In its list of 10 major disappointments for 2014, the esteemed writers at Jalopnik noted, at No. 6, that “people continue to buy cars that aren’t the Mazda3.” Instead, they opted for Civics, Corollas, Cruzes, and Focuses; Mazda’s compact 3 largely got the pass, despite its competence as a daily driver. After spending time behind the wheel of the 3’s older brother — the 6 — I’m pretty sure that same disappointment applies throughout Mazda’s lineup.
Mazda fields an incredibly competitive lineup of vehicles, but for whatever reason, it’s still considered an underdog in most segments as companies like Honda and Toyota walk away with the best-selling trophies each month. Not only are the latest vehicles from Mazda among the most gorgeous in their segment, but they’re uncharacteristically sporty as well, and at the end of the day, they make for a ridiculously good value.
In the midsize segment — where the Mazda6 plays — it used to be that you would generally choose between the lesser of two beiges. Things started to change when Ford revealed its new Fusion in 2013, with Aston-invoking styling that bucked the beige-mobile trend. Toyota followed suit with a more aggressive and bolder-styled Camry, and Mazda — bless its heart — introduced the new 6 in 2014.
The 6 managed to do many things that the rest of the lineup wasn’t yet doing. It didn’t just look the part, it actually is fun to drive. It’s not lacking power, per se, and it’s certainly efficient. In top-spec Touring (the model I drove), it offers many of the amenities you’d find in a luxury car, yet it barely breaches the $30,000 mark before options.
Let’s start with the outside, since it’s usually the first thing one would notice about a car. It’s hard to deny that the Mazda is pretty. At quick glance, it’s easy to confuse it for something much faster than a $30,000 Japanese family sedan. The dual exhaust tips, subtle lip spoiler, and flowing sheet metal ensure the 6 punches above its weight in the appearance department. The Grand Touring version I drove came equipped with some smoky grey-black alloys that definitely brought the car’s appearance together, and offered a nuanced look that made sure the chrome was kept to a minimum.
The good looks aren’t just reserved for outside though. Inside, the Mazda6 is handsome and well-built; the materials — whether plastic or leather — all felt high-end, with a nice heft to them to remind you that you’re not sitting in a base-model.
There’s a nifty little heads-up display with customizable data presentation which, although a cool feature, seems sort of redundant since the gauges were bright and easy to read. Despite the noticeably good looks on the outside, the inside is elegant in its restraint — the colors are fairly muted, the contrasts are kept to a minimum, and the layout is simple. Put together, you have a cockpit with very minimal distraction.
That’s a good thing because it means you can focus more on the driving dynamics of the car. This is where Mazda really excels over its immediate competition. Picture the Miata; it’s one of the finest driving machines for the money. Mazda took the lessons it learned there and seemingly applied them across its stable. In the 6, it means an uncharacteristically taught chassis, weighted yet nimble steering, and minimal body roll through corners.
The Mazda6 offers a choice of engines, as long as its the 184-horsepower 2.5 liter SkyActiv inline-four. Paired with 185 pound-feet of torque, it can manage as much as 40 miles per gallon on the highway, and though its natural aspiration allows for more immediate engine response, I found that it’s probably the weakest component of the car.
It’s not all bad. It sounds pretty good from inside the cabin, with a guttural growl. But getting into the effective powerband doesn’t happen until about 3,000 to 3,200 RPM, which puts a dent in the driver’s ability to thrash the car if so desired. The performance isn’t necessarily worse than the four-cylinders offered in the likes of the Camry or Accord, but unlike the 6, those cars offer a V6 if more power is required.
For regular commuting, the four-cylinder is great. It’s smooth, and works well with the car’s six-speed auto. But it feels like the car’s performance is hamstrung by the inherent limitations of four cylinders. A potent V6 could bring this car into a whole new league, and an all-wheel drive option couldn’t hurt, either.
The ride in the 6 is very comfortable. The seats are well-bolstered — perhaps aggressively so — and despite the sloped roofline and low-slung profile, the drivers’ seat has enough mobility to make headroom a near non-issue for taller drivers. The raked rear roofline does impede rear headroom slightly, but for smaller adults and kids, it’s a non-issue.
The suspension and brakes are nicely tuned to slot between sport and commuter. The brakes are firm but not grabby, and though the suspension is on the firmer side, hitting bumps in the 6 isn’t unpleasant — I remarked that it almost feels like the car is hopping over manhole covers. There’s some pronounced bump, but it’s not harsh in the least.
In all, the Mazda6 is a terrific car and well worth your consideration, especially if you’re set on a midsize sedan. It excels as a commuter car, though its happy cruising at 40 or 50 as well. It’s well-made, well-tuned, and well-put together. But if you’re looking for a car that’s more rewarding when the taps are open, than you might consider looking elsewhere. Perhaps the best thing Mazda could do is release a MazdaSpeed version with a more potent beating heart. But don’t let the absence of a V6 dissuade you from the overwhelming positives that this car offers.