City slicker

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 August, 2008, 12:00am

This year's summer storms gave Hong Kong its wettest June on record, wreaking havoc on the roads. It was much the same five years ago when the Post tested the then all-new Mazda 6 around Hong Kong Island during a typhoon, and the 2.5-litre wagon proved it was no shrinking violet in the wet. For our road test of the new 2008 Mazda 6S hatchback, weather conditions are only slightly better.

As capable as the 6 was in 2003, Mazda have made a few crucial updates to bring the 6 range bang up to date.

The revamped 6 retains some key features of the first generation, but the 6S - the top of the range 170 brake horsepower sport model - has been given an aggressive-looking front end, sweeping lateral lines and a chunky rear that gives the hatchback an impressive drag coefficient of just 0.27.

The performance five-door boasts diamond-shaped headlamps, a slatted grille, bulbous wheel arches covering 18-inch alloys, sporty side skirts and a floating rear spoiler.

The cabin reflects the bolder exterior, with a leather-trimmed steering wheel, front bucket seats and a broad black and silver centre console housing climate control and a Bose digital sound system. It feels very well put together and the textured paint, premium plastics and leather help cement Mazda's reputation for quality.

The sporting theme carries on across the dashboard, with a newly-designed sports instrument display boasting well-spaced white-on-black dials illuminated in amber-red. It comes with a welcome mode, the dials lighting up sequentially from bottom to top, giving the impression that the car is waking up.

The dedicated Bose audio system comes with eight speakers: three high mid-range units on either side, a central mid-range speaker mounted at the front and a subwoofer behind the rear seats.

The digital interface is iPod- and MP3-compatible, and adjustable from the centre console or via steering wheel switches using Mazda's handy CF-Net system, which allows the same wheel-mounted buttons to control either the audio system, climate control or trip control. Mazda says CF-Net promotes safety as drivers don't need to take their eyes off the road, and it's easy to master, thanks to its intuitive interface.

The 2.5-litre 6S comes with Mazda's MZR engine, from the first Mazda 6, with enhancements to its fuel efficiency, power and refinement. There's perceptibly less road noise and vibration in the cabin, and more urgency from the straight-four block, which is mated with an excellent five-speed adaptive gearbox that delivers a lively, lag-free response through all the gears.

The double-paddle system (front paddle for downshifting, rear paddle for changing up, on both sides of the steering wheel) might sound like a handful, but it proves easier than most wheel-mounted systems to get to grips with. In auto mode, the transmission has a responsive pull without hesitation, although it's a snappier drive if you use the excellent double-paddle manual mode.

The unobtrusive adaptive shift system is particularly effective in adjusting the rate of gear pickup in relation to the car, calculating its gradient, acceleration rate and pressure on the chassis to deliver the right amount of power for a manual-like driving experience.

The 6S comes with new electronic power steering that feels more rigid than that in the outgoing model but the car is still light and easy to direct. At low speeds, the power assistance makes the 6S a breeze to pilot and there's an amazing amount of grip on the road. The light steering lets you flick the 6S around hairpin bends and put it just where you want it when you're overtaking on the highway.

The chassis is superb: it's firm yet pliant, letting you fly through corners adroitly absorbing bumps and potholes.

Smooth and responsive as it is, however, you still need to rev the MZR engine quite hard to get the desired effect. The 6S is not the fastest car in a straight line, although it's an entertaining ride with enough acceleration for most drivers.

Big disc brakes all round provide a reassuringly progressive, straight-line slowdown and a class-leading 39-metre stopping distance from 100km/h, Mazda says.

The marque has worked hard to give the 6S sporty features, and its efforts have paid off. With Lexus-like styling, its urgent 2.5-litre engine and an impressive array of active safety systems, the 6S costs just HK$7,000 more than the standard 2.5-litre Mazda 6 hatchback.

And with rising resale values, improving fuel economy and Mazda's reputation for bulletproof reliability, the 6S is an attractive all-rounder that's very easy to live with.