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Mazda 6


Whatever car you drive, it's odds that you'll notice identical examples among the crowd of traffic on our roads.

It's something akin to walking past someone wearing the same clothes as you, although conversely it's not at all off-putting.

Encounter other cars on the road that are the same as your's, and the reaction is comforting - something to do with safety in numbers, but also a smug feeling that you've made the right choice.

Either way, there's no need to be driving or riding in a Mazda 6 to notice the model's popularity in New Zealand.

With local sales averaging 200 a month since this middleweight was launched three years ago, the car has become a familiar sight.

In year to date sales, the Mazda 6 is the medium class leader, capturing 16.5 per cent of the segment. More than that, the Mazda has outsold the well respected Ford Mondeo and other thoroughly sorted rivals like the Honda Accord and Holden Vectra.

The Mazda 6 has even managed to better sales of both four- and six-cylinder Toyota Camrys during 2005.

It's Mazda's top-selling model in New Zealand, easily outpacing the Mazda 3 and Mazda 2.

The showroom performance is no surprise. The Mazda 6 isn't merely one of those cars that looks right from any angle, it's also a well-balanced and competent machine to drive.

Mazda has a long-time reputation for offering good medium size cars, dating back to the rear-drive 626 of 1979 that set out to challenge the Ford Cortina.

Unlike today's equivalent, the first generation 626 couldn't emulate the strong sales of the Cortina, despite the fact it was an excellent car.

Back then many consumers were still slightly suspicious that the Japanese could produce a good handling car to equal or better what was coming out of Europe.

Like its rear-drive predecessor, the first front-wheel drive 626 was assembled here in both sedan and five-door hatchback forms at a time when medium size hatches were thin on the ground.

The Hiroshima car maker then strayed into mediocrity with a succession of bland 626s until the arrival of the Mazda 6 in 2002.

 Though there was nothing wrong with the last of the 626s, the car was simply anonymous.

One Mazda executive in Europe was driven to say: "It was invisible, no one would see you arrive or leave, and if you left the car in the centre of town, odds on you wouldn't even get a ticket."

Now while most of us aren't keen about making a fuss or parking outside the local cafe simply to make an impression, we're also not anxious to be seen owning something so boring the neighbour or best friend can'trecall the badge on the bonnet.

Enter the Mazda 6, the car you'll be much happier discussing with the blokes at the pub.

So right was the design from day one that the facelifted 2005 series appears little different.

Sure, the angle of the windscreen may have been altered, there are modifications - a more rigid B-pillar, new bumpers, new wheels - but you need to tell people about those changes. Or simply forget about them and get on with life, safe in the knowledge that there was really nothing wrong with the first Mazda 6.

Those distinctive lines and slightly menacing V-shaped grille are much the same as before, spelling good news for a car with character.

Inside there are new surface materials and upholstery changes but most of the 750 engineering changes (who's counting?) are under the skin.

It was good to spend a week with an entry-level 2.0-litre sedan wearing steel wheels with plastic covers since most cars loaned to the media are higher specification variants.

Back in the real world the choice of manual transmission was another plus, even if 80 per cent of buyers in New Zealand choose autos.

With most new cars and used imports sold here now having automatic transmissions, a manual gearbox is fast becomin a rarity. Many of our new breed of drivers can't even handle a gear lever and clutch.

Some observers reckon gathering traffic congestion denies any future for manuals, although most European nations would disagree.

Most small cars are still better suited to manual gearboxes, and the new six-speed manual in the Mazda 6 works superbly.

The gearbox is light, slick and has a short action which makes it great to use. Both manual and auto gain an extra ratio and such is the tall gearing you might find yourself ignoring sixth gear most of the time.

Indeed, top is essentially an overdrive best left for the open road. Use it as a five-speeder and the gearing is spot on for local conditions.

Fifth is good for around 3000rpm at 100km/h with another gear still to go.

Variable valve timing and a variable intake system plus a new electronic throttle enhance performance. Refinements to the MZR double overhead cam engine include new twin balance shafts and the 0 to 100km/h time of 8.9 seconds confirms the car's crisp performance that outshines rivals.

Power increases modestly to 108kW, economy improves by five per cent, and an average fuel consumption of 8.1litres/100km (34.9mpg) allied to a 64 litre tank offers a cruising range of at least 700km.

The 6 gets top marks for the flexibility and response of the 1998cc four-cylinder that's also a healthy high revver when needs must. The sedan body is stiffer than either the wagon or hatch, and all three enjoy a more compliant ride after fine tuning of dampers, springs and anti-roll bars in the latest upgrade.

Higher-grade versions run with 16-inch or 17-inch wheels but the 15-inch rims on GLX don't upset the balanced look of the Mazda 6.

As the least costly model, the $38,245 GLX misses out on some tasty gear, although it's hardly downmarket.

 There's no on-board trip computer or fuel read-out, foglights, leather wrapped steering wheel, lumbar support or tilt adjustment for the driver's seat or climate control.

Yet the GLX has manual air conditioning, illuminated entry with delayed fade, a steering column with tilt and reach adjustment and height adjustment for the driver's seat.

The package also includes front, side and curtain airbags, and four-wheel discs and ABS with EBD add up to a braking system with good feel.

No arguments, either, about the dashboard design, seat comfort or leg and headroom front and rear.

Almost half of Mazda 6 buyers here choose the four-door sedan, with the equally handsome station wagon variant being the second most popular model ahead of the hatchback.

This is a really good package with a fine engine, excellent ride and good looks. No wonder it is the class leader because it deserves to be.

Review by Donn Anderson

Auto Trader New Zealand