Pop quiz: What do you get when you cross a four-door family car with Mazda's new Zoom Zoom product strategy? The answer, of course, is the new Mazda 6, which will be on sale in the United States by January of next year.
The 6 replaces Mazda's 626 in the four-door family hauler market; however, the 6 does two things the 626 never attempted. First, Mazda claims it will meet or beat the driving dynamics of the best mid-size European sedans. Second, it challenges the other Japanese manufacturers to a knock-down, drag-out battle in sportiness and refinement. Mazda thinks the 6 will go toe to toe with the Altima, Camry and Accord, and we think it's right in most respects.
We drove a European-spec version of 6, which differs from the U.S. car in several critical areas. The car we drove was fitted with a lower final drive ratio (4.388:1 vs. 4.105:1) and used different tires (Bridgestone Potenza vs. Michelin Pilot HX) than the American-market car will have standard.
This said, we were able to make several basic observations about Mazda's direction with the 6. It's clear serious engineering effort was spent making the 6 a handler. Included on our drive route were some of the gnarliest roads we've driven. Tackling them in most cars in this market would have been an exercise in understeer and self-control. This wasn't the case with the 6.
With the European-spec Bridgestones, the 6 was relentlessly stuck to the tarmac. Since we haven't driven the 215/50R-17 Michelin Pilot HX tires Mazda will equip the 6 with in the United States, comparisons are impossible. But, they're all-season tires, while the Bridgestones are summer tires, so there will be a handling compromise in the U.S. car. Tires aside, we're certain the chassis fundamentals exist to make the 6 one of the best handling cars in its class.
The chassis, though clearly not designed to rotate quickly like many smaller Mazdas, exhibits impressive turn-in grip. Balance is easy to modulate with the throttle and mid-corner speed is easily maintained. Steering precision and on-center feedback are as good as any Mazda we've driven. It's almost as if there's something to the whole Zoom Zoom thing after all. In fact, even discussing the dynamics of a family car at this level says something for the Mazda's impressive character. It works and it's easy to drive, textbook, even.
Proven suspension designs are found both front and rear. In front, the 6 uses a single upper control arm and two-piece lower control arm very similar to Nissan's new FM platform cars (350Z, G35). Mazda engineers claim similar benefits from the design; better steering feedback and increased stability. The rear suspension should look familiar to regular readers as well. It's shared with the Focus. Mazda didn't readily admit this fact, but it's clear the design is a product of the Ford/Mazda union.
Mazda calls the rear suspension e-type Multi-Link while Ford uses the Control Blade nomenclature. Whatever, we don't care what they call it, we're just glad it works. Utilizing two lower links, an upper link and a trailing lateral link, it's a complex maze of bars and plates, which is as compact as it is effective in making the chassis work right.