The 2018 Mazda 6 is a pretty car with an ugly truth: If you buy one, you’ll have to make the difficult choice between a manual transmission and a quick, new turbocharged engine with a lot more horsepower and torque. You can’t have both from the factory, so the question becomes: How much are you willing to give up to shift your own gears?
(Full disclosure: Mazda loaned us a 2018 Mazda 6 Signature trim for a week. It came with a tank full of gas. We got the Sport trim from a local dealer, Brazos Valley Imports, whose staff was kind enough to find us one of the five 2018 Mazda 6 sticks on dealer lots in Texas and let us borrow it for a day.)
In a lot of ways, the Mazda 6 is a great car. It has four doors, plenty of space, good paint and interior options, and, while it would be more fun to have power sent to the rear wheels instead of the front, it’s arguably one of the best looking sedans out there. It also has the option of a manual, which, at least in the U.S., is fading and usually left only to dedicated sports cars—and, sometimes, those don’t even get one.
The sad part about the 6 is that of its five trims, the manual is relegated to the bottom. The lowest Sport trim starts at $21,950, whereas the top Signature one has a far higher base price of $34,750.
The only one available with a stick, though, is the Sport. It has fewer features, fewer options, a fraction of the torque, and a 187-horsepower engine compared to the 250-HP turbocharged variant on higher trims.
It’s a lot to sacrifice in order to shift gears yourself, but the decision ultimately comes down to where your preferences lie.
Mazda brought the turbo 6 to market for the 2018 model year, putting its regular 2.5-liter, four-cylinder Skyactiv-G engine into the two lower trims and packing the turbo version with the top three. That means the Sport has 187 HP at 6,000 rpm and 186 lb-ft of torque at 4,000, while the Signature is rated at 250 HP at 5,000 rpm with premium fuel and 310 lb-ft at 2,000.
But even with more power, the turbo is no rocket. It’s quick, but it won’t plant you to your seat. It will, however, plant you to the ground upon acceleration, and if you’re not used to torque galore going to the front wheels, the resulting torque steer takes some getting used to.
Torque steer is a common topic when it comes to cars like the new 6 or the old Mazdaspeed 3, and it’s the tendency for torque-heavy FWD cars to pull to the side upon hard acceleration, like in this video. Mazda engineers told Autoblog torque on the new 6 was tuned to build gradually, but the steering wheel can still whip in its own direction when accelerating hard from a stop.
It isn’t violent, but it is surprising if you’re not expecting it.
The regular, non-turbo Sport trim isn’t unbearably slow compared to the Signature, although its lack of power is evident in low rpms. In casual driving commutes that usually don’t involve hard acceleration, though, the power difference isn’t that big of a deal.
The big difference between these cars—the one this comparison sort of revolves around—is the transmission. Only a few configurations of the 6 can be ordered with the manual transmission, and even those are hard to find on dealer lots.
The automatic in the Mazda 6 is an automatic, basically. It’s not particularly memorable because it’s not an integral part of the driving experience, but it does have the option to go into manual mode with the shift lever or the paddle shifters behind the steering wheel.
Like most sticks, the manual 6 has some quirks. Neutral is placed lower than expected, first gear is “Watch out, you’re about to redline it” short, engine braking is gentle, and the car wants nothing more than to be at the lowest revs possible. If it gets anywhere near 2,000 rpm, the upshift indicator is on.
The manual on the Sport trim feels utilitarian—less for the person looking for a sporty, fun feel and more for the one who wants to buy their recently licensed child a new car with a warranty but save $1,000 on the transmission.
The shifter itself has a tight, robotic vibe. Shifts feel simple yet somewhat plastic physically, as if you’re pulling the lever on a large, basic light switch. The feel takes some adapting to, but it’s not bad and becomes natural after awhile.
It takes more time to get used to the clutch, which is so soft that it’s almost nonexistent. The catch point is also odd, with the car not doing much when you first let off and catching at the end of the pedal motion. It’s only really noticeable getting into first and therefore not a big deal, but it would be nice to have a tighter, springer feel—or any feel at all.
None of that ruins the enjoyment of the car, though, and it’s hard not to get nostalgic for the pedal on the left in the more expensive 6.
The Mazda 6 exterior is virtually the same throughout the lineup, although the Signature gets 19-inch wheels compared to the 17-inch ones on the Sport. Both trims have an exhaust on each side around back, giving them a more expensive appearance, and push-to-start buttons. Both also have road noise on rougher surfaces, meaning the Signature wasn’t immune to or vacuum sealed from it.
What really distinguishes the two is the interior. But even then, the Sport doesn’t feel cheap, or even significantly lesser, than the Signature. The cars have the same general shape inside, and the Sport doesn’t feel like a huge step down from the Signature—it’s the same car, with different materials.
On the Signature, the simplistic dash has Alcantara- and wood-look finishes, which don’t have grain but also don’t feel cheap. The Sport dash has a leather material where the Alcantara is on the Signature, and a silver plate where the wood material would be.
The Sport’s door trims have that same silver accent, along with black leather and light-colored stitching, while the Signature has the wood material weaved into the doors. Looking at the dash and doors alone, one doesn’t really look much nicer than the other—they look like different styling options, aside from the less embellished steering wheel on the Sport.
The only seat options for the Sport are cloth, whereas the only ones for the Signature are leather. Both materials have their own perks, like how the texture of the cloth on the Sport made it look less like typical, lower-end-feeling cloth and how the Signature had metal detailing on seat backs.
If you look up in the Sport, though, the view reminds you that it is the cheaper car. The Signature keeps the dark colors from the dash and interior flowing into the headliner, while the Sport trim’s interior goes from black to light gray at the base of the pillars and through the ceiling, screaming “lower trim.”
In the Sport with the black interior, the gray A pillars have a plastic feel and the headliner is the cloth material typical of lower-priced cars. The pillar material in the Signature is the same dark hue as the rest of the car, covered in tightly adhered, woven cloth that doesn’t make a hollow plastic noise when tapped.
When it comes to the Sport trim, though, just keep your eyes down.
While the interiors on the top and bottom trims of the 6 look similar at first, it doesn’t take long to notice a lot of buttons are missing under the infotainment screen in the Sport.
Unlike the Signature, the Sport has no heated or cooled seats and no heated steering wheel. There are more lighting options on the ceiling between the front passengers in the Signature, and it comes with a sunroof. The configurator on the Sport doesn’t have an option for a sunroof or moonroof.
Giving up the Signature for the Sport also means no heads-up display, no power seats that also adjust up and down, no automatic headlights and no Bose audio system, if Bose means anything to you. Built-in navigation software is an extra $400 on the Sport.
The Sport trim has no vents behind center console for the riders in the backseat while the Signature does, although there’s no backseat climate control in either. Riders in the back can heat their seats in the Signature, though, while riders in the front of the Sport can’t even do that.
Both trims have backup cameras, mandatory for new cars in the U.S., along with the same iPad-shaped infotainment screen typical of current Mazda models.
On standard settings instead of interfaces like Apple CarPlay, the infotainment screen isn’t easy to navigate. Its touch screen deactivates whenever the car is moving, leaving the driver and passenger to use it with a main control knob and a volume knob. It’s tedious and time consuming when it isn’t muscle memory.
One feature the Sport trim does have is rollback assistance. Mazda calls it Hill Launch Assist, and there doesn’t appear to be a way to turn it specifically off. But the system won’t keep the car from rolling back while getting into first gear on every slope, via the owner’s manual:
HLA does not operate on a gentle slope. In addition, the gradient of the slope on which the system will operate changes depending on the vehicle’s load. [...] HLA does not operate while the TCS/DSC [Dynamic Stability Control system/Traction Control System] indicator light is illuminated.
Basically, the car will help if it thinks help is needed. If not, you’re on your own.
If are teaching a nervous driver how to operate the clutch, an unofficial catch-all to keep the car from rolling seems to be Mazda’s auto-hold system. Auto hold is meant to let a driver take their foot off of the brake in heavy traffic without having to, for example, shift into park in an automatic, but it seems to work as a hill assist as well.
Neither of these Mazda 6 trims are sports cars. They’re FWD sedans, and they both do their jobs as FWD sedans—one is just nicer and more expensive than the other.
But going back and forth between the $23,000 Sport and the $36,500 Signature, there isn’t much, overall, that disappoints about the lowest trim level.
The trims feel like good values on their own, but next to each other, it becomes obvious how well priced the Sport is. The light-gray roof paired with the black interior is annoying, sure, and your butt might get cold in the winter without seat heaters, but driving the Sport off of the lot in 2019 for less than $23,000 is a deal—and, at the rate we’re going in the U.S., who knows how long a regular sedan like the 6 will keep a manual around.
No trim of the current Mazda 6 will impress anyone at your local drag strip, or even give you that slightly nauseating but good feeling in your stomach while accelerating. Turbo or not, that’s not what they’re built for.
And, for the money and the love of the manual transmission, giving up some power and features is worth it for the purist who wouldn’t feel right having a car shift gears for them.