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Touring the Nation’s Capital in an American Car

By Steve Purdy

We wanted a car with some American credentials for this road trip to the nation’s capitol. But what exactly constitutes an American car is a bit in dispute. A Chevy Aveo, for example, may be entirely Korean and a Camry 90% American. So it’s not a matter of nameplate or corporate identification.

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The best we could do on short notice was this good-looking, silver Mazda6 i Grand Touring built on a platform co-designed with partner Ford that underpins a variety of Ford, Mazda andVolvo products. It’s also assembled at a factory in Flat Rock, Michigan by a UAW-represented work force using a Mexico-produced transmission and a Japan-produced engine. If you calculate the US content (just about everything but the engine and transmission) - including labor, transportation and all the other things you pay for when you plop down your 25 grand - in the Mazda6 it would probably be more American than the majority of cars with the traditional American nameplates. I have no trouble thinking of this as American enough. It is certainly more American than Asian.

This new-for-09 Mazda6 is almost 7-inches longer and 3-inches wider than its predecessor which was introduced in ’03. While this one looks more dramatic, aggressive and bold on the outside its ‘sportiness quotient’ is about the same, it seems to me, but most other reviewers consider it a bit more tepid. Without having the cars side by side I’m not able to make a good comparison. I loved the first one and I love this one as well.

Styling is considerably more expressive. Front wheel arches flare out like the RX8 and MX5. Squinty headlights integrate into the bulging fenders bordering a sharp line defining the hood. A tapered roofline slopes away gracefully to a modestly bobbed tail. The Mazda tag line - “Soul of a Sports Car” - applies to the sleek styling. It also results in an amazing 0.27 coefficient of drag, a good measure of aerodynamic efficiency.

Our tester for the DC trip is the sexy-looking 2009 Mazda6 i Grand Touring sedan with 4-cylinder engine and six-speed manual transmission. We anticipate good gas mileage and an engaging driving experience. With a base MSRP of $24,910 (for 2010 that base has gone up to $25,110.) it comes standard very well equipped. In addition we have the $2000 Navigation System and a $1,700 package that includes a premium Bose audio system and power sunroof. The entry level Mazda6, by the way, has a base price of an amazingly low $15,550. Top-of-the-line S Grand Touring is $28,465.

With plenty of room inside the Mazda6 is a mid-sized, 5-passenger, front-wheel drive sedan on par with Malibu, Camry, Altima and that ilk. Conventional fully independent suspension features McPherson struts in front and a muli-link design in rear.

Our stuff only half filled the 16.6 cubic-foot trunk. And, of course, we only half filled the inside. In terms of volume the Mazda6 is right in the range of its competitors.

For 2009 and 2010 Mazda6 comes in a variety of trim levels, each with the choice of a 3.7-liter,272-horsepower V6 or the 2.5-liter I4 we’re testing this week.

This well-equipped Mazda6 is a great freeway cruiser. The leather seats are not overly bolstered and have enough power adjustments so I can find just the right position. The blind spot monitoring system informs us of surrounding traffic without being obtrusive. A tone only sounds if we actuate the turn signals when a vehicle is in our blind spot, rather than each time one enters the blind spot like some systems. But the little lights in the mirror glow each time something is in our blind spot on either side.

As darkness engulfs us we find the blue electroluminescent gauges charming, pretty and easy to look at and we’re able to turn them down to reduce eye fatigue. Like most other cars, though, the cruise control and bright light indicators remain annoyingly bright.

Our only disappointment is the navigation system was not loaded with the appropriate software to get us to our destination. Since I’m not much of a technology guy anyway I can’t be certain but it appears that there is a DVD with east coast data that had not been loaded or included. This is a Detroit-based media fleet car, after all, so probably not prepared properly for this tour.

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On the road early, I found the clutch a bit light and not the smoothest on the uptake. But, like any such system it doesn’t take long to get used to it. For only having 170 horsepower and 167 pound-feet of torque it felt plenty quick. Of course, trying to accelerate in too high a gear with too few rpms makes it feel doggy. Just keep the rpms up over 2,500 and you’ll not want for decent acceleration.

The EPA estimates this 3,200-pound car will get between 20-mpg in the city and 29 on the highway with regular fuel. We’ll see.

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Annapolis Sunset

Our first stop after an easy 600 miles in about 9-hours is the beautiful woodsy home of my pretty blonde’s high school chum, Diane. She and her husband Bruce, a retired Michigan school teacher, bought this place on the Severn River just a mile or so from its confluence with Chesapeake Bay about 15 years ago and they’ve done a fabulous job of redoing the inside of the house and the acre of wooded grounds upon which it sits. Diane is an avid gardener and ecologist and both she and Bruce have a wonderfully aesthetic design sense.

Bruce and Diane took us on a tour of Annapolis, the Naval Academy and surrounding area. For a late fall day the downtown touristy area of Annapolis was packed with people taking advantage of a sunny, warm Sunday. We were lucky just to find a place to park. The architecture, particularly at the Naval Academy, kept my camera busy and inspired. Right in the heart of downtown is the classic State Capitol building high on a hill nestled within a grove of huge trees. And on the Naval Academy campus the amazing chapel stood out as a striking example of photogenic architecture. The Annapolis area is full of great architecture and rich history. Bruce narrated the history of the area as we soaked up the ambiance.

Later we took a drive across the narrows linking the mainland and Kent Island, highway US50. We were amazed at the fall colors remaining and the remarkable variety of flora. Our goal was dinner at the Kentmore Inn, an out-of-the-way tiny marina across the water from Annapolis. Every other popular eatery was packed but apparently few know of the Kentmore. I had a big filet of Kent Island rock fish, a deliciously moist and tender relative of the common rock bass. Facing west our dinner spot turned out to be the perfect place to watch and photograph the most magnificent sunset we’ve seen in a long time, with streaks of contrails seeming to write messages in the darkening orange sky.

We reloaded the Mazda6 and took Highway 50 over to the DC beltway (I-95/495) then around to the south side of town where the old port city of Alexandria covers the western shore of the Potomac.

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Alexandria, VA
Alexandria is another of the suburbs that thrives on the DC government and business activity with upscale office buildings, a great variety of eateries and every imaginable kind of shop. Along the river an old torpedo factory has been converted into a series of galleries where artists and craftspeople both produce and sell their work. Ancient photos of the city before the Civil War told the story of the port’s beginning.

King Street constitutes the main east-west corridor of Alexandria and our Wyndom Resort is at the west end of that solid stretch of shops - right next to the Metro line serving Blue and Yellow routes to the city. The Metro is the way to travel around DC with frequent trains, quiet cars and cavernous, softly-lit underground stations that remind me of Star Wars designs. It takes little time to learn the system and, while it’s not cheap, I still wonder how they can finance such a massive, modern system.

We left the Mazda in the garage on the advice of our concierge, JR, and took the Metro train the few miles to Arlington National Cemetery - a $2.70 round trip. As you might know, or as you might surmise, the DC area is not particularly car-friendly, not only because of congestion but stiff parking fees and tenacious enforcement. We later found we could park downtown for $20/day which is less than many urban areas but . . . why bother when we have such a good public transit system at hand.


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Arlington, VA
Just up the Potomac, past Reagan Airport, Arlington National Cemetery blankets about 200 acres of rolling hills across the Potomac from downtown DC. The original plantation covered about 1,500 acres. Views from the top of those hills on a clear fall day (like the one we enjoyed) were magnificent. Surrounded by the rich colors of deciduous trees in transition to winter mode surrounded us in the cemetery and punctuated the city scene across the river.

On top of the hill the antebellum mansion of Robert E. Lee, originally built by George Washington’s grandson (or was it a nephew?), is under restoration. It commands the most dramatic views of the surrounding environments and it’s easy to see how that was the premium spot in the early days of the republic.

Not far away we enthused over the beauty of the classic stone amphitheater and watched quietly around back where the lone soldier paced back and forth at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

As we walked the winding asphalt roads of the cemetery following the simple map provided at the visitors center a funeral procession passed, pulling up about a hundred yards away where a dozen Navy men in dress uniforms stood guard over the ceremony.

Arlington Cemetery is a humbling place to visit.

We love our flowers and plants at home so the National Botanical Gardens (established in the early 1800s),

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literally in the shadow of the Capitol Building (at least at dawn), was a draw for us, though it appears to be an attraction few people frequent. At least it was nearly deserted during our early-in-the-day weekday visit. Holiday decorations were just being completed as we strode leisurely through the newly restored Conservatory, a living plant museum separated into a variety of displays like desert plants, rainforest flora, orchids and a children’s garden. In one of the outdoor gardens we watched enraptured as both a fly and a small yellow-jacket bee tempted fate flirting around the edges of a carnivorous Venus fly trap.

We were looking for a particular plane at the Smithsonian, one that will be appearing in a book we’re working on. A fellow named Abrams, from Lansing, designed and built the first plane for arial photography - an odd-looking but fascinating thing. It was used around the world for that purpose. Turns out the plane is in the Smithsonian’s collection but not on display in the museum. The history of aviation is thoroughly documented in this most popular of the Smithsonian museums.

Like most of the other attractions in DC we could have dedicated an entire day to this one museum. The history of aviation is examined thoroughly from Mother Nature’s design of the bird to current day space technology. Separate galleries explore both military and civilian aviation throughout the decades and generations, from even before the Wright Brothers to the space station.


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National Archives
For history buffs the National Archives is the place to browse. The monument-like building faces the Mall with architectural drama the equal of any of the surrounding structures, including the capitol. Inside we found hall after hall of interpretive displays focused on the documents that define this country and our unique political system. Around the massive rotunda we browsed original documents like the Bill of Rights, the Constitution and many others. We cannot help but reflect on the history of those documents and and the role they’ve played in molding our lives.

By the time we arrived at the National Zoo (another branch of the Smithsonian) we had been walking for hours and hours. We had spent the morning at the Archives and midday hiking around the Adams Morgan neighborhood looking for an Italian restaurant someone had recommended. The only time we’d been off our feet was the brief ride on the Metro. We never found the restaurant but found the back gate to the National Zoo.

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Red Panda

The famous panda family dined on newly delivered bamboo as we hurried to see them before closing time. We had wandered through areas devoted to the big cats, amphibians, and primates. Late afternoon on a sunny late fall day can be a good time or a bad time at the zoo. Many of the animals go in as it gets dark and cools off but there are so few people that we feel like we have the place all to ourselves.

Having missed our lunch looking in vein for that Italian place we were starving as we walked south along Connecticut Avenue to Dupont Circle after leaving the zoo. We finally found a place called The Burger Joint just around the corner from the north Dupont Circle Metro stop. It turned out to be one of the best burgers we’ve ever had. Recommended by GQ Magazine they serve a big, rare (if you like), fresh-meat burger, one of those burgers that spews juice out the bottom onto your plate as you bite into it. Our sweet potato fries sopped up the meat juices perfectly.


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The only attraction we drove to (because it appeared to be too far from the Metro, and a park too big to see easily on foot) was the National Arboretum across the Anacostia River from downtown DC. Nearly 500 acres of gardens, displays and collections constitute this beautiful park. Fall colors continue to hold on here as well, unlike our northern home where the trees and bushes are entirely bare now.

We found an amazing bonsai collection of many species, each displayed with its date of creation. Some dated back to the 19th century and one, a Japanese white pine, was dated 1625. Amazing!

Finally, an opportunity to photograph our Mazda presented itself just past a grove of dwarf conifers. The sun was setting and a clump of golden trees, mostly oaks I think, were reflecting the soft, warm light intensely. A fellow was there photographing his black BMW convertible and getting great shots I’m sure.

The Mazda6 is one of the few cars to earn five stars (highest score) on all the NHTSA safety ratings: front (driver and passenger) crashworthiness, side impact front and rear, and the rollover risk. Many cars get five stars in the first four categories but few get more than 4 in the rollover category.

After living with the Mazda6 for a week (though, as you probably noted, it was parked a good share of the time in the city) we can give it a solid thumbs-up. We managed 31.5 mpg with 95% of that on the highway. Ergonomics are excellent. While it’s not as quiet as some of its competitors it’s quiet enough. Acceleration, braking, cornering and ride quality are the equal of any in its class.

So, in the mid-size sedan genre this Mazda6 is more American than many, more good lookin’ than most (I think) and remarkably economical.

Better put it on your shopping list.

Steve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions, All Rights Reserved