2011 Mazda6

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Size matters – to family car buyers.

So it’s not surprising that the Mazda6 – which used to be slightly smaller – and sportier – than other cars in the mid-sized sedan segment – has been stretched and widened so as to offer about the same interior and trunk space as the mass-sellers in this segment, models like the best-selling Toyota Camry and the next-best-selling Honda Accord.

The upsized Six ought to have more mass-market appeal now. But has its enthusiast-driver virtuosity been compromised?

And what about the latest competition from Korea? 

WHAT IT IS

The Six is Mazda’s mid-sized front-wheel-drive sport sedan.

Base price is $19,900 for the i Sport with 2.5 liter four-cylinder engine and six-speed manual transmission; a top of the line s Grand Touring with 3.7 liter V-6 and six-speed automatic has an MSRP of $29,320.

WHAT’S NEW FOR 2011

After last year’s complete redesign, the changes for 2011 are incremental. The front end has been tweaked a bit with new headlights; higher-trim Touring models now have their turn signals integrated into the sideview mirrors.

WHAT’S GOOD

Still one of the most fun to drive (and now family-viable) cars you can buy for less than $20k.

Much more passenger-friendly backseats and cargo-friendly trunk than before.

Lower starting sticker price than Honda Accord ($21,180).

Higher fun factor (and better-looking) than Toyota Camry.

WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD

Excellent 3.7 liter V-6 in higher-trim versions not available with manual transmission.

New players like the outstanding Kia Optima ($18,995) undercut it on price, outpower it (200 hp, standard) and maybe even out-look it.

UNDER THE HOOD

The standard engine in the six is a four – 2.5 liters, 170 hp.

It compares favorably, power-wise, with most of the competition in this segment such as the Camry (2.5 liters, 169 hp), Accord (2.4 liters, 177 hp) and Altima (2.5 liters, 175 hp).

With one huge exception.

The new Kia Optima (and its Hyundai-badged cousin, the Sonata) both come standard with 200 hp four-cylinder engines. That’s a big deficit to cover – and not just for the Mazda.

Another douse of cold water from Kia: The Optima’s 200 hp engine also gets 35 MPGs on the highway vs. just 30 for the much-less-powerful Mazda (and ditto all the other cars in this segment; none can touch either the Kia’s power – or its fuel economy).

The optional engine in the Six is 3.7 liter V-6 that’s rated at 272 hp. This engine is one of the largest and most powerful V-6s in this class, although just barely. Camry’s optional 3.5 liter V-6 comes in at 268 hp; the Honda Accord’s optional 3.5 liter V-6 is rated at 271 hp; the Nissan Altima’s 3.5 liter V-6 rates 270 hp.

And the bad news? Kia offers a 274 hp turbocharged four-cylinder in the Optima. And it gets 34 MPG on the highway – vs. 27 for the V-6 Six.

The Mazda’s 2.5 liter engine is available with either a six-speed manual transmission or five-speed automatic; the 3.7 liter V-6 engine comes only with a six-speed automatic.

All versions of the Mazda6 are front-wheel-drive.

V-6 versions of the Six are quick, capable of 0-60 times around 6.4-6.5 seconds. This is a solid half-second to three-quarters of a second better than the V-6 Camry and Honda Accord – and about half a second quicker than the spunky Nissan Atima V-6.

The four-cylinder version with six-speed stick do 0-60 in about 8.3-8.5 seconds, depending on which transmission you pick.

Once again, though, the Koreans are on the march. The Optima/Sonata match (or exceed) this performance – for less money – and while burning a lot less fuel.

ON THE ROAD

The new Six feels bigger and heavier than is typical for Mazda’s recent sedans – mainly because it is. The 2011 model is about six inches longer overall and 2.3 inches wider than the previous generation Six – and roughly 150-200 pounds heavier.

Upping the horsepower of both standard and optional engines (vs. the previous generation) masks the increased heft – except at the gas pump, where the Six is a bit thirstier than the Camry or Accord – and a lot more thirsty than the almost-miraculous Kia.

The four-cylinder version with the six-speed manual is nowhere near as quick as the V-6 but it has the advantage of being paired with an available six-speed manual transmission – which gets the driver more involved in the process of driving.

And it’s a great gearbox, too – with an easy clutch that’s not a pain to deal with in stop and go traffic. (Several manual-equipped cars I’ve tested recently had very grabby clutches gave you the choice of abrupt, jerky launches – or what felt like riding the clutch excessively to avoid that.)

The 3.7 liter V-6 has great straight-line pull – and the six-seed automatic it’s paired with bangs off quick, effective shifts – but there’s no replacement for shifting your own gears, if you’re a driver who enjoys driving

Mazda’s image is all about being sprotier than the rest, so it’s odd that you can’t get a manual transmission with the Six’s Top Gun engine. I put this down as one of the Six’s weakest points.  

On the upside, either version of the Six is more lively-feeling than the Dowager Express – the Toyota Camry – which is the best Japanese-built Buick money can buy. The Camry’s a fine car – for people who want the finest appliance they can buy but don’t really care if it’s interesting to look at, be inside of – or drive.

The Honda Accord, meanwhile, is sophisticated and smooth – with V-6 versions offering equivalent power/performance – as well as a very high level of technology and equipment. But you also get a higher sticker price along with it. The Accord starts out close to $1,300 higher and that’s a difference large enough to turn my eye back toward the Mazda.

The Nissan Altima can go toe-to-toe with the 6 as a sporty sedan – especially V-6/manual versions. It’s also priced very competitively. But it’s also an older design and its interior, especially, isn’t as up-to-date or as nicely finished as the Mazda’s.

All these cars, though, better look over their shoulders at the Korean up-and-comers.

AT THE CURB

Looks are in the eye of the beholder, but to my eye, the Six is a sleeker, better-proprtioned and much more attractive car than the heavy-set and bulbous Camry – which could have been modeled on a sturgeon.

Or the blocky, hunched-up Accord.

The Mazda’s interior is another high point, with minimal clutter and easy-to-use, highly functional controls – including rotary knobs for the AC system and a straightforward pod of analog gauges with low-glare red LED backlighting. My test car had handsome “black wood” inserts, which nicely offset the brushed aluminum gauge facings and two-tone dash.

It’s now actually roomier up front in the Six than in the best-selling Camry – 42.5 inches of front seat legroom and 39.4 inches of headroom vs. 41.7 inches of legroom and 38.8 inches of headroom in the Toyota.

The Camry’s still got slightly more backseat head and legroom than the Mazda – 37.8 inches and 38.3 inches (respectively) vs. 38 inches and 37.3 inches for the 6.

Compared with the Accord, the Six has less front seat headroom (41.4 inches for the Honda vs. 39.4 inches for the Mazda), identical front seat legroom (42.5 inches), just slightly more rear seat headroom (38.5 inches) and just slightly less rear seat legroom (37.2 inches).

Nissan’s Altima has 44.1 inches of front seat legroom and 40.6 inches of front seat headroom but its back seat is cramped, with just 35.8 inches of legroom (vs. 38 for the Mazda) and just 36.8 inches of rear seat headroom (vs. 37.3 in the 6).

But – you guessed – the Kia has more front seat legroom than all of them, 45.5 inches.

Lawsee!

One area where the Mazda edges out its competitors is trunk space – 16.6 cubic feet vs. 15.4 for the Optima, 15.3 for the Altima, 15 even for the Camry and just 14 cubic feet for the Accord.

THE REST

In addition to standard ABS, traction and stability control, front seat side impact air bags and full-row curtain air bags, the Six also offers a trick blind spot warning system with both visual and auditory warnings to let you know there’s a car where you might not be able to see it. There’s a little yellow flashing icon that pops in the outside rear-view mirror – accompanied by the auditory warning. (If it bugs you, just turn it off. There’s a button just to the left of the steering column.)

One thing to mention about the optional automatic transmission’s manual shift control: Instead of pulling back on the shift lever to go down a gear, you push forward – which is a bit counterintuitive.

But you get used to it quickly and then it’s no problem.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Though it’s grown in size and weight, the updated Six remains one of the most appealing cars in its segment if you want some spice to go with that everyday usability. It has more personality than a Camry – for less money than you’d pay to get into an Accord.

Just be sure to check out those new Kias (and Hyundais) before you make any commitments.

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