Several years ago, the term "sports sedan" would most likely conjure up something European, probably of Germanic flavor, that blended the best of 4-door, 5-passenger civility with first-rate performance. These days, youthful enthusiasts would point to Japan as the land of the sports sedan, with the likes of the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution and Subaru Impreza WRX taking the spotlight away from BMW and Mercedes-Benz. Mazda has also joined the sports-sedan game with a pumped-up version of the popular Mazda6.
And this is hardly a mildly tweaked, dressed-up version of the 6. It's been reengineered from the ground up, including a new 274-bhp turbocharged inline-4 and an active torque-splitting all-wheel-drive system. We had seen spy photos of this car throughout the summer last year, and finally this winter, we were given the opportunity to drive it in Japan. The venue was the TI Aida Circuit in Okayama Prefecture, the site of Formula 1 contests in 1994 and 1995.
The Mazdaspeed6 leaves the line efficiently with little wheelspin, with all four 215/45R-18 tires biting the tarmac simultaneously. Stay on the throttle and the car showcases a hearty dose of low- and midrange punch. Although redline is at 6500 rpm, you might want to shift earlier because the 2.3-liter MZR engine runs out of steam at about 6000 rpm. Part of the reason is the compact Hitachi turbocharger, which was developed primarily for low-end power, so it doesn't continue at the top end in the manner of a larger turbo.
The turbocharger is located on the firewall side of the transversely mounted engine, so you won't be able to see it when looking into the engine bay. However, a large intercooler sits in prominent view, giving evidence of forced induction. The engine comes mated to a newly developed 6-speed manual transmission with short, clean throws and good overall feel.
Mazda's new performance sedan puts out 274 bhp at 5500 rpm and 280 lb.-ft. of torque at a low 3000. Mazda claims that the Mazdaspeed6 runs from zero to 60 mph in 5.5 seconds.
As one would expect from a Mazda performance car, the Mazdaspeed6's handling is first-rate. Body roll is kept in check with recalibrated springs and dampers. The overall suspension system has remained largely unchanged from the stock 6, with upper and lower A-arms up front and multilink at rear. The awd system works competently, providing excellent grip during cornering and on slick surfaces. A computer automatically adjusts torque according to different driving styles, from 100/0 to 50/50 front/rear.
When driving in a civil manner on the freeway, the Mazdaspeed6 is a pure front-driver. Kick up your pace a couple of notches on a winding road, and you get up to a 50/50 torque split, allowing the 4-door to feel like a rear-drive car. That said, the Mazdaspeed6 still behaves like an awd car on the track. Overall grip is excellent, but understeer is prevalent on most corners, and the rear end has no tendency to slide out.
The car looks striking, although the bulbous hood drew mixed reactions. Mazda designers said that they needed the extra clearance to make room for the intercooler, and they wanted to stay away from incorporating a hood scoop. "We do not want to be classified as part of the pocket-rocket set. Our aim is for the more mature sports-sedan enthusiast," one of them commented. "That's why we went with this hood shape. It's aggressive yet keeps the lines of the car clean and flowing."
Although Mazda says that prices are not set, the new mature sports sedan will come in at about $29,000. The Mazdaspeed6 will be available in the spring of 2005, and will kick off a variety of new sporty vehicles including the next Miata and possibly a powered-up Mazdaspeed RX-8.