ROME — An ill-tempered Italian mongrel owes its life to a group of Mazda engineers.

North of here, on the picturesque rural road to Lago di Bracciano, the mutt bolts from some tall grass and tries to make sport of the all-new Mazda 6 I'm evaluating.

Part German Shepherd, part Clydesdale, it bares its considerable bite while its vector suggests an imminent test of the car's integrated bumper beam that absorbs collision energy and reduces damage to the car's body structure.

But a quick downshift, accelerator punch and double lane change leaves both Rover and ride without a scratch.

Bravo, Mazda!

The auto maker's replacement for the 626, which had been long in the tooth for some time, delivers on the brand's promise for the future — dynamic driving experiences in functional packages that are easy on the eye.

The absence of such unambiguous direction is something that dogged Mazda during the 1990s. With the 6, however, it's obvious that the auto maker is back on a short leash — but delightfully unmuzzled.

Witness the front of the 6, which achieves a “predatory” look with the help of its squinting, swept-back, cluster-style headlamps. While not unique, this configuration focuses attention on the car's mischievous grin. Framed by fenders that slope away from the prominent hood line like muscular shoulders, the result brings to mind the wide, low stance of a bulldog, tempered with the litheness of a greyhound.

Under the hood, there is no howl — just growl. But it's subdued thanks in part to engine sound studies that employed computer simulation.

Analysis of this data led to the development of an innovative floorpan design that features fist-sized, oval-shaped dimples. These cavities resonate with road noise at a frequency that contrasts with engine noise. As a result, they cancel each other out.

Wind noise is the only bone of contention here. As speeds reach 70 mph (112 km/h) and beyond, the interior environment becomes slightly less tranquil.

Speaking of tranquility, die-hard V-6 fans may want to let sleeping dogs lie instead of indulging in the optional 3L 219-hp package. Mazda's acclaimed 2.3L 150-hp I-4 — newly named MZR — has found a more-than-suitable home as the base engine in Mazda 6, which bows between early summer and year's end.

Ford Motor Co., which supported the engine's development, offers it in Ranger and Europe's Mondeo sedan. As with Mondeo, Mazda's treatment of the powerplant makes the pickup seem embarrassingly crude.

In Mazda 6, the MZR I-4 demonstrates an understanding of power-to-weight no doubt inspired by the likes of BMW 3-Series and Volkswagen Passat — two vehicles Mazda used as benchmarks in the development of its new midsize offering.

Enhancing its performance is the 5-speed manual transmission's short-throw feel, which is further augmented by dual-cone synchronizers that promote high-precision engagement in first and second gears.

On these narrow but pristine roads, Mazda 6 hugs corner after corner at speeds that test a driver's limitations before the car's. On less uniform surfaces (visit Michigan and pick one), expect Mazda 6's performance to suffer little.

Its front suspension and steering system are optimized by an approach to body construction that stresses stiffness. Most notably, the car features a lower tunnel crossmember that adds to rail rigidity, in addition to a unique sheetmetal structural element that links the upper ends of the strut towers — a hedge against lateral bending.

Because there are wishbones instead of MacPherson struts to suspend the rear axle, the tower-less strut profile affords more cargo space, particularly noticeable in the wagon and hatchback body styles, which feature single-lever action to fold the 60/40 rear seats flat by moving the bottom cushions forward. The sedan's rear seats also can be flattened to increase trunk space, but needed an extra nudge to assume the position. Equally good news for big dogs are the surprising expanses of legroom — front and rear.

Pricing has not been set, but insiders say it should fetch a figure in the $20,000 neighborhood. Enough to make tails wag.

2003 Mazda 6 Sedan
Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, 5-passenger 4-door sedan
Engine: 2.3L (1,334 cc) DOHC I-4, aluminum block/aluminum head
Power (SAE net, MT): 150 hp @ 6,500 rpm
Torque: 152 lb.-ft. (200 Nm) @ 4,000 rpm
Compression ratio: 9.7:1
Bore x Stroke (mm): 87.5 × 94
Transmission: 5-speed manual/4-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 105.3 ins. (267 cm)
Overall length: 186.8 ins. (474 cm)
Overall width: 70.1 ins. (178 cm)
Overall height: 56.7 ins. (144 cm)
Curb weight: 3,113 lbs. (1,415 kg)
Market competition: Honda Accord; Toyota Camry; Volkswagen Passat