The Mazda 6 is an enigma. It’s a fine automobile, at least the equal of any car in its segment, as close to a driver’s car as you’ll find in a midsize family sedan. Comfortable, not bad looking, nicely appointed, good fit and finish, great performance, decent economy. There is no question that the Mazda 6 stacks up well in phylum Camcordata yet it sits no higher than 10th place in the family sedan sales race, averaging about 2,400 units a month in the US since the all new 2010 model got up to speed last summer. The midsize segment in North America is the automotive big leagues. The 6 should be fighting for first place, not mired deep in the second division. Product may be everything, but sometimes it’s not enough.
As part of Bridgestone’s corporate sponsorship of the Chicago Auto Show, Mazda made a Blizzak equipped Mazda 6 S Grand Touring available to me for travel to and from the show. Conditions were a 6-10 inch snowstorm on the way to Chicago and 95% dry on the way home. After I got back I had the car for a few days in suburban Detroit, where roads were intermittently snow covered.
The S Grand Touring trim package is the top of the Mazda 6 lineup and this one came equipped with the only available options, the technology and navigation packages. That makes it as fully kitted as a 6 can get with an MSRP right around $33,000. The car had Mazda’s 3.7 liter 272 HP DOHC 24 valve V6 with variable valve timing mated to a 6 speed automatic with available tap shifting. Equipment included power and heated leather seats, dual zone automatic climate control, glass sunroof, high end Bose audio system with six-disc changer, 10 speakers, sat radio, a nav system, auto dimming mirrors, rain and snow sensing wipers, stability control, blind spot warning, xenon headlamps with leveling controls (more on that later), smart key fob system, sills that light up with the Mazda 6 logo and more. Personal settings for you and your significant other are stored in memory. On the outside were 18″ aluminum rims with wide 235/45 tires.
I’m not partial to the Mazda grin (though it’s not as bad as the menacing face on Acuras). The rest of the car is handsome, with an attractive wedge profile and an aggressive stance, partially due to the flared fenders and fat 45 series tires. It’s got a high rear deck like most sedans these days, and I’m only 5’6″, but rear visibility wasn’t a problem. The front end does drop away quickly but I didn’t find positioning the front end on the road to be a problem. One nice thing about the high rear deck is a spacious trunk, which Mazda claims to be a class leading 16.6 cubic feet. All in all I’d say it’s about the best looking car in the class. The Malibu is inoffensive but narrow, the Camry has a proboscis and a Bangle butt, and the Accord is bloated. Though I like some of what’s come out of Nissan under Shiro Nakamura the Nissan sedans don’t do it for me. The Sonata’s not bad, and represents what the Accord probably should have been. I don’t think anyone would be embarrassed by the looks of the 6. If anything, it stands out in a nondescript segment.
Fit and finish was good. Paint quality on the dark blue car was first rate as was panel fit. Interior quality was nice as well. The interior is gray and black, with black wood (or fake wood, if it’s a fake, it’s a good fake – one reviewer has called it Mazda6ium) [ED: it is fake] trim on the dash and the console, an elegant and original touch. The only thing that looked cheap was the storage bin / cup holder in the door, which had some visible molding lines in the hard plastic. Textures looked and felt good and the switchwork, particularly the steering column stalks, had great tactile feel. There’s a 12v outlet on the center stack, with an additional power tap in the console bin, where the jack and cable for connecting an mp3 player is also located – a nice idea that keeps clutter off the console.
As I said, the 6 GT comes with all the latest high tech features one could find in a family sedan. With concerns over drive-by-wire arising from the Toyota situation I wonder, though, if we’re reaching the point of diminishing returns with technology on cars. I can remember that the only thing you needed to learn was that Saab’s had the ignition key on the floor between the seats and Porsches’ were over on the left side of the dashboard. Now, you can unlock and start your car without ever handling something that looks like a key and you really have to read the manual before you drive a car that’s new to you.
Not that I have anything against reading the manual. I’m the original RTFM guy. Before getting behind the wheel I took the time to read the quick start guide to learn how to start (and stop) the car, operate the basic controls, figure how to get sounds on the stereo, and in general drive the car safely. On the road to Chicago, though, I discovered that I had not RTFM’d carefully enough.
I left at mid-afternoon and between the weather and the traffic, I don’t think that I exceeded 50 mph until I was approaching Indiana on I-94. Though the road was not snow covered, it was just barely so. Between the snow tires, the stability control and the 6’s road handling abilities I had plenty of confidence and when things finally cleared up during a lull in the storm I tried to make up some time. By then it was fully dark out and I realized that I was seriously overdriving my headlights. The low beams were very bright but there was a visible cutoff about a semi tractor trailer’s length in front of my car. When I got to the show and spoke to the Mazda rep, he asked me if there were xenon headlamps and I said, yeah, I think so. Then he showed me the headlamp leveling control over on the auxiliary IP.
Ahah! So that’s what that cryptic icon means. On the way back to Detroit, once in their high position, the headlamps worked fine, though I think that headlamp leveling is a case of selling a bug fix as a feature. The new high intensity lamps are indeed very bright and very precisely aimed. The light pattern is very, very directional, with sharp cutoffs between the dark and illuminated areas. The beam is also narrow vertically to keep it out of the eyes of opposing traffic. When aimed on the road they work great, but the end result is that the headlamps are sensitive to the car’s pitch. When the back seat and trunk are full the leveling control is needed to lower the lights and keep them aimed on the road, instead of pointing into the sky. More expensive cars make the systems automatic. Mazda gives you a thumbwheel with an icon that looks like a Volvo fog lamp switch (the actual fog lamps are actuated by a band on the headlamp/turn signal stalk. Even with the lamps in the highest position, the road’s grade could pitch the lamps down well below the horizon. Old fashioned sealed beam units may not have been as bright, but they were not nearly so pitch sensitive. Still, headlamp leveling is kind of cool. When I showed it to my friends, they all went, “wow”, but as I said, I think it’s more of fix than a feature.
Other than my brain fade with the lights, all the gizmos worked well. The smart key system quickly stops being a novelty and starts being a convenience, particularly in operating the door and trunk locks. The blind spot warning indicators were unobtrusive, the automatic wipers worked about 95% as well as I would have done myself – I think I only used the washers about a half a dozen times in about 7 hours – in a snow storm with plenty of salt on the road.
As an audiophile I guess I’m supposed to dismiss Bose, but the audio system sounded good, with tight bass and accurate highs. Sat radio is nice but I discovered that I can actually get bored of the Grateful Dead, though they did play some deep Pigpen cuts I’d never heard before. The self-dimming mirrors were nice to have since most of the driving was at night on the interstates. In addition to the dimming feature and power adjustment, the side mirrors were also heated and light the ground when you open the door. The self-dimming works nicely but there’s a band about 1/4″ around the perimeter of the mirror that doesn’t dim. As headlamps move from the dimmed area across that undimmed 1/4″ it can be distracting as they suddenly get brighter in your peripheral vision. More important is the fact that the mirror units are huge. I guess all that adjusting and dimming and lighting and heating takes up space because the housings are very large, and with the mirrors set off from the body, at least on the driver’s side the mirror obscures a good deal of your vision out of the side window.
The climate control works perfectly. The ACC has a nice feature where the fan blows hard for a few seconds after you get back into the car and start it after a short stop. That quickly gets things to temperature and is welcome in cold weather. After cold starts, while you’re waiting for the engine to warm up and the ACC to kick in, the seats have two heat settings that quickly make your tush and thighs toasty.
Those seats deserve special mention. I have a bad back. Scratch that, I have a terrible back. Breakfast is three aspirin and so is my bedtime snack. I first hurt my back as a teen, and have messed it up a few times since including falling down a 35-foot river bed in the Upper Peninsula. Most recently I had a bad head-on bicycle to bicycle wreck on a blind curve a couple of years ago. It hurts to roll over in bed. Though I love long distance driving, I haven’t been able to drive more than 150-200 miles at a stretch without my back starting to ache in a long, long time. The eight way power seats (w/ memory) in the Mazda 6 Grand Touring are damn near perfect, at least for my back.
The lumbar adjustment was ideal and I didn’t have to even rub my back, squirm or stretch once in over 600 miles of driving. Ergonomics were superb in terms of driving position and working the wheel and pedals. The gear shift, too, falls readily to hand (I always wanted to write that). Beyond the driving position, ergonomics were only okay. Controls on the steering wheel are nice but when they end up making the wheel too thick to grip, it doesn’t thrill me. Also not thrilling are symmetrical center stack controls, a problem not restricted to Mazda. The buttons and knob on the passenger side of the touch screen are a reach for the driver or at least this driver who has a long torso and arms. I understand the appeal of symmetry in design, since my day job involves some design work, but function should come first. There are attractive center stack designs that put all controls within reach of the driver.
Dynamics were great and the car is quiet. The car handled nicely both in the snow and on dry pavement. I didn’t do many full throttle accelerations but I didn’t notice any significant torque steer. Like all front wheel drive cars, the Mazda 6 is ultimately understeer-prone, but the car had a lot of grip, the steering was precise and the understeer was minor enough that I bet if you really pushed it you might be able to hang out the rear end. The car did feel very balanced.
The toll road through Gary is a two lane highway with virtually no shoulders and concrete barriers on both sides. Under the best of conditions it makes me nervous. It’s currently undergoing construction and there are a number of lane shifts that made it an even more nervous experience, particularly in snow, at night, in a borrowed $33,000 car. While not quite the Nordschleife at the Nürburgring, it required some attention and it was nice to have a car that felt competent. The power steering unit is hydraulically assisted, without being overassisted, but considering the level of grip and steering precision it could have had a bit more feel for my tastes. The first car that I bought was a Lotus so I may have unusual standards in that regard. As I said, the car was equipped with snow tires, and that might have compromised steering feel. The suspension in the Grand Touring package is tuned for firmness and control, but the ride on Michigan’s heaved and potholed roads was still comfortable.
The V6 had more than adequate power. Passing on the interstate was effortless, driving around town was fun, and it’s too bad that spot on the Southfield freeway north of the city and south of where the Southfield cops and MSP troopers patrol is barely a mile long. The six-speed transmission, an Aisin design, rather than a Ford unit as some believe, was very smooth, with almost imperceptible shifts and no apparent hunting. One quibble about the transmission is probably due to shift patterns programmed for fuel mileage. I averaged 21.9 mpg over 750 miles of less than ideal conditions, which isn’t bad, but the 1-2 and 2-3 shifts come a bit too early for me in light throttle driving. The car doesn’t quite bog down, but it’s out of character with what is generally a car with a sporting nature. Of course if you don’t like the way the automatic is programmed, you can use the tap shifter and row your own, or just keep your foot down.
So if the Mazda 6 is such a good car, why doesn’t it do better in its segment? Part of the problem is the car’s name. If you asked people what a Camry, Accord or Malibu is, they’ll tell you a Toyota, Honda or Chevy. If you asked people what a 6 is, they’ll say it’s a number. Alphanumerics might work with luxury cars, but every other car in the 6’s segment has a name. The Accord and Civic brands help the overall Honda brand. Do 2 (late 2010 in the USA), 3, 5, and 6 help Mazda? If you surveyed 100 people, the only Mazda most people could identify has a name, the Miata (yeah, I know about Eunos in the JDM and the whole MX-5 thing but I’m talking about the domestic US market).
Remember how product may not be enough? Good products, Sony Betamax comes to mind, from good companies, are sometimes not marketed as well as they could be and may never achieve the success they could have had. Mazda’s “zoom-zoom” marketing campaign has been very successful in establishing a brand identity. The Spec Miata class is the most popular racing class in the United States.
Ironically, maybe that sporting image, and Mazda’s “zoom-zoom” ad campaign is why the Mazda 6 is not considered by more families. This sounds like heresy from an enthusiast, but lets face it, the average car buyer is not an enthusiast. Toyota has made a virtue out of being boring and everyone else is trying to compete with Toyota because they think that’s what consumers want. Obviously many millions of consumers do want exactly that, a boring reliable appliance, or Toyota wouldn’t have sold so many Camrys. So zoom-zoom may accurately characterize the brand and Mazda’s cars but it may also scare off some folks looking for an automotive Maytag. That’s unfortunate because if more people shopped the Mazda 6, they’d realize that it’s a very nice car and competitive pressures might make the Camcordatas more fun to drive.
Note: I was loaned the car by the Chicago Auto Show’s Drive-In program. The media preview at Chicago is sponsored by Bridgestone. I believe that the car and insurance was made available by Mazda and my lodging was paid for by Bridgestone. I’m not sure exactly who paid for the gasoline but it wasn’t me. I paid for the tolls, a 3/4 baked deep dish kosher pizza to bring home to my daughter from A Slice Of Life, and a Burger Buddy from Ken’s down the street in Skokie since I’d hardly eaten anything both days at the show’s media preview. I keep asking the show organizers to try to get at least one car company to hire a kosher caterer so I’m not reduced to scrounging for chips that have an OU symbol. Of course the first thing I was offered at the media party in Buddy Guy’s club was a barbecued pork sandwich. In the meantime if you stop at Ken’s or Slice of Life, tell them that I gave them a plug and maybe I’ll get a deal next February.