2016 Mazda6 Wagon 2.2D AWD A/T European First Drive
The current Mazda6 is revered for its Skyactiv naturally aspirated gasoline engines and nimble, light-footed handling. Replacing one of the last great N/A engines in its class with a turbo-diesel seems a bit like heresy. Opting for an automatic transmission and four-wheel drive is mutiny. But, will those choices make a great driver’s car boring? Or will they actually make it better?
Being invited to the press launch of a bunch of facelifted models isn’t much reason to celebrate for most automotive journos. But, when I got a chance to attend a recent Mazda press conference, I jumped at the chance; not to prove there’s such a thing as a free lunch, nor because it was – conveniently – about three miles from my house. I was eager to go because, between the end of my gig at the Czech edition of Top Gear and the point when my own website really got going, I managed to miss a whole generation of Mazdas.
From what I’d heard and read – both from my colleagues at home and on TTAC – the new crop of Mazdas was really good. So I wasn’t in it for the deer with creamy sauce (although it was delicious). I was in it because I wanted to drive the cars.
First, I drove the Mazda3, which wasn’t even new. It was great, but you already know that. Derek liked one so much he bought it.
Then it was time for the facelifted Mazda6. I went for the best one: gasoline sedan with manual transmission; lightest of the bunch with an engine that’s legendary (easy to do, being a large, naturally aspirated 2.0-liter four in a world of downsized turbo plants) and a lovely manual gearbox.
It was as good as I expected. For a large sedan – in Europe, non-premium sedans don’t get much better than this – it shows a great dose of sportiness and provides an unusual amount of fun. You have, especially with the facelifted version, all the bells and whistles to which you’re accustomed. At the same time, there’s a whiff of jinba ittai (a horse and a rider as one) from the Miata. It’s easy to find a proper driving position; steering wheel close to your chest, seat low and the backrest at nearly vertical feels comfortable. The gearshift is gloriously precise with a deliciously short throw. The suspension works exactly as you want; compliant when presented with ruts and potholes and still stable and resists roll remarkably well.
The engine isn’t going to spoil the fun, either. It’s hungry for revs. With its aforementioned enjoyable gearshift along with nicely placed and spaced pedals, the Mazda6, especially with the European-spec 2.0 engine, just begs to be revved. Rev-matching downshifts are a breeze. For many buyers, the engine will be the main reason for buying the Mazda’s family sedan – more so than the suspension, and maybe even more so than all those new, shiny and clever things they told us about at the press event (and which I wasn’t able or willing to try out on my short drive). Most competitors use touchscreens, which can be annoying and even dangerous, but the Mazda6 uses an iDrive-esque control that’s more to my liking.
Then – something strange happened.
With no great expectations, I jumped behind the wheel of a CX-5 crossover with a diesel engine. I wasn’t really surprised that flinging it around my favourite backroad (conveniently located some two miles from the event venue) was much more fun than any family crossover has the right to be. Yet, what really got me interested was its engine.
I’m afraid that I will be condemned by JDM fans, purists and petrolheads all around the world, but I enjoyed the diesel version even better than the Last Mohican of the N/A gasoline engines. That might be caused by my affinity to large engines with their deep exhaust notes, dislike for revs, and lots of grunt low down, but I found the diesel engine’s growl more pleasant than the shriek of its gasoline counterpart. While revving the N/A four was fun, the turbodiesel was quite happy in the upper part of the rev counter as well – allowing for relaxed driving without having to shift all the time.
Thinking about this on the way back, I got a hunch. If the CX-5 is still fun and if the diesel engine can sound more pleasant (to my ears) than the gasoline one…could the diesel Mazda6 actually be the better option? Maybe the newly introduced AWD could, in fact, improve the driving experience.
With that in mind upon returning the CX-5, I requested a diesel wagon with AWD with the automatic. All the previous cars were manuals (yes, in our part of the world, the standard transmission is still that – standard). If the diesel is so good in a CUV, it should be even better in a wagon, right? And AWD should help, too. The modern part-time AWD systems are good enough to be useful even on dry pavement – a comparison a few years back of a standard Passat with one equipped with 4Motion proved that.
After getting the keys, I set off with great anticipation. This should, in theory, be the best car of the lot. But it didn’t begin well. While the FWD, gasoline sedan was admirably compliant and comfortable, the diesel AWD wagon wasn’t. For some reason, the ride was noticeably more choppy and even small imperfections of the road were transmitted into cabin. I suspected the wheels, but both cars were fitted with 19s.
It has to be something else. There are two main suspects. The AWD system may have something to do with it, but I lean towards blaming it on weight. The wagon itself is a bit heavier than its trunked counterpart, and the diesel engine is probably much heavier than gasoline one. I’ve seen several cars ruined by a heavy engine and the stiffer springs/shocks that go with it.
On my favorite back road, though, the news was much more positive. As in the CX-5, the diesel engine is unexpectedly pleasant – in its sound, hunger for revs or lots of torque everywhere. I wouldn’t say it’s really better from a driver’s perspective, but it’s not worse, either. I can imagine drivers that would prefer each one of them.
Next big difference is the AWD. It was useful from the beginning, helping me to launch from the side road without front tires scraping for traction. And it made itself worthwhile on the open road as well. You probably won’t notice it in sweeping curves, but in tighter ones, no more spinning of the inner wheel; just lots of nice, clean traction. It even helps mitigate the understeer a bit.
So, is this the best possible Mazda6? Of course not. It’s not a diesel manual wagon. While that may sound like a cliché (at least in North America – in Europe, it’s a pretty standard and boring mode of transportation), the manual transmission would really enhance the driving experience. While the automatic isn’t really bad, it’s far too slow for someone spoiled with DSGs and modern automatics, like the ubiquitous 8-speed ZF. A click of the paddle right before the corner, when you would just snap in a lower cog with a nice throttle blip, usually produces nothing more than information on the displey in the dash. Something like “we’re working on it“.
Expecting an automatic in a diesel family wagon to act “sporty“ is a bit unrealistic, especially from a small-ish automaker like Mazda. But if someone buys it for the driving experience, they would probably pick the manual and can rest assured that even by choosing the boring combo of diesel wagon with AWD, he didn’t sacrifice much of the wonderful handling for which this car is synonymous.
@VojtaDobes is motoring journalist from Czech Republic, who previously worked for local editions of Autocar and TopGear magazines. Today, he runs his own website, www.Autickar.cz and writes for various other Czech outlets. After a failed adventure with importing classic American cars to Europe, he is utterly broke, so he drives a ratty Chrysler LHS. His previous cars included a 1988 Caprice in NYC Taxi livery, a hot-rodded Opel Diplomat, two Dodge Coronets, a Simca, a Fiat 600 and Austin Maestro. He has never owned a diesel, manual wagon.
Photography courtesy of Mazda
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More weight should actually help the ride, since the ratio of sprung to unsprung mass will improve (partly why bigger wheels make ride worse is they send that ratio the wrong way, as well as stiffening the tire "spring"). If the ride got worse, it may be to do with the load rating of the wagon. Mazda probably put stiffer springs in the rear to allow it to carry more weight (think of a pickup).