If the 2008 Wheels Car of the Year award had simply been based at Ford's You Yangs Proving Ground then the second generation Mazda 6 would have been a red-hot favourite for the COTY gong.
There, the judges studied the form guide, poked and prodded all three bodystyles - hatch, sedan and wagon - and drove both petrol and new turbo-diesel engines on some truly challenging (and enjoyable) bitumen and dirt.
The positive impact was obvious from the moment the 6 was sighted. The compact and clean lines of the original had been transformed into something larger and more complex, yet no less graceful. "I think it looks great. Classically Japanese in a good way," wrote road test editor, Sean Poppitt. "Sharp, sculpted, sporty and sleek."
Inside, the increase in space for rear-seat passengers was palpable, as was the improved quality and presentation around the dash and instrument panel. The exquisitely simple Karakuri rear-seat folding system transferred from the original 6 and remained a hit.
"Nice packaging, good ergonomics," noted Michael Stahl. "Functionality points for the body range."
And not only for the breadth of that range, but the depth and pricing. Starting at $27,990 for the Limited sedan six-speed manual, rising to $43,890 for the Diesel Sports hatch (six-speed manual only), the 6 offers buyers a diversity of choice rarely matched. Importantly, every model in the range includes six airbags and stability control as standard.
As COTY was being conducted, news came through of price reductions for most models, a deal sweetened by other improvements, including the option to use cheaper standard unleaded petrol with the MZR 2.5-litre four-cylinder without impacting on performance or economy - both of which are improved over the old model. Good news for consumers and indicative of the attention to detail Mazda devoted to the 6.
At its very core is the same gram-saving strategy first employed in the development of the MX-5, our 2005 COTY winner. While kerb weights go up, the increases are not that significant considering all key dimensions grow.
The bodies have also been made stronger, the hatch's torsional rigidity improved by a significant 30 percent. Mazda expects a maximum five-star NCAP rating, one more than the original 6.
The suspension has been refined and the brake hardware upgraded, while power steering assistance swaps from hydraulic to an electric system (derived from the RX-8, the 2003 Wheels Car of the Year winner).
This later change created concerns. Had the delightful crispness and delicacy of the original 6's dynamic balance been lost? It took only a few minutes of driving to get an answer: "Brilliant chassis, you wouldn't know it's front-wheel drive," declared Jonathan Hawley.
On the curling, winding rise-and-fall of the durability circuit, all the 6s were marvellous, exhibiting screw-tight body control and intimate communication. Dirt roads were managed by sensitively tuned ESP and ABS. Without stability control's watching eye, the flickable, light nature of the car became apparent. A real blast.
The bored and stroked MZR four-cylinder petrol engine was the supporting act in this masterful display of dynamics. Meanwhile the new MZR-CD 2.2-litre turbo-diesel four was gaining a mixed response (see breakout, page 102), but was also unable to upstage the 6's dynamics.
"Sharp, responsive steering, great turn-in, rock-solid chassis," enthused Poppitt. "This is a chassis designed by people who understand and actually enjoy driving. Peugeot should hire them..."
Stop right now and Mazda may have taken the silverware.
But it's not that simple and the award isn't decided here. The second stage of the process, the two-up testing on public roads around Woodend, places more emphasis on day-to-day liveability. Here, the excellent chassis assumed less prominence and the occasional You Yangs murmur of discontent gained volume.
Yep, that old Mazda bugbear of road noise became more obvious, the contact between tyre and tar generating an unhappy amount of din. That was particularly so in the back seat of the hatch and wagon and especially on the lower-profile rubber employed by the upper-end models.
Driving the turbo-diesel hatch on 18-inch rubber, editor Bulmer noted: "At highway speeds the boominess becomes an issue and you need to shout over it. Not acceptable."
Nor was the firmness of the ride. It started out tetchy at lower speeds and never really settled any time the road surface degraded. Again, those passengers in the back of the car suffered more.
"The ride is not as refined as the (Honda Accord) Euro," declared Peter Robinson.
This reference to the Euro is significant and not uncommon. While COTY contenders are rated against the criteria, and not each other, the presence of a direct competitor always engenders unofficial comparisons. Deep into the process, you could sense the Honda gaining ground metaphorically, while literally covering it more smoothly.
The 6 lacked the Accord Euro's refinement and plush ride quality, could not match its rich interior quality feel or superb, supportive seats. As simple and straight-forward as the 6's various controls appeared to be, the steering wheel gearshift buttons and paddles proved fiddly, while some judges simply could not figure out how to access the trip computer function.
There had also been plenty of debate about the quality of the MZR-CD diesel engine and the lack of availability of an automatic transmission option. In the end, most judges gave the thumbs up to its performance (but not its noticeably rough soundtrack and turbo lag), but thumbs down to the heavyweight clutch action and a pass to the six-speed manual's gearshift.
It was a snapshot of the debate that would eventually overwhelm the 6. A great feature would be counter-balanced by an ordinary one. While something inspired, something else disappointed.
For all that, there's no doubt the 6 was one of the very best of the contenders that vied for COTY 2008, not always starring against the criteria, but never duncing. After galloping out of the You Yangs Proving Ground, it cleared the two-ups and its progression to the final three was appropriate reward.
Without the ride and refinement concerns, and with more convincing all-round polish from the diesel, this year's result may have gone Mazda's way.
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