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Gilding the Station Wagon

2005 Mazda6 Sport Wagon

By Warren Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 13, 2005; Page G01

I'm having second thoughts about "Zoom-Zoom," the Mazda Motor Corp. theology that says all sedans, minivans, sport-utility vehicles and station wagons must have the soul of a sports car.

I initially liked the idea. In fact, I was a bona fide member of the Zoom-Zoom Amen Corner. Economy car? It didn't matter, as long as it had the spirit of a Ferrari. Minivan? Who cared, as long as it handled as well as a Porsche 911 coupe. Sport-utility vehicle? I'd take it, especially if it had the karma of a Lamborghini.

2005 Mazda6 Sport Wagon

Nuts & Bolts

Downside: Mazda and other car companies should recognize that not all of us want a Ferrari, especially if what we really want and need is a good, solid, reasonably priced ordinary station wagon. The company needs to rediscover its long-discarded "Great Little Car" approach to product development and marketing, especially for city cars.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Excellent in all three categories. Congratulations, and thanks to Mazda for finally building a Mazda6 with a respectable turning radius.

Head-turning quotient: The "Sport" designation notwithstanding, it looks, feels and drives like a station wagon.

Layout/body style: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive four-door wagon with rear hatch.

Engine/transmissions: The 2005 Mazda6 Sport Wagon is equipped with a standard 3.0-liter, 24-valve V-6 engine that develops 220 horsepower at 6,300 revolutions per minute and 192 foot-pounds of torque at 5,000 rpm. That engine carries over from the 2004 model year. It can be mated to a standard five-speed manual transmission or the new-for-2005 optional (and recommended by this column) six-speed automatic, which also can be operated manually.

Cargo and fuel capacities: The Sport Wagon has seating for five people. Maximum cargo capacity is 33.7 cubic feet. The fuel tank holds 18 gallons of recommended regular unleaded gasoline.

Mileage: I averaged 24 miles per gallon in city and highway driving.

Safety: Standard four-wheel anti-lock brakes, side and head air bags, and traction control.

Price: The base price on the Mazda Sport Wagon with the five-speed manual transmission is $22,899. Dealer's invoice price on that model is $21,118. Price as tested is $24,794, including $1,335 in options (Bose sound system, moon roof, that sort of thing) and a $560 destination charge. Dealer's invoice price with those options and the transportation fee is $22,746. Prices sourced from Mazda, Edmunds.com and Kbb.com.

Purse-strings note: It's a buy, but think carefully about those options. Compare with the Subaru Legacy and Volkswagen Passat wagons, and the perfectly sensible, best-value-for-the-money Chevrolet Malibu Maxx.

Clearly, I was not alone, which is why Mazda embarked upon its Zoom-Zoom mission and why all major car companies launched similar campaigns. The need for speed is addictive indeed, even in ordinarily thoughtful people who, had they consulted with their better angels at time of purchase, probably would have bought perfectly practical vehicles -- like, well, station wagons.

But rare is the company that can command premium dollars for sensible, serviceable products; and rarer still, certainly in the visible minority, are those consumers who find prestige or other psychic value in items considered basic or commonplace.

Doubters should examine the sad fate of the Volkswagen Phaeton, a mechanically exquisite luxury car that competes with anything in the $60,000 to $100,000 category but is bereft of buyers because it wears an ordinary VW badge and comes in an elongated, economy-sculpted VW Jetta sedan body.

The silliness of all this struck me in my second go-around in the Mazda6 Sport Wagon -- station wagon -- this one the 2005 model, as opposed to the 2004 mid-level version I drove and liked last year.

I also like the 2005 model, which has certain discernible improvements over its predecessor, notably in its ability to make U-turns on suburban streets without hitting the opposing curb. Attempting that maneuver in earlier Mazda6 models proved to be a chore, often requiring stopping and backing up.

For that change -- facilitated by improved, power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering -- I am grateful.

But I am befuddled by Mazda's efforts to turn what essentially is a mid-size, mid-America family sedan into the spiritual cousin of a race car. The Mazda6 Sport Wagon now comes with beefy (read, less energy-efficient) 17-inch wheels as standard equipment. There is a rear air spoiler atop the rear hatch door, as if someone really is going to drive the wagon fast and hard enough to even hint at giving that cosmetic piece redeeming functional value. There are the body-color front grille and the gray headlight bezels to give the wagon what Mazda's designers say is "an aggressive stance."

Why an "aggressive stance" in a station wagon? Will it help you get to the front of the drop-off/pickup line in the elementary school parking lot? Will it make local law enforcement officials think twice about ticketing you if you park in a handicapped driver spot without the proper credentials? Will it make the home improvement store people hustle to load your wagon after your shopping is done?

This is extra-cost nonsense in a vehicle that does not need it. Nor does it need the standard five-speed manual gearbox. I know that is a controversial statement, especially among dedicated gearheads. But I do not make it because I am anti-shift or otherwise shiftless.

It's no fun working the gears in a mid-size station wagon in stop-and-go, bump-and-grind city traffic. Besides, for 2005, the Mazda6 wagon offers an excellent compromise transmission -- the optional six-speed Mazda Sport A/T, an automatic transmission that also can be shifted manually, and that has the added virtues of saving more gasoline and contributing to fewer tailpipe emissions than many manual gearboxes.

The six-speed automatic costs more money -- part of a package that adds $2,770 to the five-speed manual Sport Wagon and elevates it to top-ranked "Grand Touring" status in the Sport Wagon lineup. But it offers substantially more real value than the rear spoiler, gray headlight bezels and other things that boost ego and price without increasing utility and performance.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company