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Monday, September 8, 2008

Family Sedan Showdown

Chismillionaire's take: The new 6 must be some kind of vehicle. I think it is just incredible that the class leading Altima of a couple years ago, now is the laggard of the pack, and last year's all new Accord is the runner up. While it's a solid car, my guess is the Chevy Malibu would have finished 4th here. Just goes to show how competitive this segment has become.

Our recent test of the 2009 Mazda 6 s Grand Touring showed us that Mazda can still offer sporting dynamics in its all-new family sedan, even while providing more room, more features and more power. We were concerned that the sporting spirit of the last-generation, fun-but-snug Mazda 6 might have been lost in the search for commercial success, but we came away believing this new car still has that zoom-zoom thing.

Like Mazda, we believe a family sedan can be lively as well as practical. So to gauge the way in which the 2009 Mazda 6 fits into the new world of family sedans, we figured a comparison is in order. A 2009 Mazda 6 s Grand Touring would be our starting point.

Then we enlisted the 2008 Nissan Altima 3.5 SE with its continuously variable automatic transmission. It's the car that most people consider to be the sportiest in this category, matched with a transmission that shatters all expectations about CVTs. (We know this car is available with a manual transmission, but we also know the CVT is a better choice. Trust us.)

The all-new 2008 Honda Accord is the standard of the category, the winner of our last comparison test of family sedans. A 2008 Honda Accord EX-L Navi matched up nicely. Hailed for its value, refinement and excellent quality, the well-mannered Accord would challenge the Mazda's practical abilities.

And so we began our family sedan comparison test, and we're wondering how far the Mazda 6's fun-o-meter has swung away from "I could use a Red Bull" toward "My adrenal gland is sore and I need to grow up."

Motivating V6s
This is the top-of-the-line 2009 Mazda 6 s Grand Touring model, and it features the most power in our test courtesy of its 272-horsepower 3.7-liter V6 nicked from the Mazda CX-9 crossover. At the drag strip, this engine helped the 3,596-pound Mazda 6 dash to 60 mph in just 6.5 seconds (6.2 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip). This makes the heaviest car of this trio the quickest, as the 3,590-pound Accord takes 7.5 seconds to get to 60 mph (7.2 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip) and the 3,399-pound Altima takes 7.0 seconds to do the task (6.6 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip). The Mazda V6's power delivery is smooth and broad, and this is the only engine of these three that feels fast from the first exploratory run up the tachometer.

Our fuel-economy logbook surprisingly shows the Mazda to be the easiest on fuel, and our observed average of 20 mpg exactly matches this car's EPA rating for combined average mpg. Perhaps because this 3.7-liter V6 offers the highest torque at the lowest rpm, the Mazda 6 doesn't have to be driven as aggressively as the Accord or Altima to get the job done. The Accord's 268-hp 3.5-liter V6 managed only 18 mpg in our hands, while the Altima's 270-hp 3.5-liter V6 recorded just 17 mpg. (The Altima V6 also requires premium fuel.)

In terms of real power, the Mazda 6 went through the quarter-mile in 14.7 seconds at 95.6 mph, while the Accord did the task in 15.6 seconds at 91.0 mph and the Altima did 15.0 seconds at 95.2 mph.

Shifting for You
The Mazda's six-speed automatic transmission can be shifted manually for added control or exhilaration, and the shifts are crisp and positive. This is a better-than-average automatic from Japan, but we're hoping that one day the Mazda 6 might incorporate a transmission that would deliver a throttle blip to match revs during downshifts for an even more sporting feel.

In comparison, the five-speed automatic of the Honda isn't really programmed to do much more than "Drive." It allows a downshift to 3rd, but there's no way to manually select 4th gear. It might be the Honda Way, but it's a mystery to us.

The 2008 Nissan Altima features a CVT that combines the best of both worlds with six discreet ratios that can be manually selected, and a carefully optimized Drive mode. What the CVT does — and this one does it very well — is resolve what the best ratio and/or rpm is for the desired effect, be it acceleration or highway cruising. Our experience has shown that only when such a transmission is combined with a torque-rich engine (like this V6 in the Altima) is a CVT preferable to a traditional automatic with discreet gears. This combination helps the Altima accelerate truly seamlessly, and the transmission always seems in lockstep with the driver's intent.

Riding and Handling
The enduring goodness of the BMW 3 Series has shown that a well-sorted version of a simple strut-type independent front suspension can be made to work very well. The Nissan Altima uses this configuration, and mostly to good effect. We've often lauded the Altima for its crisp handling, but have also criticized it for its flinty, stiff-legged ride. This Altima hasn't changed our minds.

The 2008 Honda Accord and 2009 Mazda 6 both feature double-wishbone independent front suspension and score significantly higher than the Altima for their smoother, more isolated rides. The most noticeable differences arise over really rough, broken pavement, where the Altima's suspension crashes and booms, and even shakes the steering column. The Accord performs somewhat better, while the Mazda remains poised and sure-footed, though busy.

Our test track results also prove the Mazda 6 the best handler, as its 0.81g on the skid pad represents the most stick and its 66.4-mph run through the slalom leads the pack. The sharp-handling Altima musters 0.79g and 65.9 mph in the same tests, while the Accord records an admirable 0.80g combined with a pedestrian 63.3 mph.

The Mazda 6 loses a few points in road noise, where its wide, 18-inch Michelin tires produce high-frequency tread clamor that's especially sensitive to certain surfaces. The Honda and Nissan, on the other hand, are saddled with wind and engine noise. So when our sound-level meter showed that all three of these cars produce near-identical results at 70 mph, we weren't surprised.

Interior and Packaging
Assigning scores to a car's interior design is a largely subjective exercise, but there are elements and systems in each of these three sedans that deserve special attention.

Combining a traditional three-box silhouette with relatively thin C-pillars, the Honda offers better outward visibility than the more fastback shapes of the Mazda and Nissan. Compared to the Mazda and Nissan, the Honda driver sits higher and the cabin feels open and spacious. To counter this deficiency in visibility, the Mazda 6 features an effective, unobtrusive blind-spot warning system, while the Nissan has a back-up camera included in the optional navigation system.

The dashboards of these three cars offer either too little or too much. The Accord EX-L Navi groups its controls for the audio, navigation and ventilation systems in logical places, but there are so many buttons that it requires either thorough pre-flight study or too much on-the-fly attention to navigate the myriad buttons, displays, knobs and dials. The Nissan Altima's stark dash couldn't be simpler to operate or understand, but in this base-model version, the ventilation system doesn't offer automatic or dual-zone functions, and the radio features push-button manual tuning. Taking a lesson from each, the Mazda 6's contemporary-looking dash offers all the functionality of the Honda (minus the optional navigation system in this car), with the intuitiveness of the Nissan. It's nice to see a new design with some ideas that actually make some sense.

Honda's strong suit continues to be the ergonomics of the control layout and the tactile feel of all the buttons. The Mazda is a very close 2nd, while the aging Nissan is in dire need of some fresh ideas and upgrades. Granted, the Nissan is at a slight disadvantage here without a leather package, but to get leather requires ordering the $4,200 Premium package that adds a long list of other items you might not want or need.

Seating Matters
Both the top-line 2009 Mazda 6 s Grand Touring and 2008 Nissan Altima 3.5 SE come with smart keys that can remain in your pocket or purse to unlock/lock and start the vehicle. It's a nice touch we appreciate and hope the trend proliferates in the segment. All three sedans feature large front doors, making ingress and egress about equal among them. Once seated, however, you'll discover divergent missions in the seating choices each has made.

The Nissan's wide seats will accommodate a wide range of driver physiques, while the deep, aggressively bolstered buckets in the Mazda are clearly intended to support an enthusiast's frame. Somewhere in the middle, the Accord offers good support within its medium-size buckets. All the steering wheels here are adjustable for rake and reach, so a good driving position can be found.

When it comes to the rear seats, the same philosophies carry through, although the Altima gets demerits for a lower ceiling and squishy (though large) seats. It's also curious that not one of these three top-line sedans was equipped with rear vents for the climate control.

Junk in the Trunk
Popping the trunk in each (only the Honda doesn't offer an exterior touch-pad release), we were pleased to find the Mazda offers the largest and most useful cargo area. It was also the only one to use scissor hinges, which don't intrude into the cargo space. The Mazda 6 offers 16.6 cubic feet of cargo capacity, the Altima has 15.3 cubic feet and the Accord has 14.0 cubic feet.

These trunks are all shaped very differently. The lumpy, oddly configured Accord trunk can be expanded by folding down the one-piece rear seatback (although there's a narrow pass-through), while the Mazda and Nissan offer convenient 60/40-split-folding rear seatbacks.

All three of these cars carry small donut-style spare tires to maximize trunk room. Each trunk includes a cargo light, but none is equipped with an electrical power point.

Hitting the Sweet Spot
After all the poking, prodding, driving and scoring, the $30,690 2009 Mazda 6 s Grand Touring earns a total of 70.3 points in our comparison for a 1st-place finish. Second place goes to the $30,930 2008 Honda Accord EX-L Navi with 66.3 points. To level the playing field, we weighted as-tested prices as 20 percent of the final score just like the feature content, but even with a sizable price advantage, this $27,275 2008 Nissan Altima 3.5 SE CVT couldn't make up for its missing features that are standard equipment on its rivals, including Bluetooth connection, dual-zone climate control, electronic stability control and leather upholstery.

Although some might complain that the new, larger 2009 Mazda 6 has lost some of the sport sedan flavor of its predecessor, a comparison with the turbocharged, all-wheel-drive Mazdaspeed 6 we last tested shows the '09 Mazda 6 s Grand Touring is only slightly less capable, yet far more livable.

The Mazda 6 has, indeed, found that sweet spot between the well-designed, highly competent and yet somewhat generic Honda Accord and the more highly strung yet modestly priced Nissan Altima. The Mazda 6 combines both sense and sensibility, and it does so with a style that inspires comparison to cars further up the evolutionary scale like the Acura TSX or Nissan Maxima.

We've always believed that a family sedan can still be fun to drive, and it's great to discover that Mazda thinks so, too.