Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Zoom Zoom - Mazda 6 2.0

When was the last time you heard a car company use a sound as its motto? Well, I've never heard of it, quite frankly. Usually its some fancy tagline like "the Relentless persuit of Perfection" or "The Ultimate Driving Machine". Well, Mazda, obviously, had a different idea. The thrust behind its new campaign is its "Zoom Zoom" mantra. Its a cute mantra though...one that quickly encapsulates what Mazda is trying to do with its new product line. Suggestions of youthful energy and driving passion come to mind when I hear that line in the catchy Mazda ad playing on radio nowadays.

Once the maker of ultra-reliable but ultra-boring transportation devices (I shall not use the word "cars" on the much unloved 323, 626 and 929 ranges which had all the appeal of a Singer sewing machine to car enthusiasts), Mazda is in the midst of re-inventing itself as the purveyor of exciting driver's cars, best expressed by the cult-status MX-5 Miata roadster, which has won countless accolades worldwide for its affordable fun.

The 626 pretty much defined Mazda - reliable but boring

But as successful as the MX-5 was, Mazda was falling into the trap of being a one-car brand. To break this trend, Mazda, aided by its parent Ford, set out to replace the ageing 626 with a new model, based on the acclaimed Ford Mondeo platform which its parent had developed for the European market. It was to be christened simply the "6".

In the age of "platform sharing", having the Mondeo as the base on which to work on was a blessing for Mazda, as this car had, in all its incarnations and versions, won high acclaim for its handling prowess. All Mazda needed to do was to clothe it in a distinctive body and it would have had a winner on its hands.

The Ford Mondeo from which the 6 was based on

And clothe the car it did. Mazda outdid itself by re-skinning the Mondeo with a swoopy new bodywork that had a rakish nose inspired by the long-nosed bullet trains in Japan. Dressed in full bodykit on the upper-end 2.3 Sport versions, the car looks quite stunning, especially in the Pacific Blue Mica that most of the press photos depict the car in.

The Mazda 6 decked out in full bodykit looks quite stunning

A clean and stylish break from the gutless and safe design of its predecessor, the new car cathes your eye and suggests speed even when standing still. Stylish slit-like projector headlamps grace the front end, flanking the new Mazda corporate grille, and up at the rear, Lexus IS200-style "jewel effect" lights add some drama to the car's pert rear end.

Sexy new bodywork on the Mazda 6

Mazda didn't stop on the bodywork. Its crafty designers obviously took inspiration from Italian car interiors and gave the new 6 a fabulous interior. On well equipped versions that are imported into Malaysia by Cycle & Carriage, the interior is in a classy black, with soft touch plastics wherever the driver comes into contact with the car. Silver mock-titanium inserts liven up the interior inmeasurably and certainly beats the faux-wood that is increasingly becoming standard fare with most cars in this category. Stylish round air vents for the automatic climate control gives a nice italianate touch to the interior, and if the buyer so wishes, the interior can further be decked out in lush leather.

Stylish centre console clad in mock-titanium trim

Unlike Mazda's of old, the 6 is fitted with expensive-feeling controls that give a reassuring feel of solidity. Well damped clicks are not strictly necessary to make a car work, but it certainly makes a difference if the 6 is, as Mazda intends, to tempt buyers away from entry-level BMW's and Audi's. In the age of cost cutting, the sheer quality that the 6's cabin exudes is something Mazda can truly be proud of.

Gorgeously tactile interior of the 6

Equipment is generous - a CD player, 4 airbags and cruise control coming as standard on all models. Space on the inside is generous, and being a rather lanky 6ft 3in driver, I found that I could sit in the driver's seat comfortably and still have enough space behind me for another 6-footer. This is something that is rare amongst cars in this price range. Another rarity is the 6's steering wheel that adjusts for both height AND reach!

Huge amouts of sprawling space for passengers at the back

Powering the 6 is a new 2-litre 16 valve DOHC number designed and manufactured by Mazda. Designated the "MZR", the engine produces 141bhp and 181Nm, which is adequate, if not exactly exciting. Compared to its class competitors such as the 2 litre Toyota Camry and the Honda Accord, this engine isn't exactly at the top of the horsepower race as it eschews fancy valvetrains such as Toyota's VVT-i and Honda's i-VTEC. What the MZR does have however, is a variable length induction system that helps it produce slightly more useable torque at lower rpm's.

The 2.0 litre MZR engine in the 6

Drive goes through an electronically governed 4 speed automatic gearbox, which is pretty much standard fare in this class of cars. The 2.0 litre 6 does miss out on the increasingly common sequential manual override that german cars offer. This feature is standard on the 2.3litre 6, which Cycle & Carriage has yet to import to Malaysia. Called "Activematic", the gearbox is essentially the same as the one fitted to the 2.0 litre bar some changes to the electronics to facilitate the sequential shifting.

Driving impressions are mostly positive. The comfortable driving position and the brilliantly compliant suspension does its best to keep you from feeling fatigued. Even the worse Kuala Lumpur roads are tackled with aplomb, the 6 dismissing most road blemishes with a distinctly teutonic arrogance. Only sharp rutted surfaces causes the 6 to lose the plot momentarily, but in all honesty, it isn't any worse than the Honda Accord. The big Camry, however, still holds the prize for ride comfort in this class.

One thing the Camry cannot do however, is match the 6's composure when the driver wants to have a bit of fun. Mazda engineers have been busy tuning the suspension of the 6 to give excellent handling characteristics. When driven enthusiastically, understeer never rears its ugly head until the car is very well near its adhesion limits, at which point backing off merely tucks the nose in cleanly and the car sails through the curve with minimal body roll.

Sudden changes in direction are executed cleanly in the 6 with no lurching, something the larger Toyota has a problem with at most times. Where the Camry would start to wallow and head for the nearest guardrail, the 6 would just hang on and stay flat. Both eventually wash out in a messy trail of understeer and squealing rubber if asked to tackle curves at silly speeds, but its the 6 that holds on much longer. In many ways, it handles like a slightly heavier MX-5. In the 2.0 litre, there's hardly enough power to provoke torque steer, so the steering feel remains sharp and uncorrupted from drive forces being channeled through the front wheels.

Having a bit of fun in the 6 is not an impossibility

The brilliance of the 6's newfound handling prowess is somewhat let down by the engine's nature when extended. Quiet and sedate below 3,000rpm, the engine takes on a gruff note when revved above 4000rpm, which is coincidentally where the powerband starts to build nicely. From that point onwards, the engine emits a strictly machanical whine that does nothing for the enthusiast. While it remains reasonable smooth all the way to its 6500rpm redline and cut-out, its coarseness as it nears 6000rpm will make you think twice about exploring that area of the engine's rev range. In this regard, Toyota and Honda have the upper hand, with engines that stay commendably smooth and composed no matter where the tacho needle is pointing.

But driven more sedately, the 6 is a brilliant package. At around RM 165k a piece, it isn't expensive and is competitive with its class adversaries like the Honda Accord and the Toyota Camry. Add in the fact that the 6 handles brilliantly and copes with anything you can throw at it with aplomb and there just might be a case to choose the 6 over its competitors if you're the type that loves driving.

Whilst the Accord and the Camry have better engines, and likely better residuals when it comes to trade-in time, the 6 is the clearly the driver's choice. Take a trip to the nearest Cycle & Carriage showroom and see the car for yourself. Trust me, you won't be disappointed...."Zoom zoom" indeed.


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