When I set out on a comparison test like this, I have one main question in mind: if I were in the market to buy a new car for my family, which one of the cars tested would I buy? I love supple leather seats, premium sound systems, grippy wide tires and an engine with the torque of a diesel freight train. But the reality at this time is that my employer, one of the world’s largest financial institutions, has lost billions of dollars in recent quarters. Its epic balance sheet can now be described as fragile. As a financial controller, I see first-hand how budgets are being drawn in asphyxiatingly tight. I know that I’m not alone in feeling nervous about my future in this economy. So which of these family sedans would I buy? The Mazda Mazda6 i Sport.
The Mazda6 proves that buying a practical family sedan does not have to be a five year prison sentence of Kafkaesque driving. WYSIWYG: the Mazda personifies the sophisticated sports sedan. Let’s try a little word association. Camry: Beluga. Accord: Bloated. Altima: Zen. Mazda6: Zoom. As cheesy as it sounds, from its RX-8 inspired fenders and light clusters to its aggressive rear haunches, the Mazda6 wears the Zoom-Zoom moniker well. Okay, I admit the four-cylinder is more one Zoom than the double Zoom-Zoom, but it looks the part just as well. Unique in this comparison, the Mazda6 is attractive from any angle-– coming or going.
Unfortunately, the car’s design continuity isn’t as coherent both on the inside and out. The Mazda6i’s interior is a bipolar affair; it may well have been designed by separate committees that never coordinated with each other. On the one hand, there’s the dingy committee that designed the doors and ceiling. The arm rest is a long flat uncomfortable plane with a cheap pocket pull, none of which conforms to how a person’s arm and hand want to relax. Overhead, Mazda fitted a smallish flimsy thin sun visor that looks like it was transplanted from an old Yugo.
The dash was conceived by savant part of idiot savant. From Ford-inspired air vent to air vent, the Mazda6’s dash is the best organized, most visually appealing and highest quality IP of our family quartet. The perfection of the steering wheel shames the other cars (notwithstanding RF’s love for the Accord’s tiller). The blue and orange gauge cluster lighting might be a little Nintendo for some tastes, but overall the ebony layout is more Audi mature than Game Boy. The Mazda6i’s cloth seats are endlessly comfortable and enormously supportive, ideal for both long distance love and all-out horsing around.
A gimmicky push button awakens Mazda’s perky 2.5-liter DOHC 16-valve VVT engine. Producing only 170 horsepower, it only offers more juice than the pedestrian Camry. Yet this mini-mill isn’t hamstrung by Nissan’s unfortunate CVT or Honda’s inexplicable porkiness. While the Mazda6i’s not what you’d call a sports car, this engine loves to play hard.
Like the Camry and Accord, the Mazda sports Michelin Energy LX4 tires, though in a narrower P205/65R16 size (compared to P215/60R16 on the Camcords). According to published manufacturer claims, the Mazda is the heaviest of the group by a small margin. Leave it to the suspension to make the car feel and handle like an amorous gnat– flitting back and forth at will with joyous aplomb. The perfectly-weighted steering puts the front wheels intuitively where the driver wants them.
Get into the throttle and the Mazda6i’s five-speed automatic transmission grabs the right cog faster than the Toyota or Honda gear boxes or that irritating Nissan CVT doohickey. Breaking loose from tedious stop-and-go traffic never felt so good. Not in a front wheel-drive four-pot family sedan, anyway.
As you might expect, a suspension serving-up this much control dishes-up a healthy helping of harshness. While the Mazda6i falls far behind the Camry in refinement it’s not far off the marks set by the Accord and Altima. In sum, while the ride is not pillowy cream puff decadence, it remains perfectly livable. And it’s quieter than the noisy Accord to boot.
Going economical this year doesn’t have to be an exercise in self flagellation. None of these cars is bad– and they will all sell well (whatever “well” means). One is as dreadfully underwhelming as comfy grandma underwear [Camry]. One will get more sales based on its fun-to-drive history rather than on its current competence [Accord]. Many drivers will flock to another peacefully unaware that power reaches the wheels by way of a soul-sapping rubber band [Altima]. But above and beyond these, the Mazda Mazda6 i Sport has the ability to put a genuine smile on a pistonhead’s face, or turn a non-pistonhead into something of a, gulp, enthusiast.