Problem for Mazda: The 626 and the Millenia were relatively anonymous cars. Buyers, judging from sales numbers, hardly knew they existed. That means those models left no viable market legacy for the new Mazda6, so getting people's attention in a crowded, competitive mid-size sedan market could be difficult.

Praise: The Mazda6 has the wherewithal to compete. Shoppers who get a chance to drive the car are likely to wind up buying it.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Nothing to complain about in the Mazda6-i, the car in which I chose to spend most of my time. No complaints in the Mazda6-s either, but I prefer the straightforward simplicity of its four-cylinder sister.

Head-turning quotient: There are so many cars in California that it's a wonder anyone stops to look at any of them. But lots of people here paid favorable attention to the Mazda6. That never would have happened in a 626 or a Millenia.

Engines/transmissions: Both the 160-horsepower four-cylinder engine in the "i" and the 220-horsepower V-6 in the "s" are linked to standard five-speed manual transmissions. Those transmissions are different inasmuch as each is specifically designed to work with the engine to which it is linked. A four-speed automatic is optional in the "i"; a five-speed automatic is available for the "s."

Capacities: The Mazda6 seats five people and can carry 15.2 cubic feet of cargo -- rather generous for a mid-size car. Fuel capacity is 18 gallons (regular unleaded is fine).

Safety: Dual-powered front air bags are standard. Side air bags and head-curtain bags are optional, as are anti-lock brakes.

Mileage: The Mazda6-i gets 32 miles per gallon on the highway and 25 mpg in the city with the manual transmission, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The comparable Mazda6-s gets 27 mpg on the highway and 20 in the city. Mileage with the automatic transmissions is slightly lower.

Purse-strings note: The Mazda6 goes on sale early next year. Prices are not yet firm. Expect prices to range from $18,000 to about $26,000. At any rate, the Mazda6 will be priced competitively against the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. Shoppers for mid-size sedans are well advised to look at the Mazda6. It's a contender. It's a buy.