Road Test

2011 Mazda6

Mazda6's dynamics stand out in a class populated by pillow-soft sedans

2011 Mazda6

Although it is getting a little long in the tooth compared to the fresher competition, the Mazda6 remains a viable player in the mid-size family car category. The two factors that separated the 6 from the pack when it was introduced, remain its strong points- style and driving dynamics.

Family cars are, by demand, fairly plain designs. All you have to do is look at the sales figures over the past several years to see that consumers shopping in this category haven't placed a high priority on looks.

But that situation has changed recently with the arrival of some stylish newcomers from South Korea, which are making serious inroads on the sales charts.

Mazda was there first, however, with a unique look for the redesigned Mazda6, back in 2009, and a package of "zoom-zoom" that made driving this family car a bit more rewarding than most. One with a semblance of responsiveness mixed in with ride comfort.

Its appearance is dominated by the Mazda family snout and large badge in the center of the grille. But as you look further you·ll see a resemblance to Mazda·s sports car- the RX-8 in the strongly flared wheel wells. That·s the first hint that this car was developed with something in mind for enthusiasts.

The engine lineup echoes that of the competition, with a choice of four- or six-cylinder engines plus a choice of five-speed automatic or six-speed manual transmission with the four-cylinder and a six-speed automatic with the V-6. But the Mazda6, from base to top-of-the line trim, offers a driving experience that is more weighted toward handling than the norm in this class.

The lineup starts with a $24,000 GS and a 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine sending up to 170-horsepower to the front wheels through a six-speed manual transmission. That four is a pretty decent piece with plenty of low-end torque and sufficient power to get the job done in all but the most severe or heavily loaded conditions. Standard equipment now includes wireless connectivity and electronic stability control.

Four-cylinder models are also available in the well-equipped GT trim level ($29,395) which adds a bunch of luxury items like leather seats, automatic climate control, sunroof, 18-inch radials and alloy wheels, fog lights, and HID headlights.

My test vehicle was the top-line ($37,440) GT trim with a 272-horsepower, 3.7-litre V-6 and a six-speed automatic. At this level standard equipment includes a blind spot monitoring system, rear view camera, keyless ignition, an elaborate 10-speaker Bose audio system with satellite radio, power passenger seat, driver·s memory seat and integrated turn signals in the mirrors.

Like the Mazda3, the interior of this car is easily differentiated from the pack with its stylish instrument panel and red lighting. The GT has leather seating and dark wood and satin-metal trim. The steering wheel adjusts for both rake and reach and there is ample · but not spacious · room in back for two average-size adults.

The Ford-sourced V-6 is smooth, quiet and delivers power with seamless ease. It·s not a high-performance powerplant, but a thoroughly modern one with dual overhead camshafts and variable valve timing.

Mid-range performance, where you use and need it the most · is exemplary. It is not an exceptionally frugal engine, however. I averaged 9.1 litres/100 on a 350-km mixed route.

As indicated previously, the Mazda6 offers better driving dynamics than is the norm in this class. The ride is pleasantly firm and there is little body roll in the turns. The steering is direct and communicative. Its low-profile (45-series) tires, however, patter over rough surfaces and emit a fair amount of noise compared to some newer entries in the class with similar tires.

As always, the Mazda6 stands out in a class populated by pillow-soft sedans.

American-built · for now

The Mazda6 is built alongside the Ford Mustang in Flat Rock Michigan. The plant, originally a Ford engine casting operation, was closed in 1981, purchased by Mazda in 1987 and subsequently produced the Mazda 626, Mazda MX-6 and Ford Probe.

Ford bought back 50% of the operation in 1992 and the two companies formed AutoAlliance International under Ford management. The plant continued to produce the Mazda 626 and from 1999-2002 the Mercury Cougar. Then it started building the Mazda6 and, as of 2005, the Mustang.

The AutoAlliance joint venture is now drawing to a close. Ford has sold off its share of Mazda, in search of more liquidity, and the two companies are going their separate ways.

The Mazda6 will no longer be built in Michigan as of mid-2012 as the current Mazda6 life cycle comes to an end. Future versions of the company·s mid-size car will come out of a factory in Hofu, Japan.

Mazda has not announced plans for the Flat Rock plant, saying only that it is studying a variety of opportunities with Ford.

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