Saying the new Mazda 6 is a very pleasant car may sound like damning it with faint praise.
That's the best you can say about it?
Well, yes. But it's in no way intended as a back-handed compliment.
After two weeks in the company of base model sedan and more upmarket station wagon versions, my conclusion is that they are, indeed, very pleasant cars.
Cars that I could live with easily and happily; cars that are entirely practical; cars with stylish bodywork that brings a smile to your face every time you look at it.
The two cars were drove represented base and mid-grade specification.
The four-door sedan was a 2.0-litre GLX fitted with an automatic gearbox. It sells for $38,495. The manual is $36,995.
The strikingly-styled wagon was a 2.3-litre GSX with a five-speed manual gearbox and a $41,995. An automatic gearbox version is $43,745.
Mazda has high hopes for the 6, predicting sales of around 120 a month. Whether that will be achieved remains to be seen, but I have to admit I see a lot of them on the road. They're more visible than some other cars launched around the same time.
We drove the wagon first, so we'll look at it first.
It's powered by the all-new 2.3-litre four cylinder which has Sequential Valve Timing (S-VT) to maximise torque.
It puts out 122kW of power at 6500rpm and 207Nm of peak torque at 4000rpm. The torque spread is good; 90 percent of peak is available from 1750rpm.
Mazda says it's the most powerful motor it's every offered in a mid-sized sedan/wagon.
It's a willing motor and it gives the 6 strong performance. The manual wagon will hit 100km/h in around nine seconds.
But we found it a little noisy, especially under hard acceleration. That's a fairly common Mazda engine trait. Drive an original model 323 Astina and you'll know what we mean.
A colleague who rates the 2.3-litre Mazda 6 highly feels we're being hard on the motor. The rest of the car is so quiet any engine noise is amplified, he says.
We'll go along with that to some extent. The car is whisper-quiet at 100km/h on smooth-surfaced roads and at that speed the engine is quite too.
But ask the question of the engine and mash the pedal to the floor and things get quite raucous.
The high level of sound insulation in the 6 is shown by what happens at idling speed. I hadn't noticed it until I parked outside my gate at home and got out to open the gate.
From inside the car the engine was barely audible. As I got out of the car I was surprised by how much noise the motor was making.
The engine spins at a moderately-high 3000rpm at 100km/h in fifth gear, which also has an effect on noise levels. On sustained motorway running we found ourselves aware of the engine working reasonably hard and wished for another ratio to shift into for a more relaxed engine note.
Our verdict on the engine? A mixed bag. Excellent performance, good torque and smooth delivery. Just a little noisy in city or hard country road use if you're not playing the excellent Compact Disc sound system.
Manual gearboxes have always been a Mazda strong point, and the 6's five-speed doesn't disappoint. It's smooth-shifting and will swap ratios quickly. It was a little more remote in feel that some older Mazda gearboxes we've used but offered much more tactile pleasure that the lifeless flick-of-a-switch manuals found in some Mitsubishis.
The ratios are well chosen, and the engine's generous torque spread frequently saw the car happily cornering a gear higher than we'd normally use.
Front and rear tracks are 50mm wider than on the old 626, the car the 6 replaces. Mazda says widening the track has effectively lowered the car's centre of gravity by 20mm.
Front suspension is an all-new set-up, using a MacPherson strut and double wishbones on each side.
The suspension mounts to a rigid perimeter frame which has beneficial effects on steering precision, handling, crash safety and vibration and harshness levels.
The suspension geometry has been designed to optimise tyre-to-road contact and reduce understeer.
The multi-link rear suspension is mounted on a rigid subframe and uses low-profile springs and angled dampers. It has 100mm upward and 11omm downward movement to improve ride.
The 6 handles well without being pin-sharp. The steering is precise and offers good feel. The car turns-in to corners well.
The basic trait is mild understeer which increases slightly if you push hard into tight corners.
Old Mazda hands who liked the feeling of rear-end movement that came with the twin-trapezoidal rear suspension pioneered on 323s and 626s will be pleased to know the 6 retains some of that lively feel. It's not as marked as it was in early 1990s Mazdas, but there's still a hint of it, especially in the wagon.
Several colleagues found the "active" rear-end feel of the twin-trapezoidal set-up disconcerting, but I thought it was one of the Mazda 323/626 and Ford Laser/Telstar designs' most endearing features. The rear end never used to break away or come around, but there was a very satisfying feeling as the car transferred its weight to the outside rear wheel under hard cornering. You felt you were driving a car that had been engineered by people who liked to drive.
Mazda has engineered some of that lively chassis feel into the 6, and that can only be a good thing.
Ride is good, the car unfussed on roughly-surfaced roads.
Manoeuvrability in tight spaces is good, and the 6 will make one point turns in situations where some similarly-sized front-wheel drive cars require three-point turns.
Wind noise levels are very low and the Bridgestone tyres are pleasingly-quiet on smooth asphalt. They kick up a fair old racket on chip-surfaced roads, though.
The GSX wagon runs 16-inch alloy wheels shod with 205/205/55 R16 tyres.
The four-wheel disc brakes are strong and progressive (on the wagon anyway) and provide excellent stopping power. The sedan's discs were a little abrupt and grabby and required a sensitive right foot.
ABS anti-skid braking is standard across the Mazda 6 range.
The headlights are as effective as they are strikingly-styled and the windscreen wipers are efficient. An interesting feature was the windscreen washer nipples. They each fired four jets of cleaning fluid on to the screen, enhancing the wipers' effectiveness.
Cabin comfort levels are good, with adequate legroom and headroom. The 6 will seat four adults in high comfort, though with three in the rear shoulder room is tight.
The front seats have been designed to reduce whiplash in an accident.
They're attractively-upholstered in cloth, are comfortable and provide good lateral support during brisk cornering.
The GSX's nicely-sized steering wheel has a leather-wrapped rim (the GLX's steering wheel is urethane). The good quality sound system has four speakers and a Compact Disc player. The GSX gets a six-disc in-dashboard CD changer. The GLX gets a single disc player, also dash-mounted.
The controls are simple to use and logical.
Fully-automatic air-conditioning is standard on the GSX. The GLX gets a manually-controlled unit.
Both model grades get central door-locking; electrically-operated windows and exterior mirrors.
The test sedan, the 2.0 GLX was powered by a 16-valve 2.0-litre four. It develops a good 104kW at 6000rpm and solid peak torque of 191Nm at 4100rpm.
Again the engine was reasonable noisy when working hard, but subjectively we felt it was quieter than the 2.3 unit.
It was mated to a rather ordinary four-speed automatic gearbox. The shift quality was smooth enough, but we'd have welcomed the option of manual control. If we were buying a Mazda 6 GLX we'd opt for the manual, even if we were going to use the car mainly for Auckland commuting.
That said, the auto gearbox made for relaxed city driving.
As noted earlier the test sedan was somewhat marred by abrupt brakes and it was difficult to judge the right amount of pedal pressure.
Passive safety equipment on all Mazda 6s includes dual front airbags (standard on all models) and three-point seatbelts for all five occupants. GSX models also have dual side airbags for front seat occupants and side curtain head-protection airbags for front and rear seat passengers.
Foam bolsters in the door panels increase hip protection for front seat occupants in side-on crashes.
The wagon comes with a cargo net to prevent items being thrown forward into the passenger cabin during panic stops or in crashes.
Both the sedan and the wagon have excellent cargo space which can be extended by folding the rear seatbacks forward.
We're great fans of the way the Mazda 6 looks, especially its striking headlight and taillight cluster design and detailing.
And we think the GSX wagon with its striking wedge shape is one of the best-looking estate cars on NZ roads.
The 6 offers good pace, space and predictable, forgiving handling. You get a lot of car and capability for the money and a good range of features.
In our couple of weeks with the wagon and sedan we grew to like them more each day which is a good measure of a car's long-term potential. We think few people who buy a Mazda 6 will be dissatisfied with their choice, and that their enjoyment and satisfaction will increase as time passes.
For as we said at the start of this review the Mazda 6 is a very pleasant car to drive and travel in. A very pleasant car indeed.
AutoPoint road test team: story and photographs by Mike Stock