I’ve reviewed quite a few cars, given my first impressions on others and touched very lightly on my own car. So I thought for a change, I’d put my own ride in the spotlight. It’s not new and certainly no beauty queen (except in my eyes) but she provides all the transportation and kicks that I need when it comes to driving. Before I go into the car itself, first a bit about its owner.
I’m a car lover, but actually it isn’t my first love. That will always and forever belong to aviation. I grew up around aircraft thanks to one parent working for the airlines that also afforded the privilege of traveling often. As a kid, I would go to the airport’s waving gallery if for no other reason than to watch the endless cycle of aircraft taking off and landing. My father indulged this passion every Saturday afternoon by buying pastries and taking my younger brother and myself to an area that overlooked the airport and afforded an unobstructed view of the runway. I think in this way, my love for all things cars also grew. We were always a two-car family and the cars that have passed through our garage were varied but basically the same design: four door sedans. No they’ve never owned sports cars (though Dad did own a few two doors before marriage) but one thing was always present in at least one of them: a manual transmission. My father stipulated that a car with a manual transmission was the only way to get my license and I followed through by achieving it on the first go. The car I drove for that test, an old beaten up 1968 Ford Escort was my first real introduction to that transmission and though difficult at first, I found it fun to match revs and manage the gear shifts in a smooth manner. From then on I vowed every car I owned would have that fabled transmission.
Like all things, life has a funny way of throwing a brick at your plans. I’ve gone through three cars before this Mazda, only one of which had a manual transmission but that one car could not have been more appropriate. A used 1996 Honda Civic EX Coupe finally graced my driveway…errr…parking spot, bought with my own money. Back then in the early 2000s, VTEC was all the rage and to be able to peg that little D16YA motor to its 6800 rpm redline manually provided immense enjoyment. Honda engines were noted for their rev-happiness by the motoring press and this one was no exception, providing some 80,000 miles of VTEC excitement. Of course, being the young man I was (and wanting the Fast and Furious look), I tried to improve on perfection by attaching freer breathing devices like a K&N air filter and beer can exhaust while making the exterior look speedier by installing aftermarket headlamps and those then-cool Altezza tail lamps (I know, the older me isn’t proud of it either looking back). That Honda met an unfortunate end at the hands of a wayward minivan driver and afterwards I was saddled with an automatic 2003 Hyundai Elantra (a car that would change my view about Korean cars forever but that’s another story).
Now we come to the Mazda’s acquisition. Initially my casting net was specific: after years of driving the smooth but dynamically uninspiring Elantra, I wanted a manual transmission. But not just ANY manual transmission car, I wanted a Mazdaspeed3. Something about 263hp in a small compact hatchback (I have a thing for 5 door wagons) equipped with a 6 speed manual just appealed to me on all fronts. And I knew how much I wanted to pay for it. After a few months, I widened my net to include the manual equipped Mazda6 just in case (and deeming the Mazdaspeed6 a bit too complex and expensive when it came to maintaining its sophisticated AWD system). Finding a Mazdaspeed3 with the right mileage and price, I printed the online ad and took it to the dealer, naming my price (knowing that any car’s price can be bargained). To my surprise, the salesman stated the online price was incorrect, citing the actual price was a few thousand dollars more than advertised. He decided to offer the car at the advertised price but wouldn’t budge any lower, no matter how close I came. I was about to call it quits when he mentioned another car I could be interested in: a black 2006 Mazda6. Having been positively smitten with the Mazdaspeed3’s 263 turbocharged horsepower and still reeling by the defeat of not being able to purchase it, I was a bit underwhelmed by this new entry, thinking this might be the 2.3 liter motor sans turbocharger, until he opened the hood. Lo and behold, the 215hp Ford Duratec 3.0 liter V6! Sure it wasn’t as powerful as it’s sporty little brother, but having sampled one at a Mazda event a few years back, I knew the power would be smooth and torquey given the car’s low weight. But then I thought about the transmission. 95% of these sedans come equipped with automatic transmissions. What were the odds this one would be any different? Then the driver’s door opened and there stood quite prominently a 5 speed manual stick.
|What I wanted: A 2008 Mazdaspeed3|
|What I got: 2006 Mazda 6s (actual car the day I bought it)|
This was too good to be true. I had to ask my brother to punch me in the arm (he did it in the stomach) to ensure I wasn’t dreaming. Then came the other positives: just under 23,000 miles on the odometer? Sitting for months unsold because let’s face it, no one bothers with manual transmissions these days? Reminding the salesman of that last point, I offered to take the car off his hands at a price that would benefit both of us. After a brief test drive and a thorough walk-around, I drove off the lot, instantly falling in love with the Mazda I’ve now dubbed the STEED (yes, all caps).
|5 speed manual! Yeah!|
|It’s no turbo, but the 3.0L 215hp V6 is adequate|
Dynamically, the Mazda6 has lived up to the hype of Zoom Zoom. The suspension offers a firm but compliant enough ride for the everyday commute and the transmission is direct, engaging each gear effortlessly with a nice ‘snick’ each time. It’s no Camry, every bump and road irregularity is felt through the seat and the steering is right-now direct, offering great communication between the driver’s hands and the front tires. The 3.0 liter V6 might not be as punchy as the Speed3’s turbo 2.3 liter 4 cylinder (215hp in former compared to 263hp in the latter), but in my estimation, it’s much more tractable, especially in traffic. There’s not much torque below 2500rpm, but just enough to amble along in traffic with 3rd gear. Getting off the line quickly, the V6 has to be revved, which is no problem as the engine sounds quite good in the upper ranges of the tach. Passing is also a no brainer: from top gear, a shift down to 4th is usually enough to make quick work of slower traffic, though 3rd is needed if you’re shooting for that hole in the next lane. Settle in top gear and the 6 cruises effortlessly on the highway, though the engine does make itself heard at 3000rpm. Which is just as well, since anything above 70mph will have the fuel gauge moving a bit quicker in the ‘E’ direction. Over the years I’ve mastered the fuel efficiency curve of this car: if fuel conservation is a priority, short shift in the city (which means ‘skip-shifting’ 1-3-5) and on the highway doing a 60-65 mph cruise. My best fuel mileage to date has been about 26mpg in mixed city/highway driving.
The interior, while not luxurious (maybe so in its heyday) is comfortable and spacious enough. The cloth seats have held up well to my abuse and the materials are quite durable. The dash itself isn’t of the hard, cheap plastic and feels good to the touch. Further down the materials turn to harder plastic but rarely have my hands needed to venture that far. The driver’s seat offers good enough support for long distance cruising and held me in place whenever spirited driving beckoned. Back in the day a car was considered luxurious and state of the art when it came equipped with a 6 speaker Bose audio system with an in-dash 6 disc CD changer. Mazda did offer the 6 with satellite radio and a navigation system on high end Grand Touring models but my 6s model came equipped mid-level with the 6 disc CD changer. No biggie, the dash top storage bin where the navigation system would normally reside proved to be a really practical area for storing things like my trusty tire air pressure gauge and flashlight. The bin cover itself, however, is quite flimsy and is currently broken on one of its hinges; I did manage to use a screw to secure it somewhat so one end is raised a little. Other than that little snafu, the interior has held up really well.
Have I talked about the exterior styling? It’s not flashy but for a 2003 design, it has aged quite well. The slim headlight fixtures with projector beams and that wide lower intake flanked by the repositioned fog lights of the 2006 model refresh give the 6 an almost Alfa Romeo-esque flair. I toyed with the idea of upgrading the stock 17 inch wheels with larger +1 sizes (preferably the stock 18s from uplevel GT models, or even those from the RX-8 sports car) but the wheel wells are filled so…well with the stock wheels I’ve decided against upgrades. Some people think trunklid rear wings are silly but I think this generation Mazda 6 looks odd without it. The wing perfectly compliments the Zoom-Zoom styling and offers a good frame for the twin chrome exhaust outlets that are standard on all variants. Over the years, the clear plastic headlight covers have faded and I’ve managed to keep them somewhat clear with headlight restorer, which can be bought at your local auto parts store. It works quite well but doesn’t last very long so figure using the product about twice a year to keep your headlights looking new.
|6 quarts of 5W-30 synthetic oil every 3,000-5,000 miles…oh and a new oil filter of course|
As far as maintenance is concerned, I resisted doing any mechanical upgrades, opting to keep the STEED stock (and wanting to preserve the warranty). The only aftermarket equipment installed were a set of HID bulbs on the low beams with plans to add a set to the fog lights as well (is that legal?) and window tints. Maintenance is quite simple although a few high priced repairs have surfaced. I do all oil changes myself every 3,000-5,000 miles, check my brakes every 10,000 miles and keep all vital fluids topped off though I’m planning to do a full coolant flush in the near future. One expensive repair that is quite unique to manual-equipped V6 Mazda 6 models concerns the engine mounts. Automatic transmission V6 models have more mounts while manual models have less, thus stressing the rear lower mount even more. Already I’ve had to replace that mount 3 times and the larger mount next to the transmission once. Basically, the harder you shift, the more the engine’s torque wears the mounts down. Automatic transmission models, as far as I know, aren’t subject to this as the torque converter dampens the torque load on the mounts.
The other high end repair which I’m yet to make (funds are lacking, it’s the recession maaan), concerns the climate control system. Details regarding the damage itself are a bit complex, but essentially the AC compressor and drier need to be replaced (apparently they’re an integrated unit in Mazda6 cars, meaning one can’t be replaced without other) so you can imagine my suffering in the hot, 95 degree Florida summer. I can alleviate this somewhat by an interesting feature I found by accident: keeping the ‘UNLOCK’ button on the keyfob pressed for greater than 3 seconds rolls down both front windows, allowing the heat inside the car to be vented out. Best believe this is now a routine and works quite well, cooling the car a bit before I get in.
Presently the STEED is showing 76,000 miles on the odo and, aside from the broken AC, runs perfectly. She’s gotten me as far north as Jacksonville to as far south as Key West and pretty much everywhere in between. Highway stints are a non-issue, setting the cruise control at 70mph (65mph if I need to conserve a bit more fuel) and putting on my favorite CDs (I’m convinced there’s an AUX inlet lurking somewhere in the cabin but it remains elusive). Yes, there is that rare time in stifling traffic when my left leg could use a break but that comes with the territory of owning a car like this. Fuel economy is quite good for the V6, so far I’ve been able to go over 400 miles of highway driving on a single tank, just over 300 in the city.
All things being equal, I plan to keep the STEED around until the wheels fall off (yes future wife, you’ll have to learn how to drive stick) or some other event forces my hand. Sure, sometimes replacing those motor mounts have become an expensive affair but I’m a DIY kinda guy so I’ll learn to do that myself eventually, thereby giving my wallet a break from the mechanic. Along the way, I’ll post some of the repairs made, some of which are quite simple to do and will save you loads, although as cars get more and more complex, that might not be the case forever. Opening the hood of my car, I was fortunate to not be met with a sea of plastic covering the engine and related systems, a common deterrent to the DIY person (fun fact, it takes 2 minutes to change the air filter on my car. Most German cars put up fight, with only the very stubborn and determined being able to do this simple task, taking upwards of 30-45 minutes if all goes well).
So there you have it. Think of this as a long term review that started a few years late.