The folks at Mazda certainly are a buoyant bunch these days.
And if you, like me, are quick to attribute this spring in the step to the runaway success of the little Mazda2, don't be so quick. The brand's local GM Brendan Lyne says all Mazda models are fairing well in SA, given the current industry situation. And of course, Mazda2's being voted the SA Guild of Motoring Journalists' Car of the Year for 2007/8 has nothing to do with it…
Be that as it may, the original "zoom-zoom" car, the one that started it all back in 2002, Mazda6 has been completely overhauled for 2008. The all-new car makes its way into the country to take on the recently-launched Honda Accord and more seasoned family car campaigners in the guise of Toyota's Avensis and Volkswagen's Passat.
The previous generation Mazda6 was a daringly beautiful car when it first made its local appearance in 2003 and the latest car picks up on its athleticism in particular. There are two engine options - all petrol - and four derivatives including one fitted with Mazda's five-speed Activematic automatic transmission.
The car's sporty character is conveyed through its wind-cheating design. A low slung body, dramatically raked screens and sloping roofline suggest a permanent state of motion and the body kit is extremely arresting.
It's all-new and looks the part too, rather than appearing to be a glorified version of the car it replaces. Lines are more edgy and pronounced, curves are a lot less apologetic than before, and overall, it looks superb.
Most exterior details are identical and it's hard to tell the cars apart from outside, where the dramatic light clusters and twin tailpipes are quite fetching.
On the inside of the cabin, quality is good, fit-and-finish fair. It was great to see that Mazda hasn't gone for an excess of bright detailing in its attempts to communicate quality, settling instead for a sober mix of matte plastics accented with a shinier "grained" plastic sweeping across part of the facia, down to the centre console. It may seem peculiar, but it is very pleasant to the touch and on the eye.
The arrangement is also very similar to that seen in other Mazdas, with oversized dials and red instrument lighting.
As mentioned earlier, four models are being offered in South Africa, and two were available for evaluation at the media event: the 2.0 Active and top-of-the-range 2.5 Individual.
Two engines are offered. The 2.0-litre motor has been carried across from the previous Mazda6, though it has been tweaked somewhat for the application in the latest model. Figures for this 16-valve four cylinder are 109 kW at 6 500 r/min and 186 Nm at 4 000 r/min.
The 2.5-litre (which is also the only option if you're shopping for an automatic) is endowed with 126 kW at 6 000 r/min and 228 km/h at 4 000 r/min. While this is not bad, it certainly is not class leading.
And while it would have been nice to have had a go in the Activematic, which I've only ever tried on the CX-7 SUV, the duo equipped with the six-speed manuals was not without merit.
Mazda6 is not small and interior space should hardly be a problem for five average-sized adults and their luggage. It's not a light car either - it tips the scales at just under 1.5 ton, although it is fractionally lighter than its predecessor - but the 2.0-litre had very little trouble pulling it out of the valleys and dips between the hills in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands.
Although it may be a lot less willing with the abovementioned five and their kit, with two up it was very comfortable.
Even on the potholed sections, the retuned chassis' double wishbone and multi-link rear suspension held up very well, doing a lot to even out the road imperfections.
However, the electric power steering felt over-assisted at speed; not great when you are trying to place a car on a bend and the steering fidgets. However, it was easier to modulate as the kilometers zoomed by and if this is the car you'll be living with, you should get the hang of it pretty easily.
Steering feedback was a lot more positive on the 2.5-litre, where the electric system provided even and consistent inputs.
The bigger engine does make the 2.5 the more entertaining option, although the 2.0-litre is hardly underpowered. Clutch action on both models is light and shifts smooth, making gearing up or down between hills less of a task.
And taking time off in the spacious cabin is not a bad idea either. Equipment levels are good; the base 2.0 Original comes with air conditioning, a single disc audio system with MP3 capability, integrated front fog lamps and lumbar adjustment for the driver, but this does improve as you move up the ranks.
All other models, for example, have leather upholstery, cruise control, dual zone climate control, six-disc in-dash shuttle with remote steering wheel controls, auto headlamps, rain sensing windscreen wipers and power driver's seat with memory function.
All cars are fitted with ABS with EBD and EBA, and front, side and curtain airbags. The range-topping 2.5 Individual adds DSC and TCS traction control.
If you're looking for a larger family sedan that is comfortable for its passengers yet manages to engage its driver, you'd do well to consider the Mazda6. Mazda has done well to communicate the car's sportier aspects through its styling, but it still manages to engage the driver. And a snoozing occupant or two is generally a good indication that the ride is comfortable, too.
All Mazda6s sold in South Africa are covered by a five-year/100 000 km service plan (services are at 15 000 km intervals) and a four-year/120 000 km warranty. Prices also include emergency roadside assistance.
Mazda6 2.0 Original R219 990
Mazda6 2.0 Active R239 990
Mazda6 2.5 Dynamic Activematic R271 990
Mazda6 2.5 Individual R278 990