The Independent Road Test: It's the quiet one they have to watch: Roger Bell salutes the new Mazda, silently stalking its luxury rivals

What price the next best thing to silence? In Mazda's case, pounds 24,399. Unless Rolls-Royce has better muted its rumbly engines since I last drove one, the Xedos 9, new flagship of Mazda's expanding range of niche models and a hot contender in the prestige sector, challenges the pounds 105,000 Silver Spirit for quietness.

Even the pounds 42,000 Lexus LS400, scourge of Europe's luxury cars, is not much quieter. Whisper the word: refinement is the forte of the latest Japanese contender to throw a silk gauntlet at Europe's grandees in the prestige sector.

The 2.5-litre Xedos 9, shaped by Mazda's German-based design studio (to make it European in flavour, according to the blurb), is a bigger, portlier version of the 2.0-litre Xedos 6, which provides all the styling cues, including the slinky visage. Being a size larger - more 5-series BMW than 3-series - the Xedos 9 is also roomier than its prettier sibling. But, though the boot is huge, legroom in the back is less generous than it is in, say, a Ford Granada or Citroen XM.

What impresses rather more than the Xedos 9's accommodation, which is nothing special by class standards, is the car's visual and tactile quality, underlined by doors that shut with a satisfying clunk, switches that work with snappy precision, and mirror-finish paintwork. Efficient sealing and lashings of sound insulation help to quell wind whoosh and tyre roar.

Without leather-and-walnut trim (expensive options), the cloth-and- plastic cabin is sombre and smart rather than richly opulent. The fit and finish of the furnishings, however, are impeccable. Mazda backs its quality promise with a three-year warranty (compared with the 12 months, unlimited mileage offered by Mercedes). Paintwork is covered for eight years.

Standard equipment will also impress Mercedes buyers accustomed to paying extra for what they might regard as essentials. The price includes two airbags, pre-tensioned seat belts, air-conditioning, cruise control, an alarm/immobiliser and excellent hi-fi, besides all the usual gadgets - powered windows, mirrors, and sunroof. Mazda also emphasises the car's rigidity and crash-hardiness.

Although adequately powered by a 2.5-litre V6 engine, similar to that in Mazda's MX-6 coupe (and Ford's upcoming American-built Probe), performance is not especially strong. Even when the engine is raced, with barely a murmur to disturb the peace, acceleration is no better than brisk. It is, however, effortlessly smooth. Because the engine and transmission are electronically linked, the automatic gearbox (there is no manual alternative) shifts between ratios imperceptibly, even with the accelerator hard down. 'Sport' or 'economy' modes are selected automatically, according to how you drive. On wet or slippery roads, a traction control system prevents the driven front wheels from spinning, just as anti-lock brakes avert skidding.

The dignified, smooth-riding Xedos 9 is not an exciting car - leisurely performance and soft handling deny it charisma - but it is a pleasant, relaxing, long-distance mile-eater. It is also competitively priced against comparable BMWs and Mercs, though several six-cylinder rivals of humbler stock - from Ford, Renault, Rover and Vauxhall, for instance - are cheaper. Mazda's 145 dealers will be relying heavily on perceived quality to sell 600 Xedos 9s this year.

Comparisons

Alfa Romeo 164 3.0 V6, pounds 25,400. Charismatic Italian thoroughbred with cracking looks, fine performance from vocal V6 engine, and sharp handling. Not as quiet or refined as Mazda but more entertaining to drive. Despite reputation for high-mileage reliability, depreciation is heavy. Add pounds 1,400 for automatic transmission, but expect discount on total price.

BMW 525 SE auto, pounds 26,950. Widely regarded as the benchmark at this level - but watch out for price-increasing extras. Faster and more rewarding to drive than the Mazda, but not so quiet or refined. Fine handling. A wide range of 5-series models, from slow 518i to super-quick M5, costing over pounds 50,000.

Ford Granada EFi Ghia, pounds 20,070. (Same price for four-door saloon and five-door hatchback.) Ford's largest car, to be revamped soon, is roomy and well equipped. Dated, humdrum engine lacks punch and smoothness. More powerful 24-valve option costs thousands more. Nothing special to drive.

Renault Safrane 3.0 RXE, pounds 26,000. Renault's lacklustre flagship is a comfortable, roomy, well-equipped five-door hatchback. Air-conditioning and heated seats are standard. Modest performance similar to Mazda's, handling too soft to excite. 3.0 RT better value for money at pounds 21,000.

Volvo 850 T5 Turbo, pounds 23,995. Square-cut styling belies cracking performance from 225 horsepower five-cylinder engine. The snag? Poor economy. Aimed at press-on enthusiasts who won't mind shifting their own gears (no auto option).

Specifications

Mazda Xedos 9, pounds 24,399. Engine: 2497cc 24-valve V6 developing 168bhp at 6,000rpm. Transmission: four-speed automatic, front-wheel drive. Performance: 0-60mph in 10.8 seconds, top speed 130mph, fuel consumption 24-30mpg unleaded.

(Photograph omitted)

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