Believe it or not, making a sports car is a cake walk compared to making a family sedan. As the number one most competitive car market in the US, the family car competition is hotly contested with contenders from every mainstream manufacturer. For decades, Honda and Toyota have reigned supreme, although in the last few years, their title as best sellers has been lessened. One of the reasons for this is Mazda’s midsize sedan, the 6. As a replacement for the aging and uninspiring 626, the 2003 Mazda6 ushered Mazda into a new era (as did the smaller 3 sedan/hatch the following year). Prior to 2002, Mazda was a very different manufacturer. Instead of prioritizing style and driving enjoyment, its approach was very similar to Kia and Hyundai at the time: affordable and basic transportation. Unfortunately, this approach meant that Mazdas were humdrum (with the exception of the Miata and RX-7). With this in mind, Mazda started completely renovating its entire lineup with sportiness in mind. The first generation Mazda6 debuted in 2003, and it was praised highly by critics alike. Accolades were given to its youthful styling, spirited performance, excellent handling, and the availability of manual transmissions with every engine. Truth be told, it was perceived as a sedan version of the Miata. However, this did not translate into sales success. It sold well, but it couldn’t hold a candle to the Toyota Camry or the Honda Accord. The reason being? It was simply too small and narrow for American tastes, which is not surprising considering the first generation 6 was very popular in Europe (where smaller cars are more welcomed). The 2008-2012 second generation remedied the size issue, but in the process, it lost the handling in exchange for more space. Even with this approach, it still did not sell well (relatively). In 2013, Mazda redesigned the 6 sedan with an emphasis on driving enjoyment, fuel efficiency, and style.
Mazda has done a great job with differentiating the 6 from its competition by making it look like nothing else on the road, for the price at least. The headlights are sleek and sharp, and while I do not like the chrome blade’s extending into the headlights, the front is very well done. The grille is simple, but detailed enough, and the foglight housings are intricate. The bumpers have surfacing in the right areas, and the creases on the hood give it a more pronounced stance. The side profile showcases the Mazda’s perfectly proportioned body. Even though it is front wheel drive, the long hood and short rear deck are typically rear wheel drive. The rakish roofline gives it a sleek look, and there is a defined character line right below the door. What I like especially are the large front fenders. There is a line that starts from the headlight that goes into a slight upward sweeping motion as it disappears towards the door. This is a Mazda design detail, and I have to say that it is executed well. The rear end is nicely done as well. The taillights are detailed, and the full width chrome bar surprisingly works well. The subtle lip spoiler and the dual exhausts give a sporting touch. The only thing that I am peeved about is the shroud right below the bumper. It’s just there. Once you see it, you can’t not see it. The interior is similar to that of a BMW, very business like. It is dark inside, although the tan interior color helps offset that.
Mazda has poured sweat and blood into the 6’s driving dynamics, and it shows. The Mazda6 is an able handler, and I am not just saying that. The steering is pleasingly weighted, and it turns with reassuring accuracy, and while it is not the most feelsome in the world, it streamlines enough feel to your fingertips. The steering weight is spot on as it is not too heavy or too light. It is just right, and when you turn the steering, the car reacts instantly. The way the car reacts to every input makes me wonder if the car is just an extension of my body. Really, the instantly quick reflexes of this car is to be believed. Tire grip is excellent as well. Go hard in a corner, and even then, the 6 won’t throw in the towel. Rather, it understeers benignly, but let off the throttle, and it will realign itself well. It stays remarkably composed, no matter how bad the road surfaces are. Even on undulating surfaces, it stays taut and quells any unfavorable motion that comes through the car. Unfortunately, this leads to a firm ride which may prove to be uncomfortable for some people. But I do not mind because the way I see it, the car is communicating the road to you, thereby improving the driver’s relationship with the car.
When it comes to cars, we Americans traditionally like power, and when this generation debuted, some people decried at the Mazda6’s lack of a V6 option (previous 6s’ always had the option of a V6). All three versions (Sport, Touring, and Grand Touring) have to make due with a “SkyActiv” 184 horsepower 2.5 liter four cylinder engine. The 184 horsepower rating has been lambasted for being too little, but surprisingly, I think the 2.5L is enough engine for the car. This car is about handling, not power, and even then, it still does the job. The four cylinder propels the 6 with enough authority to keep up with traffic, and it revs sweetly to the limit. It feels eager and strong throughout the powerband. The only transmission available with the top of the line Grand Touring version is a six speed automatic. The Sport and Touring come standard with a six speed manual transmission with the auto optional. It provides adequate shifts, and the manumatic works fine enough. But the thing is, this is a driver’s machine, and in my opinion, you’re better off with six speed manual. I recently test drove a 2015 6 Touring 6MT, and I was blown away. The manual makes a great car even better. So my advice? Get the manual and save yourself about $1,500 in the process. Fuel economy is superb with 40 mpg highway possible. Instead of spending millions in developing hybrids like its competitors did, Mazda simply invested in new engines dubbed “SkyActiv” with new technologies to ensure that no compromises were made in pursuit of fuel efficiency. These new technologies consist of high compression ratio (usually reserved for diesels), direct injection, novel exhaust and manifold systems which all contribute to its class leading fuel economy figures with around 32 mpg overall with no drivability compromises expected usually associated with hybrids.
One area that I would criticize the car is that even though it feels upscale to drive, the refinement is a reminder that this is a mainstream family sedan. Noticeable wind roar permeates through the cabin, and the tires let in more road noise than necessary. I drive a Honda Pilot which is very noisy itself, so the Mazda’s noise level does not faze me, but I sense that future buyers might be put off by it. The four cylinder remains muted at low revs, and it sings sweetly to its redline.
Another area that I wish Mazda paid attention to is its interior. While the exterior puts the Mazda in uncharted territory, the interior fails to make the promises that the exterior makes. The interior just doesn’t feel that special enough, and fit and finish could be better. The touch screen navigation screen is too small, and because of this, the interface is scrunched in the tiny screen, making some functions hard to see or access. However, the touchscreen interface works well, and pairing your phone via Bluetooth is straightforward as are the climate control system. The navigation interface utilizes a BMW-style controller located aft of the gear lever. The cabin is a bit narrow, if you are used to a Honda Accord or a Toyota Camry, but the way I see it, the Mazda complements its sporty character with a snug interior. Tall drivers may find it a bit too tight though, especially in the rear. The driving position is spot on as I immediately feel at home as soon as I sat in the front seat. The seats have the right amount of contouring and support, and there is decent bolstering. The amount of bolstering could mean that some people might find the seats confining though. One feature that some cars sometimes exclude is a foot rest (even my Honda Pilot doesn’t have one), but luckily the Mazda includes such a thing. The trunk is large, and it should be able to accommodate most people’s needs. The rear seat is cramped for three adults, but two adults should find it easy to get comfortable provided they are not too tall. This top of the line Grand Touring model comes standard with goodies such as blind detection warning system and a “rear cross-traffic system alert”. The former alerts you if a car is coming up in your blind detection system while the latter alerts you of oncoming traffic as you are backing out of a spot which is useful, given that the rear visibility could be better. The gauges are easy to read, but cabin storage is a bit lacking.
When the latest Mazda6 debuted in late 2013 as a 2014 model, I initially thought, “Dang, what a beauty!” But the voice of reason in me was still drawn to the Honda Accord (especially the Sport version in grey with the 6 speed manual). I kept thinking, it is just not practical or roomy enough. Then I drove it. And all of sudden the Accord Sport seemed like wallflower compared to the Mazda6. Mazda has always been my favorite automotive company because of their principles. They have not shed their brand integrity for more sales. What I mean is that in an increasing trend where car manufacturers are changing their vehicles and alienating their loyal customers for more sales, Mazda has resisted the need to change. Most people would think this is a bad thing, but I truly applaud Mazda for doing so. The way I see it, Mazda is giving us common folk the sports car experience reserved for luxury brand customers. The Mazda6 is a fine example of that. For starters, it looks like a million bucks, drives like a sports sedan and has fuel efficiency in spades. To cup it all, it is comfortable and family oriented (somewhat). Sure, the noisy cabin is a drawback, but after driving a Honda Pilot and a BMW with run flat tires, I can’t say that it is any different. What really cinched my love for this car was a test drive in a 2016 Mazda6 Touring with the six speed manual. Let me tell you, it is absolute perfection. If I had the money to buy a brand new car, this would be it. This is a car that I would happily rack miles up, and I would take it for road trips all over the country. As Mazda said, if a car is not worth driving, it is not worth building. Nuff Said.