: The although the Mazda6 is much improved, it now faces much tougher competition.

Click here to see more of the 2009 Mazda6.

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