A firm ride with lots of zoom

Mazda’s marketing gurus concede that they’ve missed the bus a little in recent years, and punted the Mazda6 as being the car to pole-vault them out of the somewhat boring corner into which they painted themselves in the 1990s.

Still, I think they may have become a little too enthusiastic in the hype they generated while spreading the word.

“The Mazda6 is the first new generation Mazda to fully reflect the style and spirit of the Zoom-Zoom philosophy,” trumpeted the press release that announced the arrival of the car last year.

Zoom-Zoom? Zoom-Zoom? That sounds more like the skateboard used by an urchin selling dirty pictures in a Cairo camel market than the serious philosophy upon which one launches a new, upmarket image. Calling the performance version of the car the “sporty” also seems rather quaint and oriental, but after driving a Mazda6 for a week or so I liked the car enough to overcome that initial linguistic hitch in our relationship.

Judging by the results from the past three South African Car of the Year competitions, it seems apparent that the Mazda6 doesn’t stand much of a chance of snatching the crown in 2004 — the past three winners have all been of German extraction, and they’ve all been oil-burners.

In 2001 the BMW 320d was voted into top place by the South African Guild of Motoring Journalists jury, while 2002 and 2003 saw the Audi A4 1.9 TDi and the Volkswagen Polo TDi rumble off with the laurels.

The Mazda, on the other hand, hails from Japan and would lapse into an immobile sulk if fed anything other than petrol. But superstition has no part to play here, and judged on its own merits the Mazda6 has every chance of being a front-runner. With a dozen-odd national Car of the Year titles and more than 40 design awards to its name it just has to be taken seriously.

I find the conservative styling of the R197 700 entry level Mazda6 2.0 Elegant appealing — the 17-inch wheels and boot spoiler of the 2,3 Sporty versions look great, but are a little over the top except for a real muscle car, which the Mazda6 isn’t.

The lines of the base model we’re discussing here are tidy and purposeful, which beats brash and bullshitty any time of the day.

Specification level of the Mazda, even in base Elegant trim, is high, with 16-inch alloy wheels, air con, power steering, an adjustable steering column, manually adjustable headlights, electrically operated windows, remote central locking and a front-loading CD player being standard features. Safety features include air bags for the driver and front seat passenger and ABS brakes with electronic brake-force distribution.

Last year the Mazda was named a “Best Pick” in the most recent round of high-speed frontal offset crash testing performed by the American Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, so the design team seems to have done its sums properly.

It is obvious that Mazda take the issue of build quality very seriously these days. A Mazda6 demo I drove a few months ago had more than 16 000 hard-driven kilometres on the clock, which is much higher than most vehicles I’m given for evaluation, and yet it felt brand new. Body panels lined up perfectly and there was nary a squeak or rattle to be heard on even the bumpiest of roads. Some of the switchgear however looked a tad cheap and nasty and spoilt the image a little.

There’s plenty of room for passengers, lots of stowage space for odds and ends, and the cavernous boot can swallow up more cargo than most.

Mazda describes the Mazda6 as being “the car that put the sport back into the sport saloon”. Although BMW, Volvo, Mercedes-Benz and Subaru owners might regard this as a little over the top, the base model is fairly lively, if not stunningly quick.

With 99kW on tap it runs to just more than 200kph, passing the 100kph yardstick in about 10,5 seconds.

I think an extra couple of bob spent on soundproofing would be a good investment for the factory, however, as things get a little noisy when the car has worked hard. The 1 999cm3 transversely mounted four cylinder unit utilises the same bore as the 2,3 litre versions, but with a shorter stroke, and thus needs to be revved harder to get things happening.

It boasts chain-driven twin overhead camshafts operating four valves per cylinder, but misses out on the variable valve timing, balance shaft and variable length induction system fitted to the 2,3 litre models.

Torque is claimed to be 181Nm at 4 500 revs compared to the 207Nm the 2,3 litre Sporty produces at 4 000. Despite the 26Nm difference in torque and 23kW power deficiency the smaller engined Mazda is claimed to be just 6kph slower than the Sporty version, and to reach the 100kph benchmark less than a second after its more powerful stablemate.

The Mazda6 is an excellent choice for those who delight in getting around corners as much as they enjoy sheer speed in a straight line. The ride is firm and confidence-inspiring, while roadholding is superb with plenty of feedback. Braking is excellent, with ABS and EBD modulated brakes operating 283mm ventilated discs up front and 280mm discs at the back. The car feels more European than Japanese, which I suspect was high on the list of requirements presented to the design team.

When you get down to brass tacks there is very little on which to fault the Mazda6 and the public seem to be voting with their wallets. During the last three months of 2003 the company sold 358 Mazda6 saloons, which is pretty good for this sector of the market.

So, do I see the Mazda6 Elegant taking the Car of the Year title this year? In my view it’s a front-runner and deserves a top-three placing, alongside the Renault Megane II and the Honda Accord. We’ll have to wait a couple of months to see if I’m right.

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