If I had to list the core components of any successful automotive program, innovative engineering would certainly be an important part. But a competent, innovative design doesn’t necessarily translate into huge sales numbers. Take Mazda, for instance. Their cars and trucks have always been technically innovative, plus enjoyable to drive. But their sales numbers are tiny compared to competitors like Honda and Toyota. So Mazda honchos are restructuring their entire lineup, and they’re replacing the stalwart 626 with a new flagship known simply as the Mazda 6. Is this Mazda’s lucky number?

Could be, if Mazda can convince enough drivers that the 2003 Mazda 6 is the tight, sharp, affordable sport sedan that many enthusiast family drivers crave. It certainly looks the part, featuring sharper, more youthful sport sedan lines than the somewhat squishy 626 grocery getter it replaces. With a 105.3-inch wheelbase, and 186.8-inch overall length, key dimensions are virtually identical to its predecessor, and thus still a tad shorter than the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. But the 6 is built on a rigid new unibody, and rides on a more sophisticated double- wishbone front and multi-link rear suspension.

Powerplants are also upgraded. The top model moves out with an all-aluminum 3.0-liter dual-overhead-cam 24-valve V6 with 220 horsepower and 192 pound-feet of torque. Based on parent Ford’s very American Duratec, Mazda inscrutably added variable-valve-timing and swirl- inducing intake runners, and is California approved as an ultra-low-emission engine. Base power is an all-new 2.3-liter twin-cam 16-valve alloy four, also with variable-valve- timing and a balance shaft, for 160 smooth horsepower and 155 pound-feet of torque. Both attached to a 5-speed manual gearbox, or an automatic with manual shift mode, a 4-speed for the 4-cylinder, and a 5-speed for the V6.

And our first drive along the hills near Los Angeles, California showed the front-wheel drive Mazda 6 to be a far more exciting number than its 626 predecessor. Handling is a good deal sharper, too, with fast rack-and-pinion steering, only 2, turns lock to lock, for true sport sedan turn-ins, and reassuring feedback. Grip is plentiful from our S-model’s VR-rated 215/50 tires mounted on 17-inch aluminum wheels. The base I-model wears smaller 16s. The lightweight front suspension reacts crisply and keeps the 6 well planted on all but the bumpiest roads. It’s a much tighter, edgier feel than that of the 626.

The V6 spins willingly, and pulls the 6 along at a brisk rate, but its peaky character demands a lot of revs to maintain momentum. Still, 0 to 60 in 6.8 seconds is moving along. Ride quality is firm and sporty. Never soft, but not harsh either. Cabin noise is a little high, however, giving the 6 a slightly less refined atmosphere than some competitors.

The Mazda 6 backs up its sporty delivery with more aggressive styling. The nose makes that point, especially with the Sport package’s ground-hugging fascia augmenting wide headlamp clusters that include clear-lens fog lamps. Deeper side sills and rear fascia, plus wrap-around taillights and an available deck lid- mounted spoiler, give the body the youthful zing that the 626 was sorely lacking.

The interior of our 6S is also more serious, with a cleaner, fresh T-design, and nice titanium-look trim. The front seats are firm and offer good lateral support for spirited driving. Eight-way driver power is standard on our S-model, optional on the I. The bright-rimmed analog gauges are basic, large and easy to read and use red lighting for nighttime clarity. The center stack is quite tall and very handsome, with a digital display well above the triple vents and stereo and climate controls that some of our staff felt were too low to operate easily while driving. Audio choices include a standard 6-speaker CD system or an optional in-dash CD changer, a Mini-disc player, or a full-on Bose system with door-mounted amplifiers and a 100- watt subwoofer.

Rear seat room is adequate for 6-footers, while the firm 60/40 bench folds flat for cargo flexibility. A nice extra for an already healthy 15.2 cubic-foot trunk. That’s bigger than the Honda Accord, but smaller than the Toyota Camry. But we don’t see the 6 as a direct competitor to the family style Accord or Camry. It’s too sharp, sporty, and young to be relegated to that life alone.

To live a little with the 6, expect to pay a $19,050 admission fee for the 4-cylinder I- model. Move up to our V-6 S, and the tumblers total $21,620. So, if you do have to go for the groceries, it’s quite competitive with its mid-size classmates, and a whole lot more fun to drive there.

The 2003 Mazda 6 is a fresh, spirited sedan , no, make that sport sedan , with the engineering and adrenalin that once again can make the brand a standout. It looks like Mazda’s lucky number has finally come up.


  • Engine: 3.0-Liter Dohc 24-valve V6
  • Horsepower: 220
  • Torque: 192 Lb Feet
  • 0-60 MPH: 6.8 Seconds