TTAC readers, this is the one you’ve been waiting for; a fun-to-drive, lightweight, stick-shift sports sedan that doesn’t require a home equity loan to purchase. Now, the question is, will anyone buy it?
A year ago, Jack Baruth had the opportunity to take a Mazda CX-5 around Laguna Seca, and was effusive in his praise. “Heresy!”, I thought. “How can a crossover be better than a wagon?” Turns out Jack was right. The higher seating position and raised ground clearance had no negative effects. The CX-5 may have been a bit pokey in a straight line, but it was a joy to drive. It was better than most station wagons. And the good news is that Mazda has repeated the magic yet again.
The Mazda6 you see above shares a platform with the CX-5, as will all front-drive Mazda products larger than the Mazda2. The new platform is all-new, all-Mazda and uses “Skyactiv” technology, which is a way to make cars lighter, and therefore, more efficient and fun-to-drive (if you buy their marketing spin). At 3172 lbs, this car is light – a fully loaded Chevrolet Cruze weighs about 17 lbs less despite being a full size smaller.
The light weight pays dividends as far as efficiency goes – 26/38 mpg city/highway is possible if you drive accordingly. The downside is that the 2.5L 4-cylinder engine is not all that thrilling. With 184 horsepower at a fairly high 5,750 rpm and 185 lb-ft at 3,250 rpm, the Mazda6 is hardly a paragon of speed. There’s lots of noise, but not nearly as much movement, similar to the BP motors in early Miatas. It wouldn’t be fair to call it painfully slow, but given how great the rest of the package is, the underwhelming engine is a sore spot. For those looking for more grunt, there is no V6 and no boosted four-banger like in the Hyundai Sonata or Ford Fusion. Instead, the enthusiast gods have given us a diesel version, but it won’t be available until the summer.
In typical Mazda fashion, the ho-hum motor is redeemed by a superb chassis. Just as the Mazda3 is the class benchmark for a fun-to-drive compact, so is the Mazda6 in the mid-size category. The electric power steering should be a benchmark for all others; it’s crisp, well-weighted and provides excellent feedback. There is very little body roll, and just like in the CX-5, the damping is spot on. The 6-speed manual gearbox is the same one employed in the Mazda3 and CX-5. The firm, short-throw shifter is still here, though the clutch is a bit light and devoid of feel. In truth, I think the 6-speed automatic, which uses a hybrid torque converter and clutch pack system to mimic a dual-clutch, is actually better matched to the powertrain.
The auto ‘box itself is a work of art, which a barely perceptible 1-2 shift, zero “slop” when putting the power down and never hunts for gears when ascending a grade. While I’d personally pick the manual for personal enjoyment and snob appeal, you miss nothing by opting for the automatic, and don’t let anyone tell you differently. The one question mark here is the brakes. There wasn’t enough of an opportunity to give them a proper workout. Jack found that after a hard session of driving, they were spent, but rain and a general lack of exciting roads conspired to keep me from testing them to the fullest extent of the law. A major sore point with the car was road noise – the levels of wind noise coming through the A-pillar were far below the standard one should expect from a first-tier mid-size sedan, and suggests some corner cutting on the part of Mazda.
The first half of the day was spent in the manual Sport model, which is the bare-bones base trim. Car enthusiast will appreciate the clean, simple interior, devoid of screens of infotainment doo-dads. The materials used aren’t exactly “premium”, but it feels like a solid step up from the previous generation of Mazdas, specifically the Mazda3. It looks durable and well made, if nothing else, but it won’t wow you like an Accord or a Fusion will. If you’ve seen the CX-5 cabin, you know what to expect. Those hankering after a 6MT Sport, be warned, it truly is a no-frills proposition. Bluetooth connectivity, a prerequisite for many people, requires a step up to the Sport automatic model. Presumably, this was done to cut costs on the price leader version, but Bluetooth is much more useful to those who drive manual. Strangely enough, Canadian 6MT Sports will get Bluetooth (and pay a bit more), but that may be due to our take-rate being higher than the 10 percent Mazda expects).
Lacking any of the volume Touring trim levels, the only alternative to the Sport was a loaded Grand Touring, where one could experience the excellent automatic transmission) and the infuriating TomTom-based navigation, which has now stolen the “Worst Infotainment System Foisted Upon Us By Satan” award from the now-improved MyFordTouch. The iPod and music interface is middling at best, with its slow response times and early-90′s Sega Saturn-esque menus. The navigation is so abominable that there is a verse in Leviticus forbidding the public from ordering it. In a $30,290 car, this is unacceptable. Bring your Garmin and a suction cup mount. Do not let any dealer pawn this off on you.
Despite the awful navigation system and the slightly underpowered base engine, it’s hard not to be taken with the Mazda6. Mazda’s final deadly sin – the heinous styling that plagued otherwise great cars like the Mazda3, is gone. The new Mazda6 is a looker, with its dramatic profile and aggressive front end. Better yet, there aren’t even any packaging compromises – Mazda managed to incorporate the Mercedes CLS-esque sloping roofline, but still leave enough headroom for a six-foot adult male. It is without question the driver’s choice in the segment, to the point where it puts on a clinic for the rest of the segment as far as driving dynamics are concerned. Now that the driving experience and the visual impact of the car are finally congruent, Mazda may even be able to lay claim to the title of “Japan’s Alfa Romeo”. Squint really hard and this car could conceivably be the replacement for the Alfa 159, minus the soulful powertrains and legendary Italian reliability.
And yet I’m worried that it’s all going to end in a giant fuck-up. On a macro level, good cars, especially ones beloved by auto journalists, are prone to dying premature deaths, languishing in obscurity. The mid-size segment is the most competitive in America, with three of the top 10 best-selling cars alone. Aside from the Camry, Accord and Altima, there is the Fusion, the Sonata and the Optima, all laudable in their own right and all are more attuned with the kind of boring appliance-like transportation that the average buyer wants.
Furthermore, not only does Mazda not have the marketing budget to get the word out about this car, but the launch has been a bizarre series of mis-steps. First, Mazda put display-only units of the car in their showrooms, ostensibly due to a missed launch date. Punters could look at the cars, but not test drive or buy them. The diesel powertrain and the i-Eloop regenerative braking system aren’t available at launch either, and to top it off, Mazda USA’s website doesn’t even have a configuration tool to help customers spec out a Mazda6.
Although I am normally agnostic with respect to car companies, I really want Mazda to succeed. If Lotus or Morgan or one of the speciality car makers went under, I’d shrug my shoulders and get back to living my life. Mazda would be a real blow. These are cars that put a smile on my face without forcing me to eat beans every night so I can keep up with the payments (or running costs). I have owned two of them and came close to buying a Mazda3 Skyactiv last year. I’m really glad I didn’t, because now I have two other options (the CX-5 and the Mazda6 Sport) to choose from, should I want a new daily driver. I like their relentless quest for innovation despite having limited resources, their willingness to eschew hybrids and other green-flavor-of-the-month technology in favor of old-school weight reduction and their courage in creating the kind of nimble, featherweight and visually exciting cars that exist in our minds, the scrapyards or outside our budgets. The odds are stacked heavily against them. But that won’t stop me from cheering for my favorite team.
Mazda provided the car, insurance, a tank of gas, travel and accomodations. Thanks to commenters redav, mike978 and PCH101 for the insights that helped inform this review