Buying a midsize sedan is like buying a pair of men's loafers; lots of choices but few anyone would get excited about unless you're spending bank. There's the new Honda Accord, the perennially boring Toyota Camry, the nicely warrantied Hyundai Sonata, and the gorgeous Ford Fusion. It seems the Mazda6 was all forgotten.
But no! Mazda went through its divorce from Ford and got to work on an all-new flagship sedan. For 2014, the 6 is totally new from the ground up. It shares no parts with the Ford Fusion. None. Zero. Zilch. You'd think that's bad because the Fusion is an excellent car.
It isn't a bad thing. And that's because Mazda has built the midsize sedan I'd most like to own.
(Full Disclosure: Mazda wanted me to drive the new 6 so bad they flew me to Austin, TX and put me up in a hilltop lodge spa thing where I learned that Mazda makes many cars that aren't Miatas. Shocker. I also mentioned that I own a Miata about 96 times.)
For 2014, the Mazda6 gets all Skyactiv, which is a word you've probably heard in relation to Mazda lately. If you're like me, you also had no idea what it was and thought it was just a creative marketing buzzword that meant absolutely nothing. Well friends, we were both wrong.
Skyactiv describes the entire architecture of the car. For the 6, everything is brand new from the ground up. The chassis, engine, transmission, and body were all designed with the other in mind at the same time. That way there wouldn't be sacrifices to fit the engine into a chassis that would need to be modified to accommodate it. It's a very zen approach.
It's an approach that you don't see all that often anymore for a car built with a low price in mind like the 6. But all of these parts come together to form something really excellent. Everyone else should take note.
When I drove the Fusion, I said that I wanted to make tender love to it. That's how beautiful I think it is. I also didn't think anyone else in the midsize game would be able to outdo it.
Mazda is damn close.
The taut lines, long hood, cool LED accents in the lights, and aggressive grille all add up to make a car that is decidedly more butch than the 6 it replaces as well as more masculine than the elegant and nearly effeminate Fusion. I do find that there is a bit too much chrome for my taste and am not too sure about the line from the wheel arches into the front door, it makes the front fenders appear a bit too massive. It also looks a little unbalanced with wheels under 19-inches in size. That means your car needs to be a more expensive Touring or Grand Touring model to get the look you want.
Everyone these days talks about "soft touch" materials in their cars. Everything needs to be soft, God forbid we touch anything hard ever.
Well, Mazda heard what people were saying, but they might have heard it a little too well. The top of the dash is like a soft rubber that's actually pliable. I kind of thought I could leave a handprint in the dash, like a memory foam mattress. I was also a little put off by the wheel, which felt a tad cheap.
Those points aside, the seats are really comfortable and supportive (although the passenger doesn't get height adjustment), buttons and switches are laid out logically and fall easily to hand, and I didn't feel cramped at all. I preferred the layout of the interior to other cars in the class, including the Fusion with its MyFordTouch interface. It's a comfortable, nice place to spend a lot of time.
The 6 isn't all that powerful, but it is a plucky little car. It has 184 horsepower and 185 pound feet of torque from the 2.5 liter I4 under the hood. Power delivery is linear across the rev range, there just isn't an incredible amount of it.
In sixth at cruising speeds, around 60, you do need to downshift once or twice in order to accelerate. Otherwise, you'll be sitting there with your foot flat to the floor, cursing that you aren't going any faster.
But you will be getting great economy. The 6 gets 38 MPG on the highway and our backroad jaunt returned 26 MPG average. Not. Too. Shabby.
Braking is linear and pedal feel is pretty good. They aren't the most aggressive of brakes, and a couple of time I found myself not braking as much as I thought I was, which resulted in more pressure and a bit of a jerky stop.
However, when braking and downshifting in the automatic model, I noticed something a little strange. A slight vibration was present in the pedal when the car downshifted. It didn't impact the braking performance at all and once I got used to it I barely noticed, but it isn't the most confidence inspiring trait in the world.
As you'd expect in a car of this class, the 6 is tuned decidedly more towards the comfortable side. The electric steering is also a little lighter and more overboosted than I'd like.
What's good is that the 6 is comfortable without being uncommunicative. By building the car from the ground up, the Skyactiv chassis can be stiffer while the suspension can be softer. It's a great mix, and it's nice that a company didn't have to overcompensate with rock hard springs in order to make up for deficiencies in the chassis department.
This is a Mazda. The company that gave us the RX7. The company that gave us the Miata. Zoom Zoom, AMIRITE?! You're expecting a fun handling experience. For a midsize sedan it actually delivers.
When I wasn't stuck in traffic, I got a chance to throw it into a couple corners. I was greeted by mild understeer, which you'd expect from a front driver. The steering is light, but I also felt that it was communicative compared to a lot of the crap that is out there these days. No, it's no Miata, but for a midsizer it's great.
If these cars were CSPAN programming, the Camry would be a BOOK TV episode about cholera and the new 6 would be two senators wrestling in the middle of a committee hearing.
Two gearboxes will be offered in the new car. There is a six-speed automatic as well as a six-speed manual. The manual gearbox is brand new for 2014 and it is excellent. Throws are short and the gates are excellently defined. I didn't care for the clutch, which had a fairly low engagement point that I just couldn't get used to.
Then there is the automatic. It's actually a hybrid of a traditional torque converter and a dual clutch, and it's brilliant. A small torque converter is used at low speeds to make around town driving smooth, a weak point of dual clutch gearboxes. At higher speeds, it switches to wet clutches, which makes for quick and sporty shifts. I have to say, it's a fantastic idea. Downshifts are also rev matched and quick, with an immediate response from the paddles. If you're in automatic mode, it can downshift three gears at once with no problem. I think this is the gearbox of the future for cars like this. It isn't as engaging as the manual, but it is damn good at what it does.
The 2.5-liter engine lets out a nice throaty little growl, something you don't expect from a midsize car. It's not particularly loud, but it lets you know it's there. I liked that little reminder, but would like to hear from it a little more.
The optional Bose stereo adds to those good sounds from the engine. An afternoon of '90s grunge actually sounded really good.
Mazda has put more acronyms in the 6 than I have seen this side of a Mercedes. A fully loaded Grand Touring model has blind spot monitoring, a city brake assist, radar cruise control, bluetooth, iPod connectivity, lane departure warning, forward obstruction warning, rearview camera, and a 'rear cross traffic alert,' which warns the driver when a car is crossing from behind. There's the excellent Bose stereo and a Tom Tom nav system that can use customized voices as well. Later in 2013 there will also be a brake regen feature called i-ELOOP, which will use brake energy to charge a capacitor in order to increase fuel economy.
The amount of premium features in the 6 is pretty staggering for a car of this class. Most of the features are seen in BMWs, Mercedeses (how do you make Mercedes plural?), and Audis. It brings nearly every premium feature found in those cars down to an attainable price point. That's great stuff.
There is one issue I had. The optional navigation system is supplied by Tom Tom and runs on a 5.8 inch touch screen. It works properly, but the unit itself doesn't look well integrated. And it's a touch screen with redundant button controls on the outside of it, as well as an iDrive-style controller on the dash. It's too many controls. If they got rid of the buttons around the unit, the screen could grow in size and it would look like it belonged in the car and not an afterthought.
The base Mazda6 Sport with a manual transmission starts at $20,880. A top-of-the-line Grand Touring starts at $29,495. Fully equipped you'll be looking at a price of around $32,000. For the features you're getting, I think this is a steal.
But the car to get is the mid-range Touring model with the manual transmission. Starting around $24,000, you get a well-equipped mid-size car with a manual transmission. The Fusion offers a manual too, but it isn't on a model that is this well equipped. The manual Touring will start rolling off the assembly line in March. It's a tasty slice.
When we drove the Fusion, we said you'd be an idiot if you didn't buy one. It's true, you woud be an idiot not to buy a Fusion, but you'd be an even bigger idiot if you didn't at least try the Mazda6. I think it's the best car in the class. Go buy it. Now.