The last time I stood face-to-face with an ultra it was a singularly unpleasant experience. I had just stepped off a bus outside the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, and was one of a group of England football fans keen to get to their seats inside the famous old stadium prior to a World Cup qualifying match with Italy. Unfortunately my path into the ground was blocked by a group of ultras, part of a band of fanatic followers of domestic and international football in Italy who often let their blind devotion to their favoured team spill over into acts of violence.
And here they were gesticulating at me to join them for a spot of pre-match argy-bargy. Understandably, I declined the invitation. More recently I was invited to spend some time with another ultra, although the one in question is, for the most part, a far more even-tempered fellow. This Ultra is the longer wheelbase, made-in-America version of the Mazda6, the Japanese car maker's mid-size saloon. And its appealing looks give little indication that there is anything to link it with international football thugs, although the car's grunty and willing 268hp, 3.7L V6 engine might beg to differ. Stuck in traffic, this car is as benign as you could expect any family saloon to be, but out on the open road you will be surprised by how much the Ultra draws the inner hooligan out of you.
Switch the car's six-speed automatic transmission to manual mode (no fiddly flappy paddles to master here, just push up and down through the old-school box) and this mild-mannered cruiser suddenly turns into a bit of a thug. The engine delivers decent power to push it up to 100 kph in a little under seven seconds and does it while emitting a pleasant roar to let you know it's working hard to put a smile on your face. And while the power can be delivered by the bucketload, up to a speed limited 195kph, the steering feels precise and certain. So, you are always in control.
Which is what the manufacturer is desperate for you to feel. This is, after all, the car maker that hopes its products connect with the child deep inside you, willing you to go "zoom-zoom" every time you get behind the wheel. You might also be interested to know that, according to Mazda, those two little words embody a brand philosophy which encompasses sportiness, thoughtful packaging and an exclusive experience.
I can vouch for the packaging. The body contours are great in this slightly stretched version of the 6. The Ultra has the Mazda family nose with its goofy, dolphin smile and standard-fit bi-xenon headlights. Viewed from the side, the car has a rakish, sporty look, and its chrome-covered wing mirrors look just right, while the little kick back up in the belt line is a lovely feature that adds character. For me though, the car's best angles are at the back. Nicely detailed rear light clusters are matched with aggressive exhaust pipes which hint at the car's sporty performance. Not even the Ultra's gauche gold name badge can spoil this vista.
Mazda claims a svelte drag co-efficient of 0.27, which not only helps the car look good, it should also deliver decent fuel economy. The official figures suggest a combined consumption of around eight litres for every 100km covered. However, my test car gulped 18 litres covering the same distance. Clearly all that driving like a hooligan took its toll. The cabin is indeed thoughtful, a study in tasteful decoration. Access is via keyless entry and, once sat behind the wheel, those words - yes, zoom-zoom - spark up on the centre console screen to remind you this is a Mazda. A further welcome note, not dissimilar to the sound of a door bell, told me the Ultra was equipped with a Bose sound system when I pressed the starter button.
No satnav though, which was one of the few clues suggesting this car was built to a price. Another was the horribly fitted hazard light button that was installed so far off centre it made my eyes water. Otherwise though, the cabin is pleasantly turned out. It is also an exquisite experience at night, with superb dashboard lighting for the instrument barnacles. As you would expect, too, it's a practical cruiser, and there's plenty of room in the back (Mazda claims class-leading legroom in the rear seats) and oodles of luggage capacity in the boot.
Minor quibbles aside, the car is equipped with the looks and the power to win plenty of fans in the GCC. Then, there's the price. At Dh106,000 for a big, bruising engine and high-spec full leather interior, it seems churlish to be making too much of a fuss about any flaws with the Ultra, which although built in the US is still imbued with that inscrutable Japanese attention to detail. I will leave you with that minor nagging doubt about the seemingly stratospheric fuel consumption. That aside, I'd be happy to meet this Ultra again. Even in Rome. firstname.lastname@example.org