First Drive: 2009 Mazda6

Click on the image above for our high-res gallery of the 2009 Mazda6

The 2009 Mazda6 is an all-new midsize sedan from Mazda that was designed, engineered, developed, and will be manufactured completely on U.S. soil. While the Japanese and European markets have been enjoying the new 6 (Atenza) since late last year, the North American market finally gets to bask in the sleek new bodywork, along with a bigger engine under the hood. Follow the jump to see if the latest product from team "Zoom-Zoom" can compete head-to-head with the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, and Nissan Altima.

All photos copyright Michael Harley / Weblogs Inc.

Mazda explains "Zoom-Zoom" as "...the exhilaration and liberation from experiencing the emotion of motion." We're in Southern California, and Mazda is telling us the all-new second-generation Mazda6, like the first one introduced in 2003, evokes Zoom-Zoom. We didn't exactly feel tingly with the last model (the MazdaSpeed6 would be the exception), so we walked out to the new car with key in hand to see if we are going to be feeling "it" with the new car.

We've seen plenty of the Mazda6 over the past year. Off the show stage and on the road, our original thoughts are confirmed. First, it's unmistakably Mazda. Second, the 6 doesn't look nearly as painfully boring as its predecessor. Third, it's an attractive package from just about any angle. It's apparent that Mazda designers gave the new model a serious injection of excitement. The sedan now sports a stylish front end with upswept headlights and muscular front quarter panels (think RX-8). The ho-hum door guard strip is gone, and a sleek chrome accent now surrounds the windows and continues to the middle of the C-pillar beyond the end of the door. The LED tail lamps feature elegant accents that tie into the chrome brightwork on the trunk. The six-cylinder model features metallic faux exhaust surrounds to complete the styling look, while the four-cylinder has to make-do with traditional dual pipes on the right side. Compared to the outgoing model, the new Madza6 is 6.1 inches longer, 2.3 inches wider, and sits on a wheelbase that has stretched 4.5 inches. Even with the increased dimensions, the new car hides the size well.

The interior of the Mazda6 is tastefully appointed, and very welcoming, as well. Contrasting colors and textures nicely mix, and unique glossy "patterned" trim (it's not fake wood, nor is it fake carbon fiber) looks interesting and classy without appearing gaudy. Like the previous model, the primary gauges are backlit with an orange glow over black dials. Bright brushed metallic finishes accent the dials, steering wheel, and console. We did find ourselves having to reach forward to touch the controls on the sat-nav as the unit sits further from the driver than anything else. The screen is mounted at an angle, which could make viewing difficult in direct sunlight. Polarized sunglass owners will note that their lenses block out some of the gauges. As before, the HVAC dual-temp and primary radio controls are round dials and the overall cabin ergonomics are good, although you will still need to move your head around a bit to see a few of the switches hidden behind the left side of the steering wheel.

Our six-foot two-inch frame was comfortable in the multi-adjustable driver's seat (set all the way back). The front seats are firm, but spine-friendly even after an extended drive. The rear seats are surprisingly roomy -- a six-footer can sit back there without claustrophobia, and kids won't be cramped. Overall, the cabin is a very pleasant place to pass the time.

Under the hood of the six-cylinder model is the same 3.7-liter V6 that motivates the Mazda CX-9 CUV. Doing duty in the Mazda6, the MZI engine is rated at 272 hp and 269 lb-ft of torque and Mazda is quick to point out that those numbers push the 6 to the head of the class among its Japanese competition (Honda Accord - 268 hp, Nissan Altima - 270 hp, and Toyota Camry - 268 hp). The engine is mated to a smooth six-speed Sport Shift automatic transmission driving the front wheels. The four-cylinder model gets the familiar MZR inline-four, bored out to 2.5-liters. In this application, it's rated at 170 hp and 167 lb-ft of torque and mated to either a six-speed manual, or a five-speed Sport automatic transmission sending power to the front wheels as well. There is no all-wheel drive model, yet.

The engine is strong, but not as powerful as 272 horses on paper would lead you to believe (at 3,547 pounds, the weight of the Mazda6 is on par with its competitors), but the six-speed slushbox has a manual mode that responded well to our commands. Push forward to downshift and pull back to add a gear (just like BMW does it). Kudos the Mazda engineers who programmed the transmission software to hit a soft redline at the limit while holding the selected gear.

Unfortunately, while the 3.7-liter engine offers best-in-class power, it may also be the Mazda6's Achilles' heel. The EPA fuel economy ratings for the V6 powerplant come in at 17/25 (city/highway). That's about ten-percent lower that the competition (Honda Accord 19/29, Nissan Altima 19/26, and Toyota Camry 19/28). If you seek frugality, save some money and opt for the smaller four-banger (21/30 mated to the auto). The lesser engine pulls the Mazda6 around just fine, albeit at a much slower pace.

Mazda was brave enough to bring the competitive targets (Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, and Toyota Camry) to the launch so we could test drive them back-to-back against the all-new Mazda6. Our seat-of-the-pants impression was that the all-new Mazda6 was undeniably the most enjoyable of the bunch to drive -- as Mazda and their Zoom-Zoom infusion had boasted. While none would be considered a stoplight racer, the 3.7-liter under the Mazda's hood felt a bit out-gunned by Nissan's 3.5-liter VQ (itself rated at 270 hp), even though it wasn't as smooth. The Toyota and Honda felt about as quick as the rest of the pack. A penalty at the pump, not matched with any apparent acceleration advantage, doesn't keep consumers happy in this segment.

Mazda engineers spent a considerable amount of time refining the chassis of the new Mazda6 to make it a more rigid platform. It's all in the name of allowing the suspension to do its work, and improving occupant safety. Independently sprung on all four corners, the newest Mazda wears double-wishbones up front and an E-type multi-link in the rear. Stabilizer bars on both ends keep everything on an even keel. Driving the Mazda6 on some of Southern California's most challenging roads (Mulholland Drive, Stunt Road, and Decker Canyon), the sedan wasn't traumatized like the Camry (think marshmallow soft), or the Accord (what happened to the fun-to-drive Accord?). Diving into corners resulted in expected understeer, but without the feeling that the front tires were peeling off the rims (did we mention how soft the Camry was?). The Mazda6 was entertaining to toss around, and we never found ourselves worried the car wasn't responding to our inputs. But it's not ready for track duty. It's a sporty sedan, not a sport sedan.

Back on commuter-oriented roads, the Mazda6 was exceedingly competent -- a pleasure to drive. It never exhibited the disconnected (or isolated) driving feel that is so common in the segment. While we did observe some tire roar, and more than a bit of wind noise around the pillars, neither was distracting, nor discomforting.

The base price on a Mazda6 2.5-liter is just $18,550 (plus destination). The six-cylinder model starts at $24,130 (plus destination). A loaded Grand Touring V6 model, with NAV, moonroof, and BOSE audio, will set you back about $32,990.

When compared to the Altima, Camry, and Accord, our impression is that the all-new 2009 Mazda6 offers consumers exterior and interior styling that is fresh and stylish. We'll say it's easily the best looking of the bunch. While it's not cavernous, the new sedan is roomy, comfortable, and accommodating. The chassis, and driving dynamics, are undeniably the sportiest. It is obvious to us that the new Mazda6 received a much larger wallop of Zoom-Zoom than the last model -- and the car has finally broken free of the segment's boring mold. The question now is whether or not the buying public are looking for boring, bland, and economical... or do they want driving excitement? According to Mazda, nearly three million buyers in the United States purchase a new mid-sized automobile each year. Mazda just has to convince a small portion of them that its often overlooked contender is offering something exemplary this time.

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