Mazda proves midsize affordable sedans don't have to be dull
by: JAIME VALDEZ, The Mazda6 one of the most stylish family cars ever. And it drives as good as it looks.

Traditional family cars used to be the most boring automotive market segment.

Economy cars at least give you bragging rights about saving the world. High-performances cars are fun. Luxury cars are loaded with status, gizmos and comfort features. But traditional family cars - affordable midsize sedans - are designed to be dull.

Or at least they used to be. Nowadays, affordable midsize sedans are one of the hottest market segments, with new and improved models being introduced every year. Gone are the bench seats, flaccid suspensions and low-information dashes of the not-so-distant past. Today's traditional family cars look great, offer a wide selection of engine and transmission choices, handle far better than they should and can be outfitted with the latest high-tech features.

A good example is the 2010 Mazda6, which was completely revised just last year. While earlier midsize Mazda sedans were well-built but undistinguished, the current version is a revelation -sexy, quiet, solid, roomy and, when equipped with the optional 3.7-liter V6, a blast to drive hard.

On paper the Mazda6 competes against such other reasonably-priced people haulers as the Honda Accord, Ford Fusion, Mercury Milan, Nissan Altima and Toyota Camry. In the real world, however, the Mazda6 has a number of advantages, including sleek lines, a sharp interior, a supple suspension and - with 272 horsepower - the most powerful optional engine in the field.

In fact, priced at under $30,000 fully loaded, the Mazda6 should make anyone considering a higher-priced European sports sedan think twice, at least those with V6 engines.

Our test model, a Touring Plus version, came with the V6 and 6-speed automatic transmission. This combination is rapidly becoming the standard for most cars, replacing the V8 and three-speed automatic transmission pairing that dominated the 1960s and 1970s, before gasoline shortages and rising fuel costs threw the automotive world into disarray. When they work well together, the 6/6 combination offers reasonable fuel economy and good performance.

The combination in the Mazda6 was among the best we've ever driven - smooth and responsive at low speeds, impressive under hard acceleration, but still rated at an EPA-estimated 25 miles per gallon on highways. The automatic also came with a manual shift mode operated through the shift lever. This is a plus for drivers of traditional manual shift cars that have a hard time adjusting to steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters.

The exterior of the Mada6 has drawn rave reviews from automotive writers. It is swoopy and muscular at the same time, especially the bulging front fenders, which echo those of the Mazda RX-8 sports car. The dual exhaust chrome treatment on our test model added a sporty touch to the high, wrap-around rear end, too.

The interior of the Mazda6 is refined and stylish. The gauges are big and easy to read, and the large dials for the climate system are easy to find and operate, even at night. The 8-speaker stereo system was sumptuous, and features mp3, auxiliary audio input and Sirius satellite radio compatibility.

Shortcomings are hard to find on the Mazda6. Perhaps the biggest disappoint is that it cannot be equipped with an even more powerful V8 or all-wheel-drive system, but such options would price it out of the affordable midsize sedan category and defeat the point of building one of the best traditional family cars on the road today.

Facts and figures

• Model: 2010 Mazda6

• Manufacturer: Mazda.

• Class: Midsize sedan.

• Layout: Front engine, front-wheel-drive.

• Style: Four-door, five passenger sedan.

• Engines: 2.5-liter inline 4 (170 hp, 167 ft lbs); 3.7-liter V6 (272 hp, 269 ft-lbs as tested).

• Transmissions: 6-speed manual transmission; 6-speed automatic (as tested).

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 20/29; 17/25 (as tested).

• Price: Beginning at approximately $18,450 ($27,730 as tested).

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