Created under former CEO Mark Fields, the slogan is intended to signify a programme of renewal at the Ford-owned Nipponese
firm, a return to the excitement many felt had all but disappeared in recent years.
The Mazda6, which has a somewhat belated local release around the time this issue of CAR appears, is the first ‘post Zoom-Zoom’ design to reach our market. With 40 accolades in 23 countries Ð including 10 national Car of the Year awards Ð to its name since the model’s international début a year ago, it arrives with a glittering reputation.
Positioned to slot in between Ford’s Focus and Mondeo models, complementing rather than competing with them, the local line-up consists of four derivatives with two powertrains. The flagship is the Mazda6 2,3 Sporty Lux four-speed auto, with the five-speed manual version of the same car fitting in just below. Then comes another 2,3, the Sporty, with the only 2,0-litre, the Elegant five-speed manual – the subject of this first test – at ‘entry’ level.
Squat and purposeful, thanks partly to wide front and rear tracks and short overhangs, the 6 was styled under the direction of company chief designer Iwao Koizumi. A striking feature is the spade grille, sadly upstaged in SA by the similar item on the new Honda Accord, which reached our shores ahead of the Mazda, despite being launched on international markets several months later.
Dramatic headlights, which follow the angled sides of the grille and bonnet crease-lines and cut into the upper fenders to create a slashing ‘mean-eyed’ effect, and a pair of wraparound chrome-and-ruby-red rear light clusters that remind one of those of the Lexus IS200 are other styling highlights. But probably the most impressive feature is the paintwork, smooth, almost mirror-like, finished to a standard equal to the very best in the luxury car segment.
But the 6 is more than just a new look for Mazda. It’s a completely new platform, benchmarked, the company says, on the BMW 3-Series, Audi A4, Volvo S40 and Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Mazda calls the body structure Triple-H, in honour of the layout’s three H-shaped sections (see side bar overleaf), designed to achieve maximum rigidity along with state-of-the art ability to channel crash energy.
Hanging off the all-new structure’s stiff front perimeter frame, constructed of two millimetre-thick hydroformed steel, is Mazda’s all-new E-Link front suspension set-up, with long-travel MacPherson struts, high-mounted wishbones and an anti-roll bar. Rear suspension, mounted on a separate rigid subframe, is also all-new. A multilink system Mazda calls ‘E-type’, it features a low-profile under-floor design, with dampers angled at 30 degrees, to free-up space for the luggage compartment without compromising ride, handling and roadholding.
Damping charac- teristics have been developed to provide a degree of self-levelling, and anti-friction bushes and duplex/rubber mounts are utilised to reduce NVH. Steering, insulated from the perimeter frame by specially
designed rubber mountings, is a variable rate rack and pinion design, and all versions have hydraulic power assistance. Braking is by ventilated discs in front, with solid discs at the rear, and ABS and EBD are standard.
Even in its ‘basic’ 2,0 Elegant form, the Mazda6 comes with alloy wheels as standard; in this case a set of 16-inchers, shod with 205/55 Bridgestone Turanza ER30s. Although the 2,0-litre engine lacks features such as the S-VT (variable valve timing) and balance shafts offered on the more upmarket 2,3, both
engines feature the same architecture. It has twin overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder and a stainless steel exhaust manifold. The latter features a heat-insulating layer where the four pipes meet, a design claimed to combine the heat-retention benefits of a single-pipe set-up with the engine performance pluses of a duel-pipe structure.
Mazda says it has also eliminated the need for a close-coupled catalytic convertor, allowing the unit to be placed under the floor, a move that reduces engine back pressure and improves performance. In the MZR spec chosen for South Africa, peak outputs are 99 kW at 6 000 r/min and 177 N.m at 4 500, a little down from the 104 kW and 181 N.m of examples sold in Europe.
Although the outgoing 626 was a well-engineered, well-built car, the newcomer has upped the stakes considerably. The test car’s shutlines were near-perfect, giving the car a Lexus-like air. Inside, too, there’s a sense of practicality combined with precision. While facia architecture and door-coverings retain a distinctively Mazda style, there’s a tactile quality to the materials used. The soft-feel moulding used for the upper facia is elegant and practical, and the alloy-look plastic for the hangdown section is handsome, though we wonder how long it will resist scratching.
True to Japanese tradition, there’s a high level of equipment for the R197 700 list price. Standard features include a sound system with front-loader CD, central locking, air-conditioning, electric windows front and rear, an immobiliser and airbags for driver and front passenger Seats, finished in cloth in the Elegant version, are nicely shaped and supportive, front and rear. Legroom in the rear compartment is impressive, surely among the best in this category. The split rear seatbacks fold to extend the load area but, despite the special space-saving suspension design, luggage capacity, measured by the ISO-block method, is down on that of the outgoing 626 model.
The BMW-targeting has produced a decidedly Teutonic feel at the wheel. Controls are logically positioned, the analog instrument dials are clear, and major controls are ergonomically well positioned. Most have a slick feel, the exception being the gearshift, which we found a touch hard-edged and baulky.
Easing into the traffic, the engine lacks some urge low-down, but starts to pull better as the revs rise. Steering is precise and quick, much like that of a machine from Munich. In fact, it’s only in extremis that the front-drive characteristics of the chassis are clearly noticeable.
Pushed to the limit, the front Bridgestones start to slide, but the car’s stance is easily corrected with a throttle lift. But the Mazda6’s biggest strength is to be found on the winding road, where, over and over again, it will provide the unique sense of satisfaction that a keen driver gets from stringing together a complex of curves to perfection, thanks to a steering that allows pin-sharp placement and a chassis with huge reserves of grip.
Munich mimicking is also evident in the car’s taut ride, which is well controlled yet compliant in the manner of sporty Euro saloons. Rough tar can result in some jarring, however, and South Africa’s typically coarse tar-road toppings raise interior sound-levels. Out on our test strip, the car, with its lower peak outputs and just 2 500 km on the odo, fell fractionally short of expectations in top speed and acceleration through the gears based on European tests.
The Elegant does not have traction control, and the drive wheels spin nicely if you drop the clutch with around 3 500 on the dial, getting the car briskly off the mark with a degree of axle tramp. Though gearshifts are notchy, the changes are quick enough. From standstill, the test car reached 100 km/h in 10,66 seconds, passed the kilometre post in 32,14, and topped out at 203 km/h with the slightly optimistic speedo reading 211.
Stopping power is more impressive, the car averaging just under three seconds in our 10-stop 100-to-zero braking test with no distress from the four-wheel discs, and absolutely no stability problems, thanks to ABS and EBD. That other crucial figure, fuel thirst at 100 km/h, was also fairly impressive, the Mazda needing an average of just 6,89 litres per 100 km over our four constant-speed runs with the Peiseler flowmeter, a result that corresponds to a CAR fuel index of 9,65 litres per 100 km. That means most owners should easily manage over 650 km on a 64-litre tankful of unleaded.