Press preview that caught my attention
Title of article: Roman Holiday
Date: April 2002
Journalist: Allan Dick
Publication: Driver Magazine
Mazda says they're going back to their original roots, rediscovering their DNA. The Mazda 6, or is that Mazda6, is the first new car under the new rules. How good is it?
We were cautiously optimistic after going to Japan late last year for a highly controlled drive of the new Mazda 6 - more than just the replacement for the 626, it was claimed, but the beginning of a return to Mazda's traditional roots of innovation and dynamic excellence. " We tried to foot it with the mainstream, but it didn't work out for us," said a Mazda senior executive.
The Japanese drive of the Mazda 6 came complete with a total ban on photography but some laps of a motor racing circuit in the dark. That wasn't the non-event that it may sound - we were allowed to drive the cars as fast as we liked, and did. And we were also able to run direct comparisons with a variety of similar sized cars including a VW Passat, a BMW 318, Ford Mondeo and a Honda Accord.
We left the track that night aware that we had experienced something special. The new Mazda Sedan was the best handling, best driving car there.
In revealing details of the car Mazda people, including President Mark Fields, had all said that the benchmark car in designing the "6" was the BMW 3-Series. Haw haw! That's easily said of course, but the Japanese race track experience appeared to indicate that they had succeeded in their task. However, there were plenty of "buts" and question marks left hanging over the issue.
Like, were the other cars "doctored" in any way and were the Mazda's that we drove that night going to be typical of production cars? We would have doubted the first question and hopeful of the second.
We've just spent a day driving the new Mazda 6 on a demanding launch route in the hills north of Rome and our preliminary findings have been confirmed.
This is a watershed vehicle for the mid-price, mid-sized passenger car in terms of dynamic ability, performance, comfort, quality, practicality and appearance. And we're not overstating the case.
If the Mondeo took up the challenge and moved the goalposts in this category upstream to knock at the doors of VW, Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz, and if Opel have knocked louder and more insistently with the new Vectra, then Mazda have opened the door and invited themselves in.
In every respect, this is a front wheel drive BMW 3-series with a Mazda badge. It's that good.
We do have a reservation over the name - "6" is simply not enough. It's old-fashioned like Austin Seven or Morris 16, it's misleading and doesn't really do the car justice. We'd have preferred 6- series - it's not original, but it would be less confusing and would do the car more justice. But then BMW might objectů
We covered the technical details of the new car pretty comprehensive after our Japanese drive. But there's nothing radical, or revolutionary about the technology of the Mazda 6 - but there is in terms of approach and concept.
Mazda didn't simply want to replace the competent but dull 626 - they wanted to go back to the original DNA of Mazda when they gave the world bold, exciting and adventurous cars.
And using the BMW 3-series as your benchmark is a pretty bold start.
What Mazda's young team did was take every aspect of the new car and apply threads of that original Mazda DNA to them. It's not an overstatement to say that the car is a sensation.
There are three body styles - four door sedan, five door hatch and wagon, and four engines in the line up - in NZ we're getting all three body styles, but we can forget about two of the engines - the turbodiesel and the 3.0 litre V6. As an entry level we will get the 2.0 litre with 104kW @ 6500rpm and that's backed up by the 2.3 litre engine with 122kW also at 6500rpm.
Both are alluminium and are part of the totally new engine package ordered by Ford, developed in conjunction with Mazda, built at Ford's massive engine plant in Valencia. This was the single biggest engine development programme in Ford History - maybe the history of the world.
They will be the basis for more than a hundred new "Ford" products in the next decade and will be seen in brand names as diverse as Ford, Mazda, Volvo - maybe even Jaguar - all with their own characteristics, but basically all coming from this single new engine design.
The engines are mated to either a five speed manual gearbox, or a four stage automatic. Yes, we would have liked to have seen a five speed automatic and the car is good enough, particularly with the 2.3 litre engine, to deserve a six speed manual gearbox.
The only cars available in Italy were manuals.
The Mazda 6 is totally new - platform, design, engines, transmissions, suspensions, brakes, interiors - and most importantly concept and approach.
The new car is not the visual nonentity that the 626 was. The sheet metal is taut, the shape lithe and muscular. It looks like its bursting out of its skin with energy.
Niether the five cornered mesh grille nor the stylized "M" that looks like wings in a squashed oval are new - both were adopted with the last 626 and have appeared on subsequent Mazda models. But with the new 6 both have been refined and redefined so that they become more characterful, more identifying, creating a stronger corporate identity. Just as the twin kidney grille and blue and white propeller badge tell you that the car that's wearing them is a BMW, Mazda want their five-pointed grille and flying M badge to become an icon.
And they have the heritage, with cars like the RX series and the MX5, the motorsport history and now the first in a new series of cars, to achieve that goal.
We started our Italian, open road experience of the Mazda 6 with a 2.0 litre, four door sedan with cloth trim and running on 16 inch wheels.
First impressions were good. The car has sex appeal both outside and in. The interior is highlighted with nickel finish panels and surrounds. It's attractive, classy and very "now".
There's plenty of room, the boot is cavernous and the build quality superb.
Driving it was a rewarding experience.
The driver's seat is height adjustable, the steering wheel height and reach adjustable and the ergonomics faultless.
Performance was brisk with the factory claiming a swift 9.7 seconds for the 0-100km/h dash. The motor was flexible and torquey, pulling strongly from low engine revs. Under hard acceleration the induction noise from the engine took on a harder-edged sound giving it some sporting audio.
But once you reached (reasonably) quick cruising speeds (say 140km/h) it became quiet and almost colourless in a typical Japanese way.
We were a little surprised to see that at 140km/h it was pulling almost 4000rpm. It could have used a taller final drive - or another gear for cruising.
The gearshift was slick and crisp with every short throws. We liked the bright chrome on the head of the gaiter-wrapped gearlever.
And the sweetness of the gearshift and the solid bite of the clutch encouraged us to take it to the 7000rpm redline as we accelerated up through the gears.
But the major surprise was that our experiences of the chassis dynamics on the race track in Japan were confirmed on the often mixed and broken surfaces of Italy's motorway and secondary rural road systems.
The ride is not pillowy soft - it's pedigree brand firm, but also pliant enough to absorb lumps and bumps with ease. Body roll is minimal and chassis control is extrodinary. We pounded the car, hard, over some reasonably major bumps - the wheel dropped into the hole in the road, the chassis stayed flat and when the wheel rebounded it did so in a single move. There was no floating or wallowing as the suspension fought to regain context between what the road wheel was doing. The bump had simply been swallowed up and spat out.
And the quietness was also impressive. On smooth hot mix tarseal there was a distance hum from the tyres and the hush of air from the air conditioning vents.
Our return was in a 2.3 litre leather trim, 17 inch wheels and more electrics.
As good as the 2.0 litre car was, this was even more impressive. This was a genuine, quality sports sedan worthy of any badge!
The 17 inch wheels and Bridgestone Potenza tryres sharpened the steering just a little off the straight ahead position with a relative increase in grip and roadholding, but without affecting the ride to any degree.
The big plus was the engine. This is more than just an extra 300cc and another 18kW of power. This is a car that's transformed from something very, very good into something that is a thoroughly worthy sports sedan.
The factory claim 8.7 seconds for the 0-100km/h sprint and while that's sharp, it feels, and sounds, faster. We'll wait till we can put a stop watch on it.
This car has serious performance and the chassis to match.
Where the 2.0 litre engine started to sound ordinary once you lifted off the accelerator, the 2.3 unit sounds like a thoroughbred all the time. It's not noisy or intrusive by any standard, but you know that this is something out of the ordinary.
The noise, feel and bite that this car has when you're driving it quickly is almost as addictive as any sports sedan that we've ever driven.
The engine is responsive, strong and torquey and makes the car a very rewarding drive.
Special word about the brakes.
During the launch process in Rome we had a presentation from the man in charge of the Brake Development. We thought that this was a bit of an exercise in train watching, particularly when he described the new flexible brake hoses they've developed.
But the brakes are simply sensational. The pedal is firm, the retardation powerful and the reaction time just about the quickest we've ever experienced. You see, flexible brake hoses do expand when you hit the brake pedal and create enormous hydraulic pressure within the system. Minimise that expansion and you get better brakes, a better feel to the pedal and quicker reaction times. It wasn't an exercise in train watching after all and is a kind of indicator of the attention to detail that's gone into this car.
We drove only the four door sedan in Italy. But there were was a hatch on display and while the boot is marginally smaller than the whopping 500 litres of the sedan, it's when you come to fold the rear seats of the hatch that you appreciate what Mazda engineers and designers have achieved.
Touch a lever and not only do the seat backs fold forward, but the seat squabs drop in that single movement so that you get a completely flat floor from tailgate to the back of the front seats. Bloody clever.
The huge luggage space that's available in all three variants is due to the rear suspension design that completely eliminates any intrusion from spring or strut towers.
But we wonder if there's any loss of body rigidity in the hatch compared to the sedan?
The next test is driving the Mazda 6 in NZ - and finding out how Mazda and Ford are going to market two cars that are clearly fierce competitors in what is a shrinking market segment.
There will be an entry level 2.0 litre sedan that will come with ABS, twin airbags, aircon, electrics and aimed at the fleet market. Then there'll be a mid range sedan, hatch and wagon all with the 2.3 engine and the line-up will be capped with a fully loaded sedan, hatch and wagon, again all with the 2.3 litre engine and Mazda will be basing it's pricing on the Mondeo.
But, that's for the future. On the basis of our experiences in Japan and Italy, Mazda engineers and designers scored 10 out of 10 in trying to emulate the qualities of the BMW 3-Series.
And there's more to come - look out for the MSP - Mazda Sports Programme - version of the 6 in about 18 month. There'll be body kits and turbo packs - and could we dare hope for a six speed gearbox?
Mazda's rediscovered it's DNA