Mazda 6 2.0-litre

The revamped Mazda 6 is a real revelation: lighter and more agile, yet supple and serene. You could have knocked John Simister down with a feather
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Specifications

Price: from £16,630 (range span £15,100-£22,040), on sale December, estate car follows in February
Engine: 1,999cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, 147bhp at 6,500rpm, 136lb ft at 4,000rpm
Transmission: six-speed manual or five-speed auto, front-wheel drive
Performance: (manual) 133mph, 0-62 in 9.9sec, 40.4mpg official average
CO2: 166g/km

This is very good news. The little Mazda 2 supermini weighs significantly less than the previous one, and now Mazda has pulled off the same trick with the new Mazda 6. This Mondeo-rivalling car is up to 35kg lighter than its predecessor, despite being slightly roomier. The sooner other car-makers can emulate this admirable trend – one that helps make cars more fuel-efficient and more agile – the better.

But if you know the previous Mazda 6, alarm bells may already be ringing. It was an uncommonly good-looking car, but in its early versions it was disappointingly noisy of engine and jittery of ride. You'd think that a new, lighter one stands every chance of compounding the felony, as curing it too often involves adding weight, unless engineers are very clever.

So here I am on a road I know well, in the hills and mountains just north of Nice. It's the kind of road that proves there's still enjoyment to be had from driving, and – if the car's not worthy of it – frustration can set in. It doesn't have to be some mega-money supercar, compromise-free sports car or honed hatchback for everything to gel; it simply has to be designed and engineered to work with the driver's commands and instincts, to involve the driver in the whole dynamic process.

This new Mazda 6 does exactly that, to a wholly remarkable degree. It feels like an Alfa 159 should, or like a BMW 3 series would if it were, like the Mazda, front-wheel drive. It has the precision, fluidity, light-footedness and sixth-sense responsiveness that used to mark out the Peugeot 405 nearly two decades ago. Mazda has been annoying us for several years with the puerile "zoom-zoom" slogan, but the reality really matches the hype.

Of course, every motoring pundit has heaped praise on Ford's current Mondeo. It too feels good to drive, flowing through corners, steering sensitively, keeping the driver interested and passengers comfortable. But the Mazda is a step ahead of the Mondeo, because it has an easy agility the Ford lacks. That's because the Mazda is lighter, smaller and more manageable than the too-corpulent, too-wide Mondeo. Average people have got larger and it's to be expected that cars will grow to reflect that fact, but no one need feel confined in the Mazda 6. It's just the right size for a normal family car.

All this driver-pleasing responsiveness would soon turn sour if the Mazda made a meal of poor road surfaces, but it proves supple and serene over bumps and waves. Quiet, too, with little roar from the road and engines – all three versions sampled – which are smooth, almost inaudible at idle and restrained when revved.

It's clear, then, that huge thought has gone into how this car feels to drive. There's a Mazda philosophy here that is close to the one Peugeot used to follow. It says that a car's nose should be keen to turn and in doing so must load up the outside rear wheel, making the car feel "pointy". If you then ease the accelerator, the car's cornering line should tighten, but in a controlled, progressive way.

This makes for great economy of effort on the part of the driver with great reward, because the driver is using the accelerator as much as the steering to guide the car. It makes a good Mazda feel vital, but never scary. And should the tail want to break free of grip when you brake hard on a tightening corner, there's the standard-fit ESP to rein it in. The brakes, too, have a natural, progressive response, and the gearshift has precise, satisfying movements.

And the engines? There was no diesel to try on this launch event, but it will be Mazda's own 140bhp, 2.0-litre unit when available. In other words, it's not the Ford/Peugeot unit used in Ford's products and neither, incidentally, is the Mazda itself based on Mondeo underpinnings, even though Mazda is Ford-owned. The new Mazda 6 is built on a development of the previous car's platform. I did, however, try all three petrol engines, which all produce less carbon dioxide than the old car's equivalent units.

The 147bhp 2.0 brings decent pace but has to be worked hard through all six gears because there's surprisingly little energy below about 3,000rpm. The 1.8, with 120bhp, is slower overall but feels livelier when pulling from low speeds. The most effortless-feeling engine, though, is the 2.5-litre unit with 170bhp, derived from the former 2.3-litre unit. This is a big engine to have four cylinders, but a smooth one thanks to a pair of vibration-cancelling balancer shafts. There's no confirmation yet of a rapid Mazda 6 MPS yet, but if it happens it will have a turbocharged version of this 2.5 plus four-wheel drive.

You'll have noticed that our pictures show a saloon. Or maybe you haven't, because its slope-tail profile is similar to the hatchback's. There will be an estate car, too, whose rear seats fold forward by themselves when you press a button in the load bay, and whose luggage cover rises with the opening tailgate.

All three versions are designed to look Japanese, celebrating their origin instead of trying to hide it behind a cloak of Europeanism. There are references to swords, mist-shrouded mountains and attention to tiny details, all of which has the scent of baloney. It's a good-looking car, though, with a strong Mazda personality thanks to its bulging front wings and trademark front grille.

There are some good details here. The horseshoe-shaped wind deflectors ahead of the front wheels are a simple aid to the Mazda 6's excellent aerodynamics (it has a drag coefficient of 0.27). Inside, there's a feeling of soft-touch quality that would befit a premium car.

Gadgetry abounds. At night, a wave of light passes through the controls on the centre console on start-up, simulating a heartbeat, and some versions play (annoyingly) the three "zoom-zoom-zoom" notes on switch-off. The cross-functional network controls on the steering wheel handle all sorts of functions, including trip computer, stereo, sat-nav and air-conditioning, and Mazda claims a young person can master them in minutes. Older people, it concedes, might need up to a day.

Those more senior souls will also hate the small odometer display, the difficulty of reading it made worse by the orangey-red used for all the digital read-outs. As Mazda expects most buyers to be over 50, that's a problem. "I can't read it, either," says Hajime Matsumura, project leader for the Mazda 6, with surprising frankness. But that's the only significant fault with his car, which otherwise might just be the new class leader. Surprised? So am I.

The rivals

Ford Mondeo 2.0 from £16,195

The current "non-premium" standard-setter has to give way to the Mazda on driving enjoyment, but its great size does make it very roomy. Good value, too.

Volkswagen Passat 2.0 from £16,962

The Passat was cited by engineer Hajime Matsumura as one of the benchmarks for the Mazda, and it's a comfortable, capable, well-engineered car. Worth considering.

BMW 320i from £22,385

The "ultimate driving machine" faces its biggest driving-pleasure threat yet from the upstart Mazda. The BMW's extra cost does buy the comfort of a premium badge, though.

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