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 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 mainstream Accord, Altima, Toyota Camry and Chevrolet Malibu.

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 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.

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.

But despite impressive numbers, the new V-6 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.

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.

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.

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

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.

The cabin delivers a pleasing array of sporty accents, combined with the usual creature comforts. 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.

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.

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.

[+] PROS/CONS [-]
Manual on 4-cyl. Manual mpg penalty
V-6 hp leads segment Zoom-zoom dearth
Bold styling 100k sales a stretch

'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 range: $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.

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