Within an hour of taking to the road in the 2009 Mazda6, we were stopped by a 20 something and then a 50 something, both asking whether it behaved as good as it looked.
The age range of the admirers was a compliment to stylists who shaped the rival to the better known and better selling Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.
The Mazda6 sports a new face, body and muscle for 2009, plus longer and wider dimensions for better road manners and cabin comfort.
This is the first major remake since Mazda6 bowed for the 2003 model year. Ford Motor Co., Mazda parent turned partner, also has borrowed the platform for the Fusion and Edge and Mercury Milan.
Like most Ford products, Mazda6 comes in more versions than necessary—base, Sport, Touring and Grand Touring in "I" trim with a new 2.5-liter, 170-horsepower 4-cylinder to replace the 2.3-liter, 156-h.p. 4 or "S" with a 3.7-liter, 272-h.p. replacement for the 3-liter, 212-h.p. V-6.
The 4 is rated at 21 m.p.g. city/30 m.p.g. highway with automatic, the V-6 at 17/25.
There's no hybrid, plug-in or otherwise, and certainly no diesel. Mazda6 is not angling to make the higher mileage "to do" list.
"We haven't found the way yet for high mileage and high performance to coexist," said Mazda spokesman Jeremy Barnes, "and the first rule for any new Mazda vehicle is that it has to be fun to drive."
Zoom, zoom for those who've ever stood on a gas pedal and smiled.
We tested the Grand Touring model with V-6. Wheelbase was stretched 4.5 inches and overall length 7 inches, while width grew 2.4 inches and height 3 inches. Better road presence and more wiggle room, too. And it looks good, especially upfront where grille and lamps say Mercedes C-Class look—at least at quick glance.
The V-6 has good power. The rumble-tuned exhaust makes it sound as if it's going faster. Good off-the-line response, but it's refined, not raw, slap-you-back-into-the-cushion power. Get up and go, but not gallop.
Where the Mazda6 stands out is in smooth, ripple-free ride and pinpoint handling. It sits flat into and out of corners at speed. A set of orange pylons should be standard; a car like this demands its own autocross course.
Stability control and traction control are standard as well. If you find a vacant parking lot with a layer of snow and no one looking, as we did, making twists and turns at a variety of speeds provides evidence of the reaction to expect when it's the road full of cars.
But why did Mazda play games with the leather seats? A small patch of perforated leather keeps back and butt from sliding around during quick maneuvers sits in otherwise smooth, slippery leather.
Head, leg and arm room are good front and back, and kudos for wide rear-door openings for easy entry/exit. But why did Mazda put the rear seat-back release straps in the trunk rather than in the cabin? To flip down the seat to accommodate a large package, you have to open the trunk, pull the cord, then walk back to the cabin to lower the seat.
The trunk is deep and tall, as massive as an SUV cargo hold. Yet Mazda carved only a small hole in the wall between trunk and cabin rather than a big one to let parcels through easily. Go figure.
On the plus side, Mazda6 comes with push-button start. But you must keep the fob on you. It locks the doors when you exit and unlocks them when you return but there's no ignition slot for a key. So, no fob, no go.
The Grand Touring edition also has blind-spot monitors in the sideview mirrors that light whenever a vehicle comes up on your side. Keeping a look out for those lights is a distraction. A beep would help, but probably drive you insane on a crowded interstate or tollway, unless, you camp in the passing lane at 45 m.p.h. so no one can pass.
Mazda6 starts at about $20,000 to $24,000 for a Sport, $21,000 to $25,000 for a Touring and $24,000 to $28,000 for a Grand Touring. The test car started at $28,260 with all the goodies, except navigation for $2,000 and power moonroof/Bose sound system with CD/MP3/satellite radio for $1,760.
Mazda estimates sales of the 6 will rise to 100,000 units for 2009 from about 65,000 for 2008. For that to happen, the economy has to reach a point at which gainfully employed consumers can make mortgage and car payments. Let's hope Mazda sells more than 100,000.
Read Jim Mateja Sunday in Rides. Contact him at email@example.com.