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It was clear that the Mazda6 wasn’t going anywhere. You could go places, of course, but Mazda’s midsize sedan, what should be the meat and potatoes of Mazda’s vehicle lineup, was on cruise control and not going all that fast. While the overall Asian-nameplate midsize market was up, the Mazda6 was stuck on stagnant.

So big deal, one might say. Why should that matter to me, Joe Consumer?

Well, bad news for Mazda in this case is good news for you, because for Mazda to improve the sales performance of the Mazda6, Mazda had to improve the Mazda6. More of the same would mean—at best—more of the same. So Mazda went against the popular wisdom of selling a “world car,” thought to be the thing to do be because of the economies of scale and so on, but that’s what the previous Mazda6 had been.

What Mazda discovered, however, was that the Japanese and Europeans prefer a smaller car than Americans do, and building a car that fit their market it didn’t fit ours.

Behold the 2009 Mazda Mazda6! (Cue trumpet fanfare).

Indeed, let the beholding begin. Mazda claims the Mazda6 is “the first Mazda vehicle designed, engineered, developed, and manufactured on US soil” and as such is more attuned to the American customer. However, Mazda also notes that the program engineer for the Mazda6 was Hiroshi Kajiyama, a 21-year Mazda veteran with a degree in electrical engineering from the Hiroshima Institute of Technology.

Chief designer was Youichi Sato whose resume includes the second and third generation RX-7 and the second generations Miata…and his charge to designers in Mazda’s four design studios (Hiroshima, Yokohama, Frankfurt and Irvine, CA) was “Time to be Japanese.”

Engineered, designed in America…?

Anyway, the end result is a car whose design is clearly inspired by the current generation Mazda MX-5 Miata and the Mazda RX-8. The latter is particularly evident in the front fenders, which reportedly caused substantial heartache in the engineering department because they’re not easy and not inexpensive to make. We think they also look something like the Mercedes-Benz S-Class fenders, so the Mazda6 is in good company.

Not surprisingly, the chassis is front-drive and there’s a choice of two engines. The base engine is a 2.5-liter four-cylinder used in other Mazda vehicles, including variants in the Mazda3, MS-5, Mazda5 and CX-7. In the Mazda6, the engine produces 170 hp and 167 lb-ft of torque. That compares favorably with the Toyota Camry (158 hp and 161 lb-ft torque), Nissan Altima (170 hp, 175 lb-ft torque), Hyundai Sonata (175 hp, 168 lb-ft torque) and Ford Fusion (160 hp, 156 lb-ft torque), among others. With the four, Mazda’s mid-sized is called the Mazda6 i.

The optional engine is the 3.7-liter V-6 introduced in the Mazda CX-9 crossover. In the Mazda6 s, as six-cylinder models are known, the engine is rated at 272 hp and 269 lb-ft of torque. Honda Accord: 271 hp and 254 lb-ft of torque; the Nissan Altima: 270 hp and 258 lb-ft torque; Toyota Camry: 268 hp and 248 lb-ft torque. See obsessive chart below of competitors.

The V-6 comes with a new six-speed automatic transmission that can be shifted manually (there’s a tip-shift gate to the left of the drive position) but also has “Active Adaptive Shift” control. Left to its own, AAS reads road conditions and selects the appropriate gear (Mazda says usually third), and downshifts when decelerating for a curve for engine braking and selecting the right gear for exiting from the curve, for example. Alas, we weren’t able to test this feature in the time and location of our test.
The four-cylinder engine has a 5-speed manual transmission as standard equipment but has a manually-shiftable 5-speed automatic as an option. While in manual mode, neither transmission will shift up nor down on its own, running up against the rev limiter if the transmission isn’t shifted up during acceleration.

The interior of the Mazda6 impresses with an excellent selection of plastics where there are plastics, a lot of “soft touch” surfaces and, in the 2009 Mazda6 s Grand Touring (top of the line) we drove, “leather trimmed” seats. Equipment on the Grand Touring level—also available with the four-cylinder engine—is extensive, with power driver and front passenger seats, tilt-and-telescope steering wheel, trip computer, auto on-off xenon headlights, keyless entry with pushbutton start and more all included. Even floor mats are included (they’re extra cost in a BMW).

The bits and parts of the Mazda6 have a solid and screwed-down feel and the doors close with an open-the-pod-bay-door-please-HAL solidness.

Cut to the chase. The Mazda6 i has an EPA mileage estimate of 20/29 mpg city/highway. The Mazda6 s is rated at 17/25 mpg respectively. Here’s what you get for the more frequent visits to the pump: You get quick and lots of it from an engine that’s smooth as a botoxed forehead. There’s remarkably little torque steer, that annoying pull to one side or the other when accelerating hard in a lower gear with front wheel drive) with an engine making as much torque as this one does.

And nothing rattles or shakes over rough pavement. We weren’t able in our extended drive to tease out the finer points of the Mazda6 s’s winding road handling, but the broader points are that from our first drive this front-driver just won’t commit a gotcha moment. The Mazda6’s fully independent suspension is backed up by a standard-equipment electronic stability control system and four-wheel disc brakes are standard as well. The suspension won’t test the integrity of your dentures over rough pavement but still gives a well controlled ride.

We also drove a Mazda6 i Sport with the six-speed manual transmission and with about 100 fewer horses its performance is obviously more sedate. The engine lived up to its numbers and the manual shifted well—as it should in this Mazda Miata sibling—the clutch was light and progressive and…after driving the V-6-powered Mazda6, rather tame. The obvious advice is for anyone contemplating buying the Mazda6 i is to not test drive the Mazda6 s. It’s not that the Mazda6 i isn’t going anywhere. In fact, it most certainly will. Mazda expects 75 percent of the Mazda6 will be powered by fours. It’s just that those powered by the six will be going there just that much faster.

The four-cylinder 2009 Mazda Mazda6 i Sport we drove had a base price of $20,250 including, among other features, stability control, cruise control and keyless remote entry and standard equipment. Our Northeast equipped car had LEV-2 LEV emissions controls at $100 plus $670 delivery for a bottom line of $21,020. Our 2009 Mazda Mazda6 S Grand Touring had a base price of $28,260 that included 18-inch alloy wheels, rain-sensing wipers, auto-dimming mirrors, leather-trimmed seats, heated front seats, advanced keyless entry with push button start (proximity key), Bluetooth audio and phone, and more. A Moonroof and Bose package which include a moonroof and Bose audio (surprise) and at six-disc CD changer and Sirius satellite radio added $1,760 and emissions another $100. Including $670 for delivery the bottom line comes to $30,790.

Horsepower and torque specifications comparison of midsize sedans
4-cyl HP 4-cyl torque 6-cyl hp 6-cyl torque
Mazda Mazda6 170 167 272 269
Honda Accord 177 161 271 254
Nissa Altima 175 180 270 258
Hyundai Sonata 175 168 249 229
Kia Optima 175 169 190 184
Toyota Camry 158 161 268 248
Mitsubishi Galant 160 157 230 250
Dodge Avenger 173 166 235 232
Ford Fusion 160 156 221 205
Mercury Milan 160 156 221 205
Volkswagen Passat 200 207 280 265
Chevrolet Malibu 169 160 252 251
Pontiac G6 164 156 221 220
Saturn Aura 169 160 252 251
Subaru Legacy 170 170 243* 241*
*Subaru highest output engine is turbocharged four-cylinder.

Illustrations, top to bottom, courtesy Mazda North American Operations, also provided the automobile.
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