HAVING REPLACED THE Demio with the refreshing Mazda 2, the Mazda-Ford partnership has set its sights on transforming its dependable (but ultimately forgettable) 626 range of family cars into what it hopes to be a serious contender to the likes of the BMW 3 series. With the introduction of the high-spec Mazda 6, the Japanese manufacturer hopes to revitalise the fortunes of its mid-range cars while matching the success of its popular MX-5 convertible by placing more importance on drivability. Since its 'Zoom Zoom' launch of the Mazda 6 in 2002, the marque has adopted an aggressive marketing philosophy for its new range and has made some heady claims regarding its class-leading abilities. In many respects, Mazda's upmarket saloons - much like Ford - have suffered from the common perception that German marques command more kudos. Yet in reality, both Mazda and Ford have made a massive commitment to engineering development in recent years and for this reason the test drive of the Mazda 6 would promise to be an interesting exercise in objectivity. Typhoons don't usually make for good driving conditions and crawling through Central's grid-locked traffic in the Mazda 6's sporting-spec wagon under Signal 3 conditions gave me time to familiarise myself with the controls, adjust the steering column and crank up the windscreen wipers. For what it's worth, visibility was well maintained despite the relentless deluge but more importantly, I found the wagon to be a comfortable car to drive from the outset. Its cabin is about as spacious as anyone would need before considering an SUV and in many ways is a credible alternative. With rear seats folding flat at the touch of a button to create a flat loadspace (like the Mazda 2) the M6 could quite easily accommodate a trip to a Sai Kung garden centre or the children's bicycles - and make parking a more pleasurable experience. For about half the price of an X5, the Mazda 6 wagon is just as well-specified inside and comes with the added bonus of adjustable ride-height suspension - just like a modern SUV. Special attention has also been paid to driver comfort in the shape of fully adjustable leather seats offering excellent lumbar support - those who do long-distance driving or have back problems take note. Switchgear and interior materials are noticeably a step above the common fare with durable finishes all round. Interior details make a nod in the direction of the sporting ethos behind the M6 with appointments such as a leather padded wheel replete with cruise control switches, aluminium footrests and pedal covers as well as what Mazda amusingly refers to as the 'titanium style' instrument panel (OK, it's made of plastic but somehow it looks and feel like metal). A six-CD/MD player and electric sunroof come as standard and the large, brash rev counter and speedometer complete the sporty feel, with all principle controls being commendably functional and well-positioned. Rear leg and head room were equally generous and having deliberately opted to test the wagon over the saloon ($199,900) or hatchback ($209,900), it was reassuring to find the wagon so capacious and well worth the extra $30,000 outlay over the base model (contact Mazda Motors on 2893 1112). Should you desire, another $8,000 buys you additional front and rear air dams and side skirts, but the real strength of the Mazda 6 package is that the standard options list is already extensive. If you could see through rain, the Mazda 6 is a vast improvement on the bland revamp of the last 626 from the outside too. The broad, five-point grille seen in the M2 is apparent again in the M6 and the marque has taken pains to keep styling consistent throughout its new ranges, as a sneak preview of the new Mazda 3 at the recent Frankfurt Motor Show showed. In the sporty M6, the grille has been louvred and given body-coloured paint and in keeping with the M2 and M3, there are splayed headlamps and five-point alloys on all four corners adding a sense of dynamism that was lacking in the 626. Oddly, the wagon is by far the best looking of the bunch. I think it's sleeker and better proportioned than the booted saloon and five-door models and it's a pity Mazda's stylists couldn't have applied more thought to this. Yet in fairness, it holds up pretty well against the rather drab slab-sided offerings coming out of Europe these days. Build quality is seldom a problem with Mazdas and the doors close with a reassuringly chunky click. Where the M6 also affords credit is in safety stakes, with more potentially life-saving acronyms dotting the specifications list (ABS [Anti-Lock Braking], EBD [Electronic Brake Force Distribution], DSC [Dynamic Stability Control] come as standard) and the inclusion of six airbags and technology that withdraws the peddles in the event of a head-on collision - again as standard. All well and good, but how does it drive? Heading to Cyberport on some winding stretches of open road, the 2.3-litre, four-cylinder 16-valve engine was strong, smooth and surprisingly responsive for such a big car. Handling is wonderfully firm, largely due to the DSC function which compensates for adverse cornering forces. The autobox had a quick pick-up when you needed to get the M6 going and there was no perceptible lag accelerating to top gear. When it was time to stop, the assisted disc brakes did their thing to the letter, even when I started chucking the wagon around in the wet. And the verdict? The M6 dealt with the typhoon admirably and Mazda's attempts at injecting some dynamism into family cars have largely paid off - the new Mazda 6 could be a savvy and, after Britain's Warranty Direct's findings last week, more reliable alternative to more 'prestigious' marques.