September 24, 2010 11:26 pm

The Mazda 6 range

The new models are the prettiest cars in their class, and the best is yet to come
Mazda 6 interior

Anyone attending next week’s Paris motor show should find time to wander over to the Mazda stand. There they will encounter a more than usually alluring model, even by Parisian standards, with an equally enticing name: Shinari.

The curvaceous shape is, however, supported by wheels, not legs. And it is on the stand to point the way towards what the Japanese carmaker hopes will be a bright but independent future as a long partnership with Ford – which rescued it from financial oblivion in the 1990s – reaches the final stages of disentanglement, leaving Mazda making just over a million cars a year.

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The Shinari is a concept car and, like most such display pieces, it will never come rolling off a production line. But, Mazda executives make clear, something pretty close to it in terms of form and function will reach the showrooms; and almost certainly in less than two years.

It will be the next-generation Mazda6 mid-sized family car and estate. It is intended to crank up the visual appeal of Mazdas significantly, while taking them into closer rivalry with prestige carmakers such as BMW, and away from the “worthy workhorse” image previous Mazda6s have shared with more traditional rivals like Ford’s own Mondeo.

The upcoming 6 is also intended to be just the start. Mazda aims to inject the same dramatic design qualities into the next generations of its entire range, to be made possible by the use of a common, modular engineering platform on which can be built anything from a small hatchback to people carrier or SUV. New petrol and diesel engines with ultra-low carbon dioxide emissions are also on the way.

So does such intensive investment and engineering development mean that Mazda is seeking to make up for significant shortcomings in the current 6 range? Based on lengthy test miles in the latest 2.2-litre diesel version – the entire 6 range of saloon, hatchback and estate car has recently received a considerable, final facelift – the answer is a clear “no”.

Few would argue that in terms of overall styling, the latest changes to its bodywork have already turned the 6 into one of the best lookers in its class. Criticisms of poor ride quality on some surfaces have been addressed. Steering feels better weighted and sharper. The 6 has not yet achieved that elusive “feelgood” quality of the German prestige carmakers, but it is drawing closer.

Some have expressed disappointment that there is no 260 horsepower “MPS” version of the 6 that made its predecessor such an ultra-rapid yet discreet “Q-car”. But both the 177bhp 2.2-litre diesel and 168bhp 2.5-litre petrol units have more than enough get-up-and-go for most, although the diesel on occasion can sound strained. Interior occupant space is fully class competitive, although headroom is in short supply for taller passengers riding in the rear of the hatchback.

Mazda 6 interior

The dashboard layout has a logical simplicity which some other carmakers could do well to emulate, while on higher-specification models there are some nice touches such as keyless entry and engine start/stop. An effective traction and stability control system and half-a-dozen airbags are common to all models and – a much less widespread fitment in this class of car – an emergency braking assist system to save a less-than-alert driver from himself, backed up by automatic operation of the hazard warning lights in the case of emergency braking.

Sometimes such “aids” can go a bit too far, however. I wound up having an idiotic shouting session with the smart-ass turn indicators, which will operate themselves if the driver is considered to have forgotten to flick them himself.

Even the £17,000 1.8-litre entry-level petrol models are reasonably well-equipped, although it requires a step up to the TS2 version – at close to £20,000 – to obtain full climate and cruise control, high-specification alloy wheels, door mirror blind-spot alerts, rear parking sensors, hill hold assistance and other goodies more usually associated with the prestige car sector. At the top of the heap sits the £23,000 2.2D 180 Sport diesel, undoubtedly the star of the current range and preferable not only in fuel economy terms but also in outright performance compared with the similarly priced 2.5-litre petrol model.

A diesel yet again out-performing a bigger petrol unit – my, how the world has changed.

If there is one area presenting a major challenge to any aspirant to the prestige car sector, however, then it is that relating to build quality. Most of the volume carmakers have, in fact, come on in leaps and bounds – cars like Ford’s Mondeo and Vauxhall’s Insignia are infinitely better engineered than their fleet market predecessors of even a decade ago. If anything, though, Mazda has the jump on them both, despite so much of its engineering having been shared in the past with its benefactor, Ford.

The Japanese company has consistently done well in JD Power, Which? and other consumer industry surveys in terms of customer satisfaction. It is easy to see why. The 6 is screwed together with real precision and there is a feel of solidity to the fit and finish of minor controls.

Not least, the 6 in its latest incarnation is even greater fun to drive than its predecessor, and that is saying a great deal. The 6 has long been considered among the best for ride and handling in its class and a number of suspension changes have enhanced that reputation further.

And please, BMW and a few others, take a hard look at the 6’s power steering system.

It is electric rather than hydraulic; but it has none of the vagueness and inert, lifeless feel of so many such systems now being adopted so widely by car makers. There is a real sense of precision to it, with lots of rewarding feedback.

Overall, then, the current 6 provides an encouraging indicator for Mazda’s prospects when, with the next, Shinari-inspired range, it seeks in earnest to carve out for itself a niche in the prestige car sector. The gap to BMW and its cohorts is still there, but in engineering terms shows many signs of disappearing – just like, thank heavens, Mazda’s distinctly non-prestigious “Zoom-Zoom” marketing slogan.

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The details

Class warrior inching up on the German luxury brands

How much?

from £16,900

How fast?

0-62mph 8.4 secs, top speed 135mph (all figures 2.2-litre diesel test car)

How thirsty?

52.3mpg on EU urban/rural test cycle

How green?

142g CO2/km

Also consider

Ford Mondeo from £17,295; Vauxhall Insignia from £19,950

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