Is this like that MGD commercial where they show the guys in their late 20s throwing away the silly beer shirts and the priceless beer bongs which had served them so well through college and their wandering mid-20s, only to suddenly show up at a party dressed for business and grabbing a cold Miller with an uncharacteristically wise and knowing smile? No. I don't think Mazda is quite going to take that approach in campaigning their hot new 'Speed 6. But that is rather what this car feels like.
Turbocharged four cylinder putting out more power than almost any six-cylinder engine on the market, taught, responsive handling, aggressive looks, and all wheel drive sounds like a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution and Subaru WRX STi formula. And it is a winning formula when you want stable yet aggressive performance for relatively little money...and you want four doors. This is what Mazda has assembled for the 'Speed 6, almost. It is not quite the same package. There is something more, and something less to it.
The 'Speed 6 sort of lines up as a competitor both to Subaru's Legacy flagship and their STi world-beater. The quality of materials chosen, particularly with the leather seats that come with the Grand Touring upgraded trim package, screams luxury like no Mazda we have known, and the platform screams performance like few $30,000 cars we know. The exterior is beautiful, building more than subtly on a gracefully exciting yet economical Mazda 6 exterior and applying modern sporting details. Door claddings and larger rocker panels beef up the appearance of the midsection. The front fascia has more aggressive details, such as the much larger center air inlet which allows freer flow of a larger volume of air than the equivalent opening in the standard Mazda 6 front fascia. The hood has a power bulge designed not just for looks but also to clear the top-mounted intercooler for the forced induction engine underneath, and the hood even incoproates a scoop to feed fresh cooling air to the engine. The rear fascia is lower and more shapely, adding a diffuser-like appearance. Integrated exhaust tips are bolted onto the inside of the rear fascia and sit very close to the plastic of that bumper cover; the actual exhaust tips sit strategically placed inside the inboard side of the tips, but not touching them (so as to prevent melting the plastic fascia). The look is pure sport, but in a mature way - the hot import look of the Evo and STi are far from the more mature sport sedan appearance Mazda has chosen for this street machine.
The interior features seats covered in decent leather - our test ride was beautiful in the two tone white outer/blue center theme. A nice silver painted finish on the waterfall insert surrounds three black HVAC bezels and controls as well as stereo adjustment knobs. A few inches above, a vinyl-covered patch flips up at the push of a button to expose the screen for the (optional) DVD-based NAV system. Red-lit gauges give off a warm glow like an evening fire, matched by a sporty though not quite crackling exhaust to make you feel right at home, on your evening drive home. The seats offer decent lateral support, which will definitely come in handy. The pedals are spaced medium-wide for comfort, but with everyday shoes even my narrow right foot slightly cocked to the right can handle heel-and-toeing.
In selecting first gear one will enjoy very nice, smooth, mechanical action but rather long throws - another sign perhaps of maturity over raciness in this car's makeup, but we feel this car's personna justifies shorter throws. The close-ratio transmission utilizes triple cone synchronizers - just like on the Miata - in 1st through 3rd gears, for smooth shifting, and this is a feeling we can appreciate, as the shifter communicates smooth and easy action with reassuring engagement. Letting the clutch out for the first time results in a woah as there is dead space followed by force-feedback that would plot a force-distance (clutch pedal travel) graph that looks like a tabletop jump of snowboarding or motocross fame. You get no clutch grip then a sudden spike and then the force levels off, and then it drops off again as the clutch is 90-some percent engaged and the rest of the travel is dead movement. It takes a few or several tries to get smooth with this clutch (if you have driven a new, manual transmission Volvo recently, you will know how this clutch feels, only this is stiffer).
The good news is there is clutch-grip aplenty. This is a necessity because the 'Speed 6 is equipped with all-wheel drive. So, when you want to make a quick getaway, you will not likely be spinning the tires at all - less than 300 lb-ft of torque is not nearly enough to simultaneously spin four tires on a post-3000 pound car. But you can launch. Being brave enough to climb the revs up to 4000 or higher and then quickly letting out the clutch but not dropping it will result in an all switches on condition and enough torque will be supplied to make the nose swing up and the car keap forward. No hopping or screaching noises, though there may be some engine grunting if you don't do it right and cause the motor to bog, just a leap forward and rocketing forward until nearly 6000 rpm where the torque suddenly dies off, almost as if timing is cut, and then shift, followed by momentary turbo lag, and then rocket off through second to short of 60 mph.
The torque through the mid range is fantastic, thanks in part to Mazda's employment of direct injection in this hot motor. The MAZDASPEED 6's single-scroll turbo spools up to a maximum 15.6 psi of boost, and Mazda informs us that much of thsi boost is available by 2500 rpm. This enables the Mazdaspeed 6 to pull from any gear. On the freeway at 70 mph and higher in 6th gear it smoothly accelerates without hesitation; two-thirds throttle gets you to 80,90,100 mph easily. There is no need to downshift to pass; if you are in a squeeze, however, it does deliver a very nice punch if you drop it into 3rd or 4th. Smooth acceleration when you need it, abrupt and direct and high magnitude of acceleration when you want it. And to top it all off, the MAZDASPEED 6 meets Low Emission Vehicle-II and Bin 5-A federal emissions standards; not bad for a turbo'd car!
The brakes are less performance oriented - rotors neither slotted nor cross-drilled with floating clipers are mounted front and rear. The stopping force is adequate for aggressive driving, but the heat capacity of these rotors is relatively low so consecutive stops will significantly affect stopping performance and lead to potential rotor warping. If you are serious about performance driving, a brake upgrade is worth a good look.
The all wheel drive system continues the MAZDASPEED 6's theme of hosting great technology at an affordable price. The quick-acting "Active Torque-Split All-Wheel Drive System" quickly analyzes inputs from a steering wheel angle sensor, yaw rate and lateral acceleration sensors, as well as engine data to determine torque output and distribution. The same Super LSD limited slip differential used in the RX-8 is employed for torque distribution here. The water cooled center differential distributes between 0 and 50 percent of available torque to the rear axle. Despite being a front-axle biased system, the 'Speed 6 accelerates and handles very well.
The chassis serves this car well. A quiet interior free from mechanical vibrations is as much a sign of good engineering as is the great handling. Despite being much roomier than other import all-wheel drive rockets, the 'Speed 6 tackles corners with glee. Springs 25% stiffer up front and 37% stiffer in the rear (as compared to the Mazda 6), coupled with anti-roll bars increased in outer diameter from 11 and 12 mm in the front and rear, respectively, ensure a much snappier handling package. Turn-in is near sharp with suspension balanced for a performance-luxury ride. The steering is light but sensitive, and reasonably direct. On-center feel is good. This Mazda likes to change direction. When setup on long sweepers it holds high cornering speeds good enough to make most enthusiasts excited. It is soft enough to where slightly undulating or bumpy road surfaces will have little affect on yuor cornering tactics. Response to medium-sharp throttle lift-off is moderate, but you can certainly get the rear end to come around with a sharp enough lift off and a little extra flick on the steering wheel; this makes up some for not having rear wheel drive. The 'Speed 6 handles very well, but the suspension is not on-edge. The balance between sport and comfort is properly achieved for this car's overall demeanor. It's an import rocket...grown up.
So, when you have tired of the overly aggressive exhaust note, the slightly too bumpy ride, the cramped rear seats (and even the front), the bronco-bucking drivetrain of your current import rocket, here's your ride. You can go fast, but without a throbbing head and other morning-after (or post-drive) woes. When you have matured enough for a little bit of luxury, but you still need to go faster than zoom, think Zoom zoom.