Mazda 6 packs punch

Friday, May 9, 2003

srobertson

This vehicle could well be one of the best-handling cars ever.

Those of you old enough to remember the 1960s recall that horsepower ruled in those days. We didn't know what a "sound system" was. Back then, great sound came from a set of dual exhausts with glass packs -- not a bunch of electronic gear.

Well, goodbye, '60s, and welcome to the new millennium -- err, that is, welcome to the new Mazda 6, which replaces the old Mazda 626. The Mazda Millennium is also gone, leaving the Mazda 6 to duke it out alone with its main competitors: the Ford Taurus, Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, Toyota Camry and Volkswagen Passat -- tough competition!

Is the new 6 up to the task?

Mazda, famous for its speedy sportsters, such as the Miata, at bargain prices, says their new creation will blow the doors off the competition, while providing affordable family transportation. In fact, for a little over $20,000, the V-6 version of this car will please all you gray-haired drag racers with zero to 60 times in a blistering seven seconds, while satisfying the 20- to 40-year-old crowd with its thundering Bose sound system. And, some insiders say the new Mazda 6 is the best handling front-wheel-drive production car -- period! Did Mazda accomplish this by stripping out all the goodies that the Japanese usually give us?

To find out, I picked up the pretty white Mazda 6 S, pictured here, from McDonough Mazda, in Cape's AutoPark. The first thing I noticed when I slid into the driver's seat was the aroma of expensive leather. Nope, this is not a stripped down plain-Jane. I drove west on curvy Highway 72 to the Fredericktown airport for a photo session. This would be the perfect test road for a spirited vehicle like the Mazda 6, and the airport would provide a fitting photographic background for snazzy, 220 horsepower V-6 powered machine. (Many single-engine airplanes get along quite nicely on just 150 horsepower. I could just imagine myself winning a drag race with an airplane on the half-mile long runway!)

As I reached the Jackson city limits the sky turned black and huge raindrops wetted the roadway. That's when I came to appreciate the 6's convenient placement of controls. Moisture on the windshield can be whisked away with the mere flick of a lever suspended behind the leather-wrapped steering wheel. The push of a button in the tastefully appointed interior activates the automatic climate control, and any one of several buttons on the steering wheel adjusts the Bose sound system or sets the cruise control. While the huge Michelin 17-inch tires provided incredible grip on the wet highway, my safety was assured by the front and side air bags, and several other engineering innovations, such as foot pedals that collapse in the event of a frontal impact. The heated, eight-way electric seat and the tilt steering wheel guaranteed my comfort. My rear seat passenger (a Taurus owner) was impressed with the head and legroom, the fold-down center armrest, and the shape of the seat, which can be folded down for additional cargo space. Although 10 inches shorter than a Taurus, and 3 inches shorter than entries from Honda, Toyota and Volkswagen, the Mazda has about the same head, leg and shoulder dimensions as the competition.

On the two-lane highway to Fredericktown I came to appreciate the power and handling of the Mazda 6 S. (There are two Mazda 6 versions: This one, the S, is the hot rod. The standard 6 is equipped with a four cylinder, 160 horsepower engine. In keeping with the sport car tradition, either one can be had with a five-speed automatic or stick transmission, and either one provides cutting edge performance.) The 6 is designed for the driving enthusiast, and it can be driven aggressively and precisely. Amazingly, the ride is not harsh, but extremely well controlled, inspiring confidence. Mazda is pretty confident about their new product, too, giving it a four-year, 50,000-mile warranty, while the competition offers three years and 36,000 miles.

That afternoon the rain clouds headed east, and so did we. I tossed the keys to my co-pilot Bob Adams, a retired auto salesman and farmer who has driven just about everything with wheels, and suggested he explore the Mazda 6's hidden talents. Bob is pretty outspoken, and I figured our readers deserved a second opinion. Well, to summarize what he said, I'll use just one word: WOW! When the Cape Girardeau city limits appeared on the horizon, Bob said, "I could live with this car." That's quite a compliment from Bob.

Now Bob, could I please have the keys back?

Steve Robertson of Robertson Photography is a car enthusiast and former photographer for the Southeast Missourian.

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