Mission Unpronounceable

The latest addition to Mazda's range of cars is the only one to carry a name - Xedos. Despite appearances, this has no Greek origins. It is a marketing creation, pure and simple. And the name, which doesn't look like the sort of thing your tongue would want to tackle after a few pints, is simple enough to say once you've learned to ignore the spelling: Ker-See-Dos. Obvious it isn't.

Given the healthy TV ratings of the British Touring Car Championships, couch spuds could soon be very familiar indeed with the anomalously christened Xedos, for it is tipped to succeed the 323F as Mazda's armament in Britain's showpiece saloon series.

To begin with, however, the Xedos will be a rarer sight for the man in the street. Mazda is looking to introduce a touch of exclusivity to the sports saloon market, and only 50 Mazda concessionaires were scheduled to stock and service the Xedos when the first few examples trickled into showrooms in the first week of June. Mazda isn't looking to alienate certain dealers by introducing a two-tier policy, far from it. Eventually, all stockists will handle the Xedos, but as a relatively small volume import it will take time to shuffle its way across the network.

The first Xedos coming to the UK was quite pointedly referred to at the launch as the Xedos 6, which suggests that other cylindrical formats will become available in due course. Four versions will be offered, from the £17,200 Xedos 6 2.0i V6 manual to the £19,800 2.0i V6 SE automatic. The SE package adds driver-friendly air bag, hectares of leather and suede cloth trim to an already expansive standard equipment list that includes a decent tool kit, ABS, front fog lamps, heated mirrors, catalytic converter, remote control central locking, alloy wheels and electric operation of all the usual bits.

The V6, which is handily placed for BTCC adoption at 1995 cc (although we gather that the racing Xedos is likely to start off with Mazda's existing four-cylinder touring car unit), is a derivative of those already seen in the 1.8-litre MX-3 and 2.5-litre MX-6. It shares its family cousins' virtues of smoothness and silence and, like that in the MX-6, it is also a willing performer. Mazda claims a top speed of 131 mph for the manual, while 0-60 mph standing start acceleration should take less than nine seconds, which is respectable for a full five-seater saloon laden with electric gadgets (kerb weight is 1195kg, a sack of spuds heavier than a 2.0 Mercedes 190).

The launch drive took place on a superb variety of Scottish roads, and initial impressions gained at the helm of a manually-equipped SE (£19,000) are that Mazda has got the dynamic balance about right. The Xedos is fleet, handles well and is supremely comfortable thanks partly to the quietness of that V6 and partly to the excellent ride.

There are a couple of gripes. Firstly, the plastic facia looks too cheap and contrasts sharply with the cow-wrapped seats: secondly. the steering system, which varies delivery of its power assistance according to engine speed, is incommunicative in the extreme. At low speeds, it is too light, at higher speeds it weights up too much. At no time does it tell you much about what the front wheels are up to. It's ironic that Mazda produces one of the crispest power-assisted systems there is (on the MX-5), yet has several products - MX-6 and old-style RX-7 included (the new RX-7 is almost on stream) - which are let down badly by sloppy steering.

Generally, however, the Xedos 6 hits the target, blending comfort and performance within an understated and distinctive shell that eschews aerodynamic appendages of the type beloved of the performance hatchback classes. It is those who have outgrown the latter whose custom Mazda is keen to attract. S A