Mazda in the Middle: The Mazda6

September 19, 2008, 4:46 PM UTC

For as long as I can remember, Mazda has been threatening to break into the top tier of Japanese brands (Toyota, Honda, Nissan) but never quite making the grade.  Despite the enduring success of the MX-5 Miata sports car, and clever new crossovers like the CX-9, Mazda has been a perpetual also-ran, more frequently ranked with Subaru than the industry leaders. While the others were collecting medals, Mazda has had to be content with an honorable mention.

What’s been holding Mazda back has been a weak dealer body, indifferent quality, and the lack of a strong midsize vehicle like the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord or Nissan Altima.  It hasn’t been for lack of trying. Mazda sold the 626 here beginning in 1979, and then replaced it with the Mazda6 in 2002.

The Japanese automaker takes another crack at upgrading itself this fall with the launch of the all-new Mazda6. To give the 6 a proper sendoff, Mazda is dispatching executives and a pair of trailer trucks crammed with displays to six cities around the country to tell its story.  It is a good one. The 6 has been improved in almost every way as it moves upscale to attract older buyers and avoid cannibalizing sales of the popular Mazda3. The Grand Touring version that I drove, equipped with a six-speed automatic transmission and 3.7 liter engine is stickered at more than $32,000, and the median price of all 6s is expected to hit $24,000 (vs. $19,000 for the old car).

The 6 is certainly distinctive looking, with bulging fenders borrowed from the RX-7 and a fast-sloping rear roof reminiscent of earlier models. On our drive route through New Jersey traffic and into the Catskill Mountains of New York, the 6 showed plenty of zoom-zoom.  It felt peppy under the foot and tightly-coupled through the curves.  Since development work on this car started four years ago when gas prices were still low, fuel economy is a weak point. The 3.7- liter engine  with automatic transmission gets only 17 mpg city/25 mpg highway – a bit less than the 3.0 liter powerplant it replaces.

Mazda hopes that the new 6 will pull sales up from the 70,000 to 80,000 cars a year enjoyed by the outgoing model to more like 100,000 units annually. That’s asking a lot, given the competition and the dismal performance forecast for car sales over the next several years. Note, too, that Altima,  the 6s nearest competitor, sells more than twice that number.

Except for its sporty character, the 6 has little to distinguish itself from the competition and likely will continue to be held back by Mazda’s dealer body. Mazda may be fated to remain in the middle of the U.S. market.

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