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2018 Mazda MAZDA6 Test Drive Review
With a new top-tier trim, redesigned interior and a new turbocharged engine, the Mazda6 hopes to take on some upscale competition.
Mazda is faced with unique challenges because it operates without the benefit of an upscale brother brand. When a Toyota buyer wants a little extra, she can look to Lexus. Nissan has Infinity, and Volkswagen has Audi. But Mazda has to work alone to carve out its own share of the luxury car industry. That means a single model often has to offer value at the low end and luxury at the high end. With a slight redesign, a new Signature trim, and the addition of the turbocharged 2.5-liter engine from the CX-9, the Mazda6 can finally fill the more expensive end of that bill.
Look and Feel
The best-driving mid-size sedan on the market might be the best looking as well. Elegant, almost feminine lines complement bulging, masculine fenders and an aggressive stance, presenting a pleasing aesthetic balance and a sharp profile. Every Mazda6 enjoys a refreshed front fascia this year, as well as a redesigned dashboard layout with upgraded materials. The intent is to raise the level of luxury across the line, a move that peaks with the new Signature trim. But the Mazda6 starts with the Sport trim, where a $22,845 starting price gets you a naturally-aspirated 2.5-liter engine good for 187 hp and 186 lb-ft of torque. The base transmission is a 6-speed manual, although an optional 6-speed automatic exists for $1050. With standard LED headlights, push-button start, and an 8-inch infotainment touchscreen, the Sport has some nice surprises for an entry-level trim, but it’s the standard blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, and rear-view camera that really impress. If safety is your jam, the $625 i-Activesense package will add forward-collision warning with automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise, and lane-departure warning with lane-keep assist.
The MSRP jumps to $26,595 if you move up to the Touring trim, but I think many will consider this the de facto base trim for its inclusion of features like 19-inch wheels, keyless entry, a sunroof, auto wipers and high beams, heated front seats with driver power and faux leather. This trim also adds some luxury for rear passengers with an armrest featuring two built-in USB charging powers, and rear vents in the center console. The manual transmission is no longer available above the Sport trim.
Grand Touring trims offer several important upgrades at a $30,095 starting price. An upgraded infotainment system, 11-speaker stereo, navigation, satellite radio, and the introduction of forced induction by way of the turbocharged, 2.5-liter engine from the CX-9. With 250 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque sent through a 6-speed automatic, it’s enough to change the character of the Mazda6.
It’s not until the Grand Touring Reserve trim and its $32,595 asking price that the front passenger gets power-adjustable seat, but the GTR (ha!) makes up for this seemingly minor feature's delayed arrival by adding a heated steering wheel and a memory system for the driver. Faux leather gets updated to the real McCoy, and the rear seats gain heat while the fronts gain ventilation. For safety, the front LEDs gain adaptive operation with turn following, and a head-up display keeps your eyes on the road. It also adds a rear spoiler, but otherwise, the Grand Touring Reserve is indistinguishable from lower trims.
The big news this year is the Signature trim. For $35,645, Mazda is hoping it can add some extra luxury and keep people from moving to those upmarket brands. To that end, they’ve included luxuries like a new gunmetal grille, a digital cluster, front and rear parking sensors, a 360-degree camera, and experiential upgrades like a frameless rear-view mirror, LED interior lighting, and upgraded materials like Nappa leather, microfiber faux suede, and real wood trim. I spent a week in a Signature trim with the Snowflake White paint job ($200), metal scuff plates ($125) and a cargo mat ($75). With an $890 destination and delivery fee, that brought the total to $36,040.
The Mazda6 starts with a rather formidable 2.5-liter, inline 4-cylinder engine offering 187 hp and 186 lb-ft of torqueenough to move the Mazda6 to 60 mph in around 7.5 seconds. This has always been a pleasant engine, with enough grunt to make things happen without much drama on the side. Even better, this engine gains cylinder deactivation this year, and new EPA estimates place it at 26 city mpg and 35 highway for 29 combined.
If you’re a fan of manual transmissions, the 6 has a rather fun one for its base Sport trim, although it can feel a little over-damped. Most shoppers, however, will want to start at higher trim levels, and the good news is that the 6-speed automatic transmission standard above the Sport trim manages to do its job quite well, despite being a few cogs down on the competition. Athletic, responsive handling, and a stiff chassis make driving the Mazda6 a joy, and its precise steering sets a bar for the rest of the segment to achieve.
But if it’s power you’re after, the addition of forced induction into the 2.5-liter recipe should interest you. 250 hp and a gobsmacking 310 lb-ft of torque in a FWD car equal loads of wheelspin if you want it, though strangely no torque steer. Kudos to Mazda for engineering around that. I remember when it was said that 200 hp and torque was the theoretical limit for a FWD car, and Mazda seems to have ignored that wisdom quite well. Here, the 60 sprint should take a little over 6 seconds thanks to some unique engineering that helps the turbo spool up more quickly than usual.
A butterfly valve in the exhaust closes at low rpms to force higher-pressure air into the turbo, which means you get to access the full power of the 2.5 much earlier. And despite being saddled with a less-than-state-of-the-art 6-speed automatic, it still manages to return 23 city, 31 highway and 26 combined mpg. To be fair, that’s a little behind some of the competition, but the competition is a little behind the 6’s power.
A special note is needed here. While the Mazda 6’s 2.5T engine can run on 93 octane or 87, putting in the latter means you’ll lose 23 horses worth of power. That’s a hell of a sacrifice for a pretty substantial price difference at the pump, but at least you’ll still have all those delicious lb-ft off the line. You’ll most likely notice this difference during passing maneuvers, so pay attention when you fill up to see if the extra power is worth the price of admission.
Form and Function
In a further attempt to increase overall luxury, Mazda added or updated more than 70 parts in the 6's interior to combat the bane of the industry: noise, vibration, and harshness (NVH). With the redesigned dashboard and upgraded materials, the interior of the Mazda6 is a nice place to spend some time. Large, comfortable seats offer plenty of room for adjustment (even for my lanky frame), and the back seat is large enough for most adults.
My major complaint centers around the windows, which can feel small and slightly claustrophobic for taller drivers. Visibility wasn’t impeded to a dangerous degree, but I generally like seeing more greenhouse in my sedans—though this is the price you pay for such an attractive exterior.
A large trunk with a wide, low opening makes loading a breeze, but the 14.7 cubic feet of space puts it a full cube behind the Passat and two behind the Accord. Where the Mazda6 really shines is with its turning radius. 18.35’ puts it just a hair behind class leader Passat which manages 18.2. To do better than that requires a shorter wheelbase than you’ll find in the segment or 4-wheel steering like you get with the Lexus IS.
There’s good news and bad news on the technology front this year. Despite the dash redesign, the divisive Mazda Connect system remains in place with its rotary dial control and a touchscreen that doesn't respond to touch unless the vehicle is in park. Personally, I understand the criticisms of this system, and while it’ll never be the best on the market in my opinion, it’s still a well-design system and you definitely get used to the rotary control after a short while. The fact that your screen won’t be covered in fingerprints is just a bonus.
The available head-up display is one of the best on the market, with real-time traffic sign recognition and turn-by-turn guidance, but it’s the 360-degree camera that truly disappoints with a low-res display that left me feeling Mazda could do better. The Signature’s digital dash is a welcome upgrade that I’d love to see available as on option on lower trims, and the LED courtesy lighting does a lot to upgrade the interior ambiance.
But the big news for tech fans is that the embargo on smartphone integration is finally over. 2018 models can return to the dealer starting in July to receive an update that will include Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, and every Mazda will ship with both starting in December. Better late than never!
This is perhaps my favorite aspect of the Mazda6. The base Sport trim comes standard with blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic and a rear-view camera. And if you want to upgrade to the full suite of safety systems available, it’s just a $625 ticket. That’s exactly how it should be, and the Mazda6 does quite well in safety tests. The government’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has awarded the Mazda6 a 5-star rating in all tests excepting rollover and front passenger side tests, which garnered 4 stars.
Braking is a bit disappointing, however. 127 feet to stop from 60 mph puts it at a 10-foot disadvantage to some of the competition thanks to the curious decision to shoe the 6 with 225/45R19 Falken Ziex ZE001 all-season tires. These are SUV/crossover tires and are likely also responsible for the mountains of wheelspin the Mazda6 is capable of producing. A stickier tire would improve braking, acceleration, and handling, but at the cost of reduced fuel economy. Given the Mazda6 was already behind the competition—most of which is working with 8, 9, or even 10-speed transmissions, I can see the dilemma Mazda's engineers faced. Still, I’d always choose safety over a couple extra mpgs, and changing those tires would be my first move if I were to buy.
The Mazda6 presents a very tempting price profile, whether you’re at the top or the bottom of the trim lineup. The Sport offers a full safety package for a very low price point, while the Signature can compete with offerings from Audi, Lexus, and Acura with little trouble and at a lower price.
I would consider including the cost of replacement tires in my purchase price, but that still leaves the Mazda6 in a competitive position, and after the swap you’ll have a vehicle that performs better in nearly every category. If fuel economy or trunk space are you primary concerns, there are others in the segment that simply do better, but if driving dynamics, style, and value rank high on your list, the Mazda6 should too. Even better, there are currently several customer cash and loyalty bonus offers available from Mazda.
A CarGurus contributor since 2008, Michael started his career writing about cars with the SCCA - winning awards during his time as editor of Top End magazine. Since then, his journalistic travels have taken him from NY to Boston to CA, completing a cross-country tour on a restored vintage Suzuki. While his preference is for fine German automobiles - and the extra leg room they so often afford - his first automobile memories center around impromptu Mustang vs. Corvette races down the local highway, in the backseat of his father's latest acquisition.
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