The 2018 Mazda 6 is prettier than ever, and its top-trim interior is downright elegant. It also finally has the thing we’ve been craving from this sporty midsize sedan for years now—more power. But despite improvements to the suspension and an extra 60-plus horses from a new turbocharger, this 6 feels like a move toward affordable luxury and away from practical performance.

(Full disclosure: Mazda invited myself and a few other journalists to meet its executives at a lovely hotel in Pasadena, after which I was allowed to keep the car for two weeks. The thing’s still parked in my neighborhood somewhere. I drove on canyon roads, in deep city traffic and just about everywhere in between to give it a fair shakedown.)

There are a few stages of emotion you’ll feel as you grab the reins of a $35,000 Mazda 6 Signature. First comes skeptical optimism as the door whips open with the same light cheapness it’s always had, but reveals a marvelously appointed and dare-I-say zen shrine of an interior.

Photo: Mazda

When your butt hits the seat, you’re plunged into a soft cushion of validation. “This is nice,” you’ll realize, patting yourself on the shoulder for achieving modestly-priced luxury.

Then you hit the gas. And while you’ll briefly be treated to a satisfying surge of the 310 lb-ft of torque, it won’t take weeks of driving to realize the car is just fine on the road but does not have the thrust to induce some kind of automotive spiritual awakening as Mazda’s brochures might suggest.

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That hardly means it’s a bad car. On the contrary, the new 6 is a beautiful place to be and a good way to get around.

What Is It?

Technically the Mazda 6 is the Mazda Mazda6, but that’s not how people look it up on Google so we’re going to spell the car’s name out the way a human would speak it. But regardless of whether or not you chose to respect Mazda’s corporate spelling structure, this vehicle is a mid-sized sedan meant to compete with highway mainstays like the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.

In the past, the Mazda 6’s main value proposition in the segment has been that it’s the “sporty” option for people who want to inject a little personality into their daily driving. It’s a better handler than most in this segment. But lately Mazda’s rivals have stepped up in that arena with the new Camry looking downright vicious and the new Accord available with a sweet 2.0-liter turbo engine and six-speed manual combo.

Mazda has especially focused on making the car a nicer thing to sit in for 2018. Not to mention much prettier from the outside. This year’s revision is exactly that–a facelift and power boost to the existing platform, rather than a completely fresh car.

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Specs That Matter 

A base 2018 Mazda 6 comes with essentially the same 2.5-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine the outgoing car had, with a minuscule bump in its power rating to 187 HP and 186 lb-ft of torque. That engine is still available with a six-speed manual transmission, and is still the pick for driving enthusiasts, but we’ll get back to that later.

The new hotness is the turbocharged version of the same engine, which Mazda says makes 250 HP (on 93 octane gas) and 310 lb-ft of torque that comes on nice and low at just 2,000 RPM. That engine can only be had with a six-speed automatic featuring a “Sport” mode.

No manual for the good engine. Sorry. These things aren’t up to me.

All 2018 Mazda 6s are front-wheel drive and weight between 3,326 and 3,560 pounds. That base-trim (“Sport”) I described starts at just a hair under $22,000 and a top-tier Signature with the added expense of Soul Red paintwork is just over $36,000. A nicely equipped Grand Touring with the turbo engine is about $30,000.

Mazda says the turbo should be able to get 31 mpg in highway driving, or 23 in the city. The non-boosted version gets rated to a more miserly 35 mpg highway and 26 in the city.

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That’s a 2017 Mazda 6 in the background.

What’s Great

The shape of the outgoing Mazda 6 was already pretty, and the design team has done an excellent job here making the car look significantly sexier without messing with the silhouette. The revised grille and headlights go a long way, and it’s easy to identify the 2018 as “the new one.”

Inside, the top trim cars are graced with great shapes wrapped in really nice looking materials. The stitching across the dashboard is gorgeous and the controls, with the exception of the touchscreen protruding toward the windshield, are elegantly tucked into the interior styling.

That said, Mazda’s people spent a lot of time telling us “there are only two pieces carried over from the outgoing car’s interior” but to be honest, I didn’t feel like the cockpit was that dramatically different from the 2017 car.

The main gauge pod sure is nicer though, as the old car relied on liquid crystal displays you might recognize from a calculator and the new one has super-smooth computer-style renderings of all necessary driver info worked into the main cluster.

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But my favorite feature is the new 6’s cooled seats which, as Mazda’s staff explained, work by “sucking” instead of “blowing.” Basically, the seats vacuum hot air off your sweaty back rather than blowing cool air over it. The result is an extremely effective and comfortable cooling system. My favorite, in fact, of any car I’ve tested so far.

What’s Weak

I already mentioned that the Mazda 6’s doors feel weak, and while it’s hardly a deal breaker it does break the spell of “this is a premium car” that the design works so hard to sell.

The ridiculously poor resolution on the parking cameras is another cold reminder that you couldn’t afford a nicer luxury car every time you put the Mazda 6 into reverse. It’s also a little nauseating.

My fiancée, who’s about five-feet five-inches, complained that she was getting a “sunburn beard” on the commute west from downtown Los Angeles because the car’s visor is so skinny.

Then there’s living up to Mazda’s “feel alive” tagline. I certainly wouldn’t say the 6 made me feel dead, but you can’t expect to climb out of this thing jumping for joy in the same way you might at the end of a blast around the mountains in a Miata. And I think that’s an important distinction to establish.

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Casual Driving

The Mazda 6 rolls nicely from a stop to a steady clip, stops competently and provides impressively accurate steering through its electric system. We already talked about how comfortable the thing is, and I’d hop in one and drive from LA to New York in a heartbeat.

The ride is pliant, even over rough roads, and combined with that sweet soft seat it makes for a very comfortable cruise.

Visibility is solid, the Bose audio system drenches the cabin in music and drowns out jackhammers and good ergonomics all around make gentle drives in this car extremely pleasant.

Aggressive Driving

Peak torque coming on at 2,000 RPM gives the occupants of a turbo Mazda 6 a satisfying sensation of speed straight off a stop, but it drops off almost immediately and it’d be an exaggeration to say the car feels like anything resembling “fast.”

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In cornering, the body remains pretty flat and the steering is consistent but there’s not a lot of satisfaction to suck out of linking turns in this car. It just doesn’t feel lively enough to inspire any real driving enthusiasm. And when you do start to push it, there just isn’t a strong sensation of speed to be rewarded with.

Putting the transmission into “Sport” mode, the only adjustment you can make to the car’s performance, lets the engine generate a little more noise but doesn’t do much as far as making an appreciable change in the car’s behavior.

Manually shifting with the paddles or console shifter feels like busywork, and the plastic on the paddles is not as nice as any other material in the Mazda 6’s interior.

Having had the chance to drive an outgoing Mazda 6 with the non-turbo engine and a three-pedal manual, let me tell you, that’s the one to get if you want to “feel alive” while driving. The old car’s six-speed stick is remarkably satisfying with decisive shifts, a direct clutch and an easy right-hand throw.

Yes, you have to rev it up a little higher to make the car scoot, but shifting yourself makes the drive feel so much more special than the big boost of low-end torque coming from the new engine. And yet Mazda is only choosing to offer the stick in the cheapest possible base model of the 6 this year.

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“But since the power is so low, you’d just be short-shifting all the time,” one of Mazda’s people said in response to my complaints about the Signature trim’s lack of a six-speed. “Not enough people would buy it,” came the refrain. Yet in the same presentation, Mazda’s marketing folks bragged about the fact that the Mazda 3 sells well in the upmarket Grand Touring configuration with a manual.

So if you want to drive hard, the Mazda 6 isn’t really the right car for you. But if you want to have fun, the slower stick version still makes for a more engaging experience than the objectively superior automatic.

Value

Speaking of the slower stick version, I think the $23,000 Mazda 6 Sport is the one to get. That sets you up with an extremely nice looking sedan, a generous amount of room for four adults, LED headlights, blind spot alerts plus impressive gas mileage and a smooth-shifting stick shift.

The nicer versions of the Mazda 6 are just that, nicer, but the basic car is going to be good to drive and looks like a much better deal. Once you’re spending north of $30,000, the 252 HP Honda Accord Sport manual starts being a pretty enticing rival in spite of its pug-like inelegant snout.

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Verdict 

It’s pretty clear from Mazda’s marketing strategy that the company still wants to be the Zoom-Zoom brand with a livelier take on every segment it competes in.

I think the CX-5 crossover succeeds at out-sporting its rivals—though admittedly, the bar for fun is lower in the crossover world—and the Miata remains a bastion of practical performance. But the 2018 Mazda 6 feels more like a sensibly priced luxury vehicle than a spirited sedan.

The turbocharged version is a more competent car than the base manual, but nothing could convince me that it’s more interesting to drive. It feels like Mazda has decided people think they want to be sporty, but would actually rather pay for comfort and design, and I think the company may very well be right. “Affordable luxury” does seem to have broader appeal than “practical performance,” but that’s kind of a shame because I’d love to be able to say that the Mazda 6 is a sensible execution of the Alfa Giulia. Or, even, a four-door version of the Mazda Miata.

The turbo 2018 Mazda 6 is a very good, solid car. Just don’t count on it fill the hole in your heart that happened when you sold your sports car or motorbike.

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