Clearly, it was going to be one of those days. Whenever a test car arrives within a cock’s crow of a press deadline, there are two things you can do without. One is adverse weather, which imposes severe restrictions on the amount of work you can do at Millbrook Proving Ground.
The second is faulty test equipment when you get there.
We had both, and were thus limited in our ability to verify Mazda’s performance claims for its rakish MX-6 sports coupe.
As those who read our brief appraisal of the £18,199 newcomer in last month’s issue will be aware, Mazda claims to have ‘redefined’ the grand tourer. Certainly, there’s nothing else quite like the MX-6 available in the UK at present. There are other cars of a similar nature – the Vauxhall Calibra and Nissan 200SX spring to mind – but the MX-6’s technical specification sets it slightly apart. The Vauxhall is less powerful, and too heavy (although the forthcoming Calibra turbo should put that to rights). The Nissan is lighter, nimbler, turbocharged and driven from the rear. You might also consider the Toyota Celica or the Honda Prelude which share the Mazda’s front-drive configuration, but have less powerful four-cylinder engines in the equation.
Heart of the Mazda is an all-new 2.5-litre V6, which develops 165 bhp at 5600 rpm and has a broad spread of torque, peaking with 163 lb ft at 4600 rpm. It operates as smoothly as the second hand on a Rolex watch, and it’s almost as quiet, picking up cleanly in any gear from around 1500 rpm, which makes urban progress quite restful. At higher cruising speeds, the engine remains unintrusive. On motorways, the muted hum of the V6 is less noticeable than the whistle of the wind. And, given the MX-6’s svelte profile, there isn’t much of that. Even when pushed hard, the engine emits little more than a pleasant growl.
In amidst the welter of electronic befuddlement that beset our best intentions at Millbrook, we established that Mazda’s own performance expectations are simultaneously modest and over optimistic. The 0-60 mph standing start was achieved in 7.8 sec, 0.4 sec under the manufacturer’s quote, but top speed around the two-mile concrete bowl was somewhat shy of the 136 mph claim, at 129.4. In Mazda’s defence, tyre scrub on the banked surface always accounts for the odd mph or two, and it was a particularly gusty day. (Driving into the wind made a difference of around 700 rpm.)
In any case, Mazda is not basing its marketing strategy for the MX-6 on its outright performance. It takes pride not so much in what it can do – and our figures are proof that it is more than quick enough for British roads – as in how it does it. This V6, make no mistake, is a masterpiece of silken refinement, which happens to have built-in punch as a bonus.
As far as the chassis is concerned, however, the news is not quite so bright. Simply, it does not handle like a sports car. Although its roadholding is basically sound, the MX-6 is an inherent understeerer and, as such, lacks the poise of such as the Nissan 200SX, an example of a breed which is edging worryingly close to extinction. Although Nissan’s two-plus-two is blighted by woolly steering, it remains wellbalanced and is fun to drive quickly. It is also devoid of a curious diagonal pitching sensation which blights the MX-6 at moderately high cornering speeds.
The MX-6 may be comfortable, in the main, but it’s not — unlike the same manufacturer’s MX-5 — the type of car that invites you to drive It for driving’s sake. As the front end starts to nose wide, backing off the throttle will tighten the car’s line gently. It’s all very safe, very predictable . . and rather dull.
Compared to the MX-6, the aforementioned 200SX has one particular advantage. Its drivetrain is in the right place for a sports coupe . .
While on the subject of chassis composure, the MX-6 has a fine, cossetting ride away from the pot-holed routes of this nation’s capital City. On such pock-marked byways, the MX-6 reacts uncomfortably, modest ridges being met with a jarring crunch.
The disc brakes (ventilated at the front) are mated to an excellent anti-lock system, and combine plenty of feel with good retardation.
Generally, the driver feels rather isolated in an MX-6. True to the modern, antiseptic (MX-5 excepted, of course), Japanese idiom, all the controls are finger-light and easy to use. The gearbox has a slick, easy shift, although reverse was uncomfortably notchy on the test car. Power steering is all very well in urban traffic, but this particular system is much too vague at higher speeds. Overall, the car feels rather inert. It isn’t lacking in ability, only in character.
That shouldn’t be taken as too harsh a criticism, for it was conceived as a vehicle of function rather than fun. It is designed to cover long distances efficiently.
The cloth front seats are comfortable and reasonably supportive, and there is room in the back for a brace of adults of moderate dimensions, though those over 5 ft 8 in may tire of having to crick their necks over long distances. In addition, offside leg room will be in very short supply should a tall driver be at the helm. For a car of this type, the boot is reasonably capacious, and access is facilitated by the 70/30 split rear seats, which fold to offer direct access from the cabin.
Elsewhere, the cabin is typical of the marque, a plethora of labour-saving devices enwrapped in shiny plastic that is actually better assembled than its appearance would have you believe. Likewise, the steering wheel rim and gear lever knob require a second glance before you’re sure that they really are capped in leather.
Standard trimmings include central locking, steel electric sunroof, tilt-adjustable steering, electrically operated heated mirrors and windows, cruise control and a nifty Clarion sixspeaker stereo with a detachable anti-theft control panel that slips into your pocket and renders the set useless to that growing urban menace, the car radio thief. Although not a recent development in the fight against car crime, this sensible deterrent is now more widely available, and is a whole lot easier than having to lug around a complete radio-cassette chassis every time you want peace of mind.
Instrumentation is clear, though sparse, and several switches (fog lamps, heated rear screen, hazard lights and cruise control) are rather awkwardly located, being unsighted behind the steering wheel no matter how you tilt it. Fortunately, Mazda had the foresight to incorporate a highly visible rear foglamp warning light within the main instrument binnacle, so unintentional operation is unlikely.
The heating and ventilation controls are a model of clarity, and dispense air effectively. Air conditioning, a factory-fitted option at £1000, was also fitted to the test car.
Concluding its own press material on the MX-6, Mazda claims it “offers refined comfort coupled with sports car performance”.
Can’t argue with that. The engine is terrific, combining wonderful flexibility with a gentle manner that suggests it will cruise all day at the speeds attained at Millbrook (so long as you happen to be in Germany). However, we cannot agree with the manufacturer’s assessment that it has “character and individuality”. The MX-6 will appeal more to those who want to get from A-B quickly and without hassle. It won’t appeal to those who enjoy the bits inbetween.
That’s a pity, for the blistering trail led by the MX-5 created an air of expectation about the MX series. In its wake, the underpowered MX-3 and elegant MX-6 have subsequently been a slight disappointment.
The MX-6 is visually striking, and capable in the extreme. Despite appearances, however, it is not a sports car, nor is it particularly fun to drive, and that raises worrying questions about future automotive trends. It is still possible to buy cars that have charisma and performance in equal measure, but they’re becoming alarmingly scarce. The sense of adventure that marked the launch of the MX-5 appears to have gone sadly astray. Mazda should offer a reward for its urgent return.