For years Mazda made dull but worthy cars. The solitary highlight of the range was the MX-5 sports car that looked as though it had been spawned during a extramarital affair between Mazda and a couple of engineers from the Lotus factory.
But what a difference a few years can make. Mazda now boasts one of the youngest line-ups of new cars and, with the RX-8 joining the MX-5, two sports cars to add gloss to the range. So when did the revolution start? Almost certainly with the Mazda6.
Launched in 2002, the Mazda6 went head to head with some of the strongest competition in the marketplace in the shape of the Ford Mondeo, Vauxhall Vectra, Peugeot 406 and Volkswagen Passat. The previous Mazda offering, the 626, had failed to win over many buyers and few commentators expected the new model to do much better.
They were wrong. Not only did the Mazda6 look more upmarket, it actually looked a little bit sexy. The complex rear light design aped that of a Lexus and the muscular bonnet hinted that the car had a wild side, too.
If the looks were good then the price tag was even more appealing. The entry level 1.8 litre petrol had 118bhp and cost just over £13,000 — about the same as a 1.8 litre Ford Focus. For around £1,500 more the 139bhp 2 litre TS petrol model could be yours and even a top spec 2.3 litre Sport came in at under £18,000.
There were two diesels, too, a 119bhp entry level model and a more powerful 134bhp unit. While the diesels may lack a little of the refinement of the petrol models the extra 10mpg is usually compensation enough for most drivers.
The dashboard and trim are good quality and all the instruments and switchgear are easy to use. All models come with climate control, remote central locking, electric windows and front and side airbags as standard. The base model S gets a rather stingy cassette player but compensates with rather attractive alloys. The airbags help take the Mazda6 to a very respectable four stars for adult occupancy safety in the Euro NCAP tests.
On the road the Mazda6 drives well, the steering is nicely weighted and noise is well suppressed. Only at tick over and under harsh acceleration do the diesels let themselves down a little, but once at cruising speed everything returns to serenity.
Front and rear space is plentiful and the boot, one of the largest of any car in the class, will swallow luggage with ease. Seat fabrics are attractive and hardwearing but avoid light grey cloths that fail to disguise sticky fingers and muddy boot prints.
Being Japanese you can also expect the Mazda6 to have better than average reliability; few owners have reported any consistent or recurring faults.
So where does Mazda’s star pupil drop points against the competition?
In truth there are very few let-downs. Early fears that residual values may be somewhat fragile have proven unfounded. Nearly four years after its launch the Mazda6 has held its value well.
This means that it may not be the bargain that some less desirable used cars are, but given its decent performance and reliability that shouldn’t put you off.
Check the following
The one to buy
Source: estimates based on confidential CAP black book prices. ‘Trade’ is what a dealer would pay to buy your car; ‘Retail’ is what you would pay a dealer
Figures based on CAP December 2005 edition
© Jason Dawe Productions Limited April 2006