If the ability to lug a vast volume of Stuff is at the pinnacle of your list of priorities, practicality tends to win out over style or performance.

But there are cars which can give you eye-catching styling and a reasonable turn of speed, plus that all essential carrying capability - and this Mazda is one of them.

It has the added bonus of full-time four-wheel drive, which should add to its versatility. With four-wheel drive you're less likely to get stuck in a muddy field or lose traction on a snowy incline.

Mazda took the trouble to present this latest machine for test in the mountains around the skiing resort of Cortina d'Ampezzo, which gave its name to the Ford Cortina - one of the more successful products of a company which now has a major stake in Mazda. But though there was snow in the mountains there was none on the roads and the sun shone resolutely throughout, so there was no opportunity to test out the full capabilities of the four-wheel drive system. Certainly the Mazda felt surefooted and stable on the road, and its 2.3-litre four-cylinder engine delivered reasonable performance with impeccable smoothness.

Add to that the car's solid build quality, which also extends to an interior which is well made, if a little characterless, and you've got an attractive and sensible package which offers all the utility most estate car buyers could want. There's just one problem: the gearbox.

The Mazda6 AWD is fitted with a five-speed automatic box. Left to its own devices it changes smoothly enough, and around town it works so unobtrusively that you would never form an opinion about it. But on the open road - and particularly in hilly country such as Cortina - it doesn't take long to realise that the gaps between the gears are almost as wide as the picturesque Alpine valleys the Mazda is negotiating, leaving the engine to scream to the top of its rev-range before the gearbox can sensibly change up.

Verdict

The Mazda 6 AWD is a sensible and useful estate car with a rare dose of stylishness, but improved ratios in the automatic gearbox would be a change for the better.