The good news for Mazda is that, in the month just ended (July), the new 6 midsize sedan saw its sales jump by more than 167 percent over the previous model. The bad news is that figure is still only one-tenth the volume Toyota did with the Camry. Clearly, the midsize sedan arena is one that is dominated by big names with outsized reputations and huge built-in buyer bases. But for those who'd rather not see themselves coming and going, the Mazda 6 provides an alternative take on the midsize sedan formula, one that speaks particularly to enthusiasts.
If Looks Could Thrill
The Mazda 6 does not have the lozenge-like shape that's so common among midsize sedans. The look is purposeful and yet the lines are flowing. For a front-wheel-drive car, the proportions aren't terribly nose-heavy. Compared to the previous model, Mazda was able to shorten the front overhang while stretching the wheelbase. The overall length, however, is no greater. It makes for a more athletic look than you typically see in this class.
Inside, however, isn't quite so stylish. The all-black interior of my test car was relieved only by a bit of red contrast stitching and some dark silver trim. What the interior lacks in style, however, it makes up in function. Three large gauges are easy to read, the climate controls are large round knobs that can be operated by feel, so too can the audio system's volume and tuning knobs. The multifunction navigation screen won't dazzle you with its graphics and the touch points are small but there is a redundant iDrive-style knob controller on the console that works well. Speaking of navigation, this is another Mazda that uses a TomTom system, which lacks detail in its map but is good with its turn-by-turn directions and its ability to reroute you due to traffic.
Alert drivers will appreciate the seating position of the Mazda 6, which seeks not to relax you or give you a Shiatsu massage but to put the driver in a good working relationship with his surroundings. The seat has firm lateral support without being confining. A prominent dead pedal is well placed. You don't look out over a vast expanse of dashboard or around thick A-pillars. Speaking of visibility, the bi-xenon, swiveling headlamps in the Grand Touring model, deserve a special shout-out, as they are truly excellent.
Returning to the subject of the interior, one must acknowledge that rear-seat riders don't fare quite as well here as they do in some competitors (Honda Accord, Nissan Altima), although there is room for a six-footer behind a six-foot driver. Rear-seat headroom is adequate despite the sloping roofline. And padded surfaces are strategically located, front and rear.
The Mazda of Mid-Size Sedans
Once again, as with the Mazda 3 and the CX-5, it's the chassis of the Mazda 6 that surprises by being a standout. Maybe that shouldn't be so surprising anymore. One immediately notices the responsive steering and quick reflexes of what by all rights should be a sleepy family machine/commuter drone. In the 6, Mazda engineers have imparted a firm, almost Germanic suspension, without giving passengers a punishing ride.
A chassis like this makes one wonder what this car could be like with an engine that is equally sporting. As it is, the Mazda 6 uses the corporate 2.5-liter four, which brings to bear a respectable 184 horsepower and 185 pound-feet of torque. With the six-speed automatic transmission (a manual is also available), it makes for adequate if not scintillating acceleration. More importantly, however, it returns excellent fuel economy.
High MPG Without a CVT
At our first encounter with the new Mazda 6 last fall, before EPA estimates were available, Mazda staffers shared their expectation that the 6 would achieve "class-leading" fuel economy. But given that the just-introduced Nissan Altima had been rated at a pretty incredible 27/38 mpg (city/highway), that seemed a very high bar. After all, Mazda, unlike Nissan with the Altima or Honda with the Accord, had (correctly) chosen to go with a six-speed automatic rather than pursue ultimate efficiency -- but sub-ultimate driving satisfaction -- with a CVT. Now that the EPA numbers are in, we see that Mazda is able to match the Altima's class-topping 38 mpg highway figure and that it falls only 1 mpg short in the city, with a rating of 26 mpg -- a very impressive showing. In my week of mostly suburban driving, I got an indicated 31 mpg overall.
Mazda also will soon be selling its Skyactiv 2.2-liter turbodiesel engine in the 6, which should deliver even better fuel economy. That engine, which like its gasoline counterpart will be available with either a six-speed manual or a six-speed automatic, is due to go on sale in the second half of 2013.
With a pleasant and highly efficient base engine, and a mileage-champ diesel on the way, that still leaves open the option of a performance mill -- perhaps a V-6 or a turbo four? True, such a choice would be a niche offering, but it would play to the car's strengths. And as the new 6 already proves, a niche offering can be a very nice offering.