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NEW CAR REVIEW
Mazdaspeed6 offers 274-hp challenge to Evolution IX MR
By John Gilbert, special to SNS Interactive

DULUTH, Minn. (SNS) – There are race cars, and there are normal production cars, and you needn’t go beyond NASCAR to understand why the twain, as they say, shall never meet.

 

NASCAR race cars are virtual-reality, purpose-built vehicles on near-identical chassis, with very similar nonproduction race engines, and phony bodies designed to only faintly resemble real cars.

But while we were looking the other way, a few Japanese production cars resemble race cars far more than our race cars resemble production cars.

The most recent example is the 2006 Mazdaspeed6, a superb example of how taut, fit, and fun a car can be on the street.

The Mazdaspeed6 jumps wheels-first into the segment which has been a long-standing duel between the Lancer Evolution and Subaru WRX STi – a pair of rally-bred championship cars that set new standards as their production versions spent a decade continually escalating the standards.

As luck of the road-testing draw would have it, I ended calendar year 2005 with a pair these compact rockets on back-to-back weeks – the Mazdaspeed6 and the Mitsubishi Evolution IX MR. The Evolution, or "Evo" as the car has come to be known, is not all-new, just upgraded from previous models in an attempt to remain atop the competitive spiral of pocket rockets.

The Mazdaspeed6, however, is all new. They were both enjoyable, even when their performance tires wanted to spin through the ice and snow along the shores of Lake Superior. Remember, both have a lot of power, but they ARE all-wheel-drive vehicles.

MAZDASPEED6

The Mazda6 remains one of my favorite cars, a sleek family midsize sedan with sporty overtones, meaning you can have your fun and family too. The standard Mazda6 comes with either a 160-horsepower 2.3-liter four cylinder or a 220-horsepower 3.0-liter V6. Mazdaspeed is the odd name Mazda gives to its corporate hot-rodders who wear their white smocks in the no-compromise back room, and the lads have done a proper number on this car.

  Reinforcing cross-members have stiffened the body’s twisting rigidity by 50 percent, and the 2.3-liter four has been tweaked, first with direct-injection fuel feed, and then with turbocharging, to boost horsepower to a whopping 274, with 280 foot-pounds of torque.

That’s a lot of power for a front-wheel-drive sedan.

So Mazda inserts the all-wheel-drive unit it uses in Japan, which can transfer up to 50-percent of power to the rear whenever necessary.

I’ve read tests of 0-60 at right around 6 seconds, with a top speed electronically governed at 149 miles per hour. That ought to ease you through rush-hour congestion, eh?

Inside, you nestle into well-bolstered bucket seats with leather trim, and Mazda has modified the interior to be less gimmicky and more businesslike. Black gauges with clear numerals that light up red-orange at night, and drilled aluminum foot pedals add to the sporty effect. The gearshift is a six-speed manual, with limited slip standard as well, and the high-performance, low-profile tires ride on 18-inch alloy wheels, which further enhance the cornering stability, in concert with the stiffer frame and firmer shock settings.

Tastefully added molding flares accented the look of the medium-grey test car, which still had all the comforts of the normal Mazda6, such as climate control, power windows and keyless entry, plus heated bucket seats with eight-way power adjustment.

There also is a keyless start feature, although the trend toward some of these is questionable at best. It’s handy, when you’re carrying stuff, to unlock the door with keyless entry, and once you climb into the driver’s seat, I guess it’s neat to be able to twist the key fitting to start without putting the key in it. In other words, if you’ve got the key in your pocket, you don’t need to use it to start the car.

Needless to say, I jumped out at one point and my wife, Joan, drove off, and fortunately I realized I still had the key in time to call cell-phone to cell-phone and bring her back before she got somewhere and shut off the car, only to find it starting-impaired.

The best thing about Mazda6 models is that they are inexpensive to buy, considering all that you get. From a $20,000 normal Mazda6, the Mazdaspeed6 is still a bargain at $29,925. The only available options included on the test car were a trunk cargo net, wheel locks, a $700 power moonroof, and a $2,000 navigation system.

The nav pops up from a trap-door that opens on the top edge of the dashboard, and you can tilt the screen various ways to avoid glare. That also means you can close the nav screen and the trap door if you’d rather not be bothered.

The sticker price of the test car, so equipped, was $33,325 – still not a bad price for the latest sizzling performance sedan.

It runs, and it handles, in a way befitting a company that has cast its lot with the simply phrase: "zoom, zoom."

LANCER EVOLUTION IX MR

Mitsubishi’s Lancer is its stalwart but still underrated compact sedan. It wasn’t until Mitsubishi outfitted the Lancer to challenge Subaru’s world rally championship cars that the Evolution…uh…evolved. This is Evolution IX, and while there has been considerable conjecture about Evolution X, the IX will do for now, thank you.

  Lancers come in ES, OZ-Rally, and what’s called the Ralliart model, the latter being a sportier upgrade of the basic Lancer. But the Evolution stands above and beyond.

The turbocharged 2.0-liter, dual overhead cam four-cylinder delivers 286 horsepower, compared to 120 horses for the basic 2.0 single cam, or the 162-horse 2.4-liter option. A six-speed stick causes the Evo to want to leap forward at the touch of the gas in any gear.

Equipped with its proven rigid suspension and limited-slip both front and rear on its all-wheel-drive platform, the Evolution MR is clearly equipped for heavier duty than normal traffic might offer. A lot of us may not be planning to enter any pro rallies in the near future, but rally competition uses real roads and is therefore a lot closer to real-world driving than NASCAR’s latest funny cars.

Forged aluminum suspension bits, Brembo disc brakes, drilled aluminum pedals, and a large, screened-in hole in the hood, where hot air escapes in waves, are all tips that this is something racy. However, all of those indications, including the molding strips, are unessential as tip-offs, because you know at a glance it means business by the enormous rear spoiler wing that rises on huge fiberglass struts up from the trunk lid.

I thought the wing was a nuisance, because it slices a swath horizontally right across the middle of the rear window when you look through the mirror. But later I realized it could be beneficial as well.

We all must share the road with careless slugs whose headlights are poorly aimed high. And with drivers of aging trucks and station wagons whose rear load goes beyond the shocks’ threshold of levelness. And with rude truck/SUV drivers who blatantly disobey the law by mounting enormously oversized tires and then aim their auxiliary lights higher than their high beams.

All should be ticketed, but roam free, to blind oncoming cars as well as drivers ahead via their rear-view mirrors. In the Evo, I got so I could tip my head just a bit, and blot out those maddening ill-aimed lights with the spoiler.

The 17-inch forged BBS alloy wheels, also stylishly grey, set off the Apex Silver paint job. The car’s quickness is enhanced by standard weight-saving aluminum hood, roof panel and front fenders. Genuine Recaro bucket seats are also standard.

The MR option package includes the silver shift knob – which, by the way, feels remarkably ice cold in December in the Upper Midwest – as well as a turbo-boost gauge kit that fits in a three-gauge package just below the center stack.

The "Zero Lift Kit" includes the rear spoiler, front airdam, and other aero touches, but together those packages only cost $1,110. The price of the Evolution IX MR starts at a steep $35,189, so the price after transportation and options is $36,894.

Some of the stripped-down characteristics of the Lancer make weight-saving sense, but the lack of cruise control did not make sense. I mean, here’s a car with a rear wing that looks like it might allow you to go airborne, and which is certain to attract the attention of any law enforcement officer who sees it, and we’re unable to restrict its tendency to zoom by cruise-controlling should be a necessity.

CONCLUSIONS

Maybe the Evolution IX MR price is not too much for a car that is a blast to drive – almost literally – and will still haul the kids.

The Evolution is stunningly quick, but it also is a bit harsh in everyday driving, especially if you have to skip across weather-gouged pavement.

That is a tendency it shares with the Subaru WRX STi, its long-time adversary on rallies and streets. But now there’s a new challenger on the street in the Mazdaspeed6.

Both these cars are extremely fun to drive, with startling acceleration and race-bred cornering quickness and precision.

The Evolution is built for uncompromising performance capabilities, and the key differences might be that the Evolution is more capable for rugged use, while the Mazdaspeed6 feels more refined.

If I had to pick, I’d guess that the lighter Evolution was a twitch quicker in acceleration, but the Mazdaspeed6 feels more civilized in all-purpose driving.

With the Mazdaspeed6 priced about $3,500 less than the Evolution, the new kid on the block is a threat.

Editor's note: John Gilbert writes weekly auto reviews. He can be reached at cars@jwgilbert.com.