Whenever I talk to car shoppers, the Mazda6 comes up. No, it’s not because people are confused if it’s a “Mazda 6” or a “Mazda6” or a “Mazda Mazda6.” Although, it does top the Land Rover Range Rover Sport Autobiography for the strangest name on the market. (I prefer to call it a Mazda6.) The reason Mazda’s mid-sized sedan comes up, is because it seems to be a car often shopped, but rarely purchased. In June, it scored 14th in sales for the segment. Surprised? I was. Even the Chrysler 200 and Dodge Avenger (9th and 12th place) outsold it by a wide margin. The low sales numbers piqued my interest enough that I hit Mazda up for a cherry red model to see why.
2014 brings Mazda’s new corporate grille to the Mazda6, and I have to say, it’s a beautiful schnoz. I was a little worried the gaping maw would be too large in person, (in pictures it looks enormous) but up-close-and-personal it has to be the second most attractive front end after the Fusion. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but during the week I was unable to find anyone who disagreed with me. So my opinion reigns supreme. I’m worried however, the proportions look perfect on the Mazda6, so what will the Mazda3 be like? Why am I worried? Because if you park the Mazda6 next to a CX-9 or CX-5, the crossovers look more cartoonish than if they park alone. Just like your girlfriend seems pretty until you park her next to Megan Fox. Although the 2014 model looks longer than the outgoing Mazda6, overall length has been cut by about two inches. Adding “visual length” as well as much-needed rear seat room, the wheelbase has been stretched by two inches to 111.4.
Mazda’s nose may be a notch below the Ford in my style-guide, but out back it’s a different story. I find the Fusion’s rump to be a little awkward. It’s almost as if Ford ran out of time and “hurried” the back end of their family hauler. Not so with the Mazda6 which has a finished look from the “raised eyebrow” tail lamps to the twin chrome exhausts. Thanks to the best butt in the business, I call the Ford v. Mazda beauty contest a tie. How about the Koreans? I never warmed to the Sonata, but the Optima is aggressive and attractive, just not as emotional as the Mazda6. Thanks to the low sales volume, the Mazda is also a step outside the ordinary, something that attracts me.
The British would have called the old Mazda6’s interior “cheap and cheerful” with shapes that failed to offend, but plastics that were far from premium. For 2014, Mazda increased the plastic budget and coated the interior with soft injection moulded material. Bucking the latest trend, Mazda skipped the stitching treatment on the dash, although you will find sewing machine tracks on the doors. ZoomZoom also nixed the faux-tree in favor of a black-cherry (or just black) plastic trim panel that bisects the tall dashboard. Aside from the infotainment binnacle that seems a bit too large for the screen, this is the most harmonious and simple dashboard in this segment. I hate to beat on the old Mazda6, but “simple and harmonious” is not a phrase I would have used.
Front seat comfort was excellent for my average six-foot frame, regardless of the trim level. In an interesting move, Mazda chose to make the base manual seat adjust in all the same ways as the optional powered seats. The inclusion of manual lumbar support on base seats is a nice touch as well, something the competition often skips in “stripper” models. In keeping with Mazda’s self-proclaimed sporty image, the front seats feature aggressive (for a Camcord segment car) front seat bolsters and are therefore quite different from the Barcaloungers in the Camry, Accord and Altima. The bolsters aren’t as pronounced as a C63 AMG, but the “like a glove” fit was a huge selling point for me. On the down side, seats like these are less comfortable for larger folks as they provide precious little muffin top accommodation.
Rear seat legroom is up thanks to the increased wheelbase and is now competitive with the CamFusCord. Because the way that car companies measure leg room varies it’s hard to go by the published numbers. According to the numbers the Mazda6 delivers the same rear legroom as the meat of the competition but skimps on front legroom. In reality the Mazda6 felt roomier than its old cousin the Ford Fusion while the Camry still feels larger somehow. Some of that is thanks to the Camry’s generous rear headroom, something that sexy sedan profiles take a toll on. Thankfully Mazda didn’t cut the rear doors as low as Ford did making it easier to get in and out of the Mazda. With more room on the inside and a shorter overall car, it’s no surprise that the looser in this battle is the trunk. At 14.8 cubic feet the 2014 model looses two cubes compared to last year shifting it from one of the larger trunks in the segment to among the smallest.
Infotainment & Gadgets
Mazda’s limited budget is readily apparent when you look at the Infotainment system. I’m not talking about the base 6-speaker AM/FM/CD system that you will only find in the most basic trim Mazda6 with the manual transmission, that one is lovely, I’m talking about the 5.8-inch touchscreen. Simply adding the automatic transmission bundles the touchscreen infotainment system on the base model and it’s standard on all other models meaning you can’t get away from it. If you’ve read my reviews before, you know that I love me some touchscreen infotainment, but Mazda’s leaves me scratching my head.
First off, the screen is small. With the Accord boasting two ginormous LCDs in the dash, 5.8-inches is nothing to brag about. The size of the screen’s binnacle makes me hopeful a mid-cycle refresh will being some 8-inch touch-love, but that could be a pipe dream. The software’s graphics are suitably slick and the interface is easy to navigate via the touchscreen or the Audi MMI style knob in the center console. Alas the lord giveth and he taketh away. The software is sluggish at best, some of the control screens are half-baked and the integration of TomTom navigation is clunky. I’m not a huge fan of Chrysler’s uConnect with Garmin software, but at least that system has the screen real estate allowing you to read the awkward menus and stab what you need, not so in the Mazda. When using the control dial it’s difficult to distinguish between the option that’s selected and the cursor position since they are the same color and nearly the same shape.
Plug in any music device and you’ll encounter my other beef, and something Mazda forum posters have been complaining about as well. The media interface is incredibly slow. I n c r e d i b l y s l o w. So slow that at first I assumed the head unit had frozen so I plugged, unplugged, plugged, unplugged to no avail. Then I gave up and listened to the radio. (Gasp!) A full 4 minutes later, the system switched to the iDevice and started to play my tunes. (Yes, I tested it with USB sticks and it did the same thing). If you think this is a momentary aberration, think again. The system has to fully index your entire USB/Android/iDevice music library before it starts playing. It does this whenever you unplug/plug or when you stop/start the car. Every. Single. Time. The larger your library, the longer it takes. Users on the Mazda forum reported a 10+ minute delay when playing larger devices while I averaged just over three minutes. Want tunes on a short journey? I hope you enjoy AM Gold. Mazda hasn’t confirmed a software update, but I pray one happens soon. This was so aggravating it colors my whole opinion of the interface, if Mazda fixed this one thing I could forgive the small screen and quirky menu system.
On the gadget front, Mazda lags behind Ford but does offers most of the gadgetry you’ll find in the competition and a few things you won’t. Our tester had the optional adaptive radar cruise with collision warning, xenon headlamps, blind spot warning, rear cross traffic detection, rain sensing wipers and keyless entry/go. Also available as part of the $2090 Technology Package on iGrand Touring models is lane departure warning and an auto high beam system bundled with Mazda’s i-ELoop micro hybrid system. Notably absent on the Mazda6 are lane departure prevention and self-parking, features starting to trickle down into this segment.
SkyActiv is Mazda’s fuel saving “brand,” but it’s more than just a set of engine tweaks. Mazda’s fuel sipping umbrella includes weight savings, aerodynamics, optional energy regeneration and a slick new transmission. Lets start with weight savings. At 3,232lbs (automatic transmission) the 2014 is about three hundred pounds lighter than the old model, 200lbs lighter than a Fusion, and a hair heavier than a Camry or Optima. Under the hood you’ll find the latest 2.5L Mazda four-cylinder engine with direct injection and variable valve timing. Mazda uses a 13:1 compression ratio in the American bound models to allow it to run safely on regular unleaded, so this isn’t exactly the same engine in other markets. Power output is 185 HP and 184 lb-ft which stacks up well against the competition especially when you look at the torque curve which is lower and broader than most of the competition. While Ford offers no less than four engine options in the Fusion, the 2.5L is the only engine available until the SkyActiv diesel appears.
Something that has confused reporters in the past is Mazda’s new transmission. Some describe it as a hybrid between a dual clutch and a traditional automatic, some have even suggested that it can “disable” the torque converter. In addition to the 6-speed manual transmission you can opt for the SkyActiv branded traditional automatic transaxle. Traditional? What about the fancy clutches? Here’s what Mazda did.
Lock-up torque converters are nothing new, having been introduced in 1949, but in our age of efficiency companies are using them more aggressively. By locking the impeller and turbine (input and output) of the torque converter, you increase efficiency by cutting most of the impelling losses in the torque converter (there are still some because it’s still spinning, but it’s greatly reduced). Old transmissions only did this in their final gear and relatively infrequently. Modern automatics like GM/Ford’s 6-speed transaxle spend about half their time in lock-up and will engage the locking “clutch” in most gears. Mazda’s new slushbox is programmed with an aggressive lockup agenda and will lock in every gear. In addition, it spends more time in lockup (80% or more) than a competitive unit on the same driving cycle. The result is a more connected 1:1 relationship between the engine and wheels than you find in a CamFusCord.
The aggressive lockup is noticeable out on the road, especially in hill driving where the Mazda6 feels more connected to the drivetrain than the competition. “Connected” is a word that repeatedly came to mind when driving the Mazda6 in the real world and during an event at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca where Mazda had the guys to let a writer’s group flog a sedan on the track. The Zoom-Zoom brand has long been known for an emphasis on handling, so it shouldn’t surprise you that the Mazda6 is one of the most enjoyable front wheel drive cars on the road, but it also proved amusing on the track. No, not as amusing as the BMW X1 that was on hand, but the Mazda delivered surprising agility, well controlled body motions, little roll and just a hint of brake fade after 6 laps. For a CamFusCord competitor, there is no higher praise. Ultimate grip is easily the equal of the new Ford Fusion, the only other entry in this large segment with any handling prowess at all. Another feather in the Mazda6’s cap is steering with the vaguest hint of feeling, a quality that would have been laughable a decade ago, but in our age of electric power steering even the suggestion of feedback is welcome.
I was a bit less impressed with the Mazda6’s manual transmission, yes it has possibly the best shift feel in the segment, but is that saying much? The clutch pedal feel is superior to the new Accord as well, but with only 184HP on tap and 3,200lbs to motivate the automatic does a better job on the average commute. Boo! Hiss! Another manual hater?!? Not at all, I love the fact that Mazda builds most trim levsls of the Mazda6 with a manual. The problem is the slushbox is moderately engaging and gets 1MPG better mileage (26/38 for the auto). It’s easy to see why the average shopper would let the car row the gears. At the stop-light races, the 2014 model feels stronger than the outgoing model despite the modest bump in power, this is thanks to the improved torque curve, weight reduction and that SkyActiv transmission. Proving that CVTs are the performance king (seriously) the four-cylinder Accord spanks the ZoomZoom to 60 MPH with a 6.83 second score to the Mazda6’s 7.4 but both of those are faster than the Fusion’s base or 1.6L Ecoboost options by over half a tick.
The i-ELoop micro hybrid system is part of a $2,090 option pack on the top trim of the Mazda6. This is similar to BMW’s active alternator, in that the system is only capable of recovering a portion of the kinetic energy and provides no motive assistance. When braking, a variable voltage alternator charges a large capacitor, the system uses this to power vehicle systems. When accelerating, the system disengages the alternator to reduce the load and runs the accessories on the reserved charge. Mazda claims the system is good for an extra 2MPG on the highway bumping the mid-sized sedan to an impressive 40MPG. I was unable to get my hands on one for testing, but I easily beat the 30 MPG combined score despite driving it more aggressively during the week than the competition.
So if the Mazda6 handles well, delivers decent fuel economy and is priced and featured in line with the competition, why are the sales so slow? After a week with the 2014 incarnation I’m no closer to answering this automotive enigma. Many have conjectured the ZoomZoom brand lacks the advertising resources to push their wares, that is certainly true when you compare their marketing budget to Toyota, but then again Kia and Hyundai have raised themselves from obscurity on budgets that started small. Some posit the lack of a stout V6 option is to blame, but 90% of the cars in this segment are four-bangers, so toss that logic out the window. Even with the most aggravating infotainment system sold in America, the Mazda6’s other attributes compensate enough to put it near the top of my list, just under the gadget loaded, 2.0L Ecoboosted Fusion and the four-cylinder Accord. Why doesn’t the Mazda6 sell? Will the diesel engine turn the Mazda6 into an oil-burning Passat killer? These are questions we may never have answered. What do our readers have to say?
- One of the best looking cars in the segment.
- Excellent fuel economy.
- Turbo diesel dreams.
- Aggravating infotainment system.
- No turbocharged four and no V6 option for “performance” shoppers.
Mazda provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.
Specifications as tested
0-30: 2.75 Seconds
0-60: 7.4 Seconds
1/4 Mile: 15.786 Seconds @ 88.5 MPH
Average Observed Fuel Economy: 30.5 MPG over 534 miles