WESTLAKE VILLAGE, CA – Options have been woefully limited for U.S. buyers seeking that unique combination of 4-door practicality and sporty, dynamic handling, all for a moderate price.

The affordable sport sedan has been remarkably elusive for years as a few brands have nibbled the edges. The Nissan Maxima had been the starlet of the segment in the mid-1990s, but its position now is in question as the Maxima consistently moves up market.

The V-6-powered Nissan Altima and Honda Accord are fine entries, but their conservative styling is suitable for less-inspired, high-volume sedans, capable of appealing to a broad array of tastes.

So along comes the second-generation Mazda6, a dedicated sport sedan whose identity bulges from the wraparound tail lights; oozes from a coupe-like profile created by a steeply raked windshield and back light; rides on sleek, sexy (and optional) 18-in. alloy wheels; and charges forth from muscular, form-fitting, crisply stamped front fenders.

The all-new ’09 Mazda6 is a limited-purpose sedan, and the Japanese auto maker fully understands its volumes never will approach those of the more mainstream Accord, Altima, Toyota Camry and Chevrolet Malibu.

And that’s fine. Like water seeking its natural level, every vehicle must find its audience.

As long as some Americans view driving as something they want to do rather than something they must do, there will be a place for a car such as the Mazda6.

It hugs the road and takes hard corners with great composure; offers class-leading horsepower and torque; carries five occupants comfortably; is reasonably fuel efficient; and its styling achieves the stated goals of the Mazda design team: “dignified chic” and “authentic coolness.”

But the car is not without faults. Let’s start with the engines.

The auto maker expects about 30% of Mazda6 buyers to choose the 272-hp DOHC 3.7L V-6, which also appears in the Mazda CX-9 cross/utility vehicle. The remaining 70% of customers will get the all-new 170-hp DOHC 2.5L 4-cyl. base powerplant, mated to a 6-speed manual or 5-speed automatic transmission.

The V-6, designed by Ford Motor Co. and manufactured by Mazda in Hiroshima, Japan, is competitive enough and puts a whuppin’ on the 212-hp 3.0L V-6 it replaces. The only transmission available with the V-6 is a willing 6-speed automatic.

But the new V-6, despite impressive numbers, has a lazy throttle and a non-descript exhaust note. The powertrain team probably wanted to temper the sporty sounds coming from the back end, in hopes of attracting a broader customer base.

But the primary audience wants a bit more aural entertainment – and certainly more zoom-zoom – than the V-6 Mazda6 can muster.

Up against the two best engines in its class – the Honda Accord’s 268-hp 3.5L V-6 and the Nissan Altima’s 270-hp 3.5L V-6 – the Mazda6 falls short, proving that horsepower, alone, does not a great engine make.

At the media launch here, Mazda North American Operations offered competitive drives in the Altima, Accord and Camry. Without question, the Mazda6 is the best looking of the lot.

However, a buyer wanting the best engine will pick the Accord V-6, which cruises with a casual confidence but explodes with a fury when called upon.

For the sport-sedan demographic, the Mazda6’s most impressive powertrain configuration is the 4-cyl. with the 6-speed manual, which can be had for under $20,000.

There are other good 4-cyl. sedans on the market, including the Chevrolet Malibu and Ford Fusion.

’09 Mazda6 iTouring
Vehicle type Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger sedan
Engine 2.5L DOHC I-4; aluminum block/aluminum head
Power (SAE net) 170 hp @ 6,000 rpm
Torque 167 lb.-ft. (226 Nm) @ 4,000 rpm
Compression ratio 9.7:1
Transmission 6-speed manual
Wheelbase 109.8 ins. (279 cm)
Overall length 193.7 ins. (492 cm)
Overall width 72.4 ins. (184 cm)
Overall height 57.9 ins. (147 cm)
Curb weight 3,258 lbs. (1,478 kg)
Base price $21,705-$22,605
Fuel economy 20/29 city/highway (11.7-8.1 L/100 km)
Competition Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, Toyota Camry, Chevrolet Malibu
Pros Cons
Manual standard w/ 4-cyl. 1-mpg penalty for manual
V-6 hp leads segment Not enough zoom-zoom
Bold sport-sedan styling 100k sales a stretch

But, unlike the competition, the 4-cyl. Mazda6 exudes a bit more powertrain grunt and appeals more directly to sport-sedan intenders. The fact these attributes come along with 20% better fuel economy than the V-6 should seal the deal.

Under heavy flogging here in Southern California, the 4-cyl. iGrand Touring edition (stickering at $27,640 with destination and delivery charges) manages 24.5 mpg (9.6 L/100 km) in a mix of city and highway driving.

The V-6-powered sGrand Touring (priced at $32,690) achieves 18.5 mpg (12.7 L/100 km) in similar driving.

By way of handling, the Mazda6 is sound.

The rack-and-pinion steering exhibits solid on-center feel, and each incremental input translates into a corresponding yaw gain, as expected. A new damper valve has been added to the steering system to reduce friction and improve linearity.

Perhaps the new damper valve works too well, as the steering occasionally feels too light and allows too much slop at highway speeds.

Still, the new Mazda6 is agile, with a turning circle 3.2 ft. (0.97 m) smaller than its predecessor. And engineers say the new model alleviates the tendency to “drift and pull” on the highway, a common complaint among owners of the previous Mazda6.

The front suspension’s lower control arm consists of a 1-piece steel forging that replaces a double-ball jointed 2-piece arm. As a result, the boost in lateral stiffness makes for smooth cornering, even over rough pavement.

The rear suspension consists of a multi-link independent setup, and each trailing arm’s attachment point has been raised an inch, which reduces the tendency to dive during aggressive braking. Plus, rear dampers have been moved outboard to limit body roll.

Four-wheel disc brakes, which carry over from the old model, provide sure stopping power, enhanced by an all-new electronic stability control system, which is standard on all uplevel Mazda6 “s” trims. The car’s weight distribution stands at 61%-39% front to rear.

The cabin delivers a pleasing array of sporty accents, combined with the usual creature comforts. Controls are easily within the driver’s reach and predictably arranged. Three interior colors are available: gray, black and beige.

Piano black trim, fast becoming a staple of Mazda interiors, provides a dark, glossy touch, although the Mazda6 offers a new twist on certain models: “bamboo black” as Senior Vice President Robert Davis describes it.

Uneven, lateral lines across the glossy black surface gives a unique, almost exotic touch that works well on the center console, except when paired with perforated leather seats. The trim stripes and dots in the seat leather clash and scuttle an otherwise visually 2harmonious interior.

The center stack fits with the intended sport-sedan persona, exhibiting the tapered physique of a broad-shouldered body builder.

Likewise, the instrument panel is cleverly designed, with the upper level appearing to hover above the center stack and glove box, like a pillow on a bed.

Fit and finish of these early production models was acceptable, although two panels on the dashboard were poorly aligned to the right of the steering wheel, and an unsightly gap marred the joint between the headliner and IP on one vehicle tested.

Seats are properly bolstered for aggressive driving, and there’s plenty of room for knees and heads in the back seat, even for three average-size adults. The new trunk is 10% bigger than in the old model.

Engineers also pride themselves on having addressed wind and road noise, which had been the source of frequent complaints with the last Mazda6. Reinforced door seals and underbody damping should do the trick, the auto maker says.

The new Mazda6 is wider, longer and heavier than the one it replaces, and that formula has served the Accord and Altima well in boosting sales volumes.

Likewise, Mazda is counting on its midsizer to climb the sales ladder, and executives are shooting for 80,000 deliveries a year, once full volume at the AutoAlliance International Inc. plant in Flat Rock, MI, is achieved.

Executives even suggest 100,000 units is possible for the Mazda6, which would be an all-time high.

Such a milestone would be remarkable, given the last strong year for the previous Mazda6 was 2005, when the vehicle notched 71,447 sales, according to Ward’s data. Sales have been tumbling ever since.

The Mazda6 also used to offer 5-door hatchback and wagon derivatives, but they weren’t popular enough to keep around. With consumers abandoning fullsize SUVs and looking for smaller alternatives, perhaps Mazda will reconsider its decision.

But that only happens if sales take off for the all-new sedan, which is arriving now in showrooms.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com