Mazda is putting a lot of faith in its latest fleet challenger. The Mazda6 is not only charged with tackling the talented cars at the top of the upper medium sector, but also re-building the Mazda brand in the UK after a year of transition.
And after the worthy-but-dull 626 – one of a number of uninspiring models in the Mazda line-up – the Mazda6 has a tough task on its hands.
In its favour, the Mazda6 comes with a new platform and a new range of petrol engines, designed and developed by Mazda. A choice of two common rail diesel engines will follow in September, along with an estate version, while later in the year a four-wheel drive estate in the mould of the Audi A4 Avant quattro will reach the UK.
The fact that Mazda is snapping at the heels of premium manufacturers might raise a few eyebrows, but the company has long held a deserved reputation for reliability and quality.
If Volvo and Volkswagen – and perhaps even Honda with the Accord – are perceived to have the image to challenge premium rivals, then why not Mazda? Time will tell.
Mark Fields, president of Mazda Motor Corporation, said: 'Our new brand identity was developed to help customers around the world to recognise that this new generation of Mazda products is clearly different, more sophisticated and more relevant to their expectations.
'We want them to know that if it's a Mazda, it won't just be a competitive product, it will be a leading product.'
Mazda is currently exceeding its sales forecasts and has revised its targets for the next three years. It initially expected to sell 27,000 units in 2002, but this has been increased to 29,500, while the aim for 2003 is 35,000 compared with original estimates of 30,600. In 2004 the company hopes to sell 40,000 units – 4,000 more than the forecast it made last year for 2004.
By then the Mazda range will have been revised and expanded. The MPV has just gained a new petrol engine and a diesel for the first time, while early next year will bring the Mazda2 – a replacement for the Demio. Next summer will see the UK launch of the RX-8 coupe, and early in 2004 the 323 will be replaced.
Mazda marketing director Rob Lindley said: 'We are rebuilding the brand through investment to get Mazda back on the map. We are improving our dealer network and have identified our key partners and 115 sales points. We want to increase that to 155 by 2004 and work in areas where we have lacked representation, such as London, South Yorkshire, Birmingham and Liverpool.'
Mazda's fleet performance will be boosted by the Mazda6, 70% of which will be sold to the corporate sector.
The hatchback is expected to take 70% of overall sales, with the 2.0-litre petrol engine the strongest seller on 48%.
The new diesel variants are expected to account for 27% of total sales, which some might believe to be a conservative estimate given the current state of diesel sales to fleets, but well exceeds the volume of diesel 626s sold.
Service intervals are up from 9,000 miles to 12,500 miles, which along with longer life components, bring about a reduction in servicing downtime by two-thirds over its life on a fleet, claims Mazda.
Mazda will also put small volumes of the Mazda6 into the daily rental sector – something that doesn't seem to have affected predicted residual values with CAP Network forecasting that the car will retain a class-leading 35% of its new price at three years /60,000 miles for the entry level model, and there has been positive feedback from other industry analysts.
Mazda fleet and remarketing director Jeremy Thomson said: 'We are probably looking at about 500-600 rental vehicles this year. We don't want to do too many but we need to get enough on the road for people to see the car.'
Jeff Paterson, senior car editor at Glass's Information Services, said: 'The combination of a stylish design, sensible pricing and Mazda's inherent reliability should ensure that the Mazda6 remains a sought-after commodity on the used market for some time to come. Early indications suggest that the trade is pleased to see Mazda returning to its roots with cars that offer individuality and also a generous level of specification.'
Behind the wheel
MAZDA'S current advertising campaign with its 'zoom-zoom' slogan seems to be appealing to the part of our brains that has had the child-like thrill of experiencing your first pedal car locked away for the last 25 years.
The Mazda 626 was never the sort of car that set pulses racing – in fact the only 'dynamic' car, in terms of performance and arguably in terms of looks, in the current Mazda range seems to be the MX-5.
However, the Mazda6 does a good job of grabbing the attention with its smart appearance, particularly with its deep grille and attractive light clusters. Its broad stance – this car is virtually as wide as an Audi A6 – adds presence and as upper-medium cars go, the Mazda is more likely to turn heads than a Vectra or Mondeo. The interior is also appealing, with the circular vents and controls on the centre console reminiscent of an Alfa 156.
Although I drove a 1.8-litre car for the first stint of the Manchester Airport to North Wales test route, ending up in Llandudno via Betws-y-Coed, most of the mileage – the entire second day's driving – was racked up in a 2.0-litre, which will be the volume seller in the range.
The Mazda6 has double wishbone suspension at the front and this is quite an achievement in front-wheel drive cars (the layout causes packaging problems), giving the 6 the benefit of improved road-holding.
In fact, if the Ford Mondeo had set the standard in this class for ride and handling, I believe the Mazda surpasses it.
It does this by offering more communicative steering, with a rack that is identical to the MX-5, allowing the Mazda6 to be eased through challenging bends with fingertip control.
Body roll is kept to a minimum and its levels of grip are far higher than most people will need on public roads, while enthusiastic driving is encouraged by the smooth gearchange and tuned exhaust note.
Meanwhile the ride quality is supple and tyre noise detected only by those with super powers.
The brakes are also superb, but maximum stopping power is only available as standard to those who opt for the high-spec TS2 with emergency braking assistance as standard along with dynamic stability control (DSC) and traction control (TSC).
So the story is that the Mazda6 is the new driver's choice in the upper-medium class. But it also appeals in sensible areas. With the rear seats in place there is a class-leading 500 litres of luggage space, with no intrusion from the wheel arches, and hatchback and estate models benefit from a flat loading area with the rear seats folded.
The interior is comfortable, with plenty of room for rear-seat passengers, and although some individuality is lost as some switches are instantly recognisable as common to all Mazdas, the whole arrangement feels solid.
However, criticism can be levelled at the storage box in the centre of the dashboard – the release button is far too fiddly. Another area of concern is the level of carbon dioxide emissions from the petrol engines.
Had the Mazda6 offered competitive CO2 emissions, choosing it as a company car would be a no-brainer.
However, at 198, 203 and 212g/km respectively for the 1.8, 2.0 and 2.3-litre engines, it will have to rely more on its low front-end price to win the minds and wallets, if not the hearts, of company car drivers.
THE Mazda6 sets new standards for driving enjoyment in a volume player in the upper-medium sector. But it does it with extraordinarily low list prices which combined with strong predicted RVs must be good news for drivers and fleet managers.