This Mazda6 is a bit of an exotic creature around the Automobile Magazine office, not because it's an exotic car -- it's not -- but because it's essentially a base model. In fact, with a manual transmission and all of two menial options, it's almost a true stripper car. Paint it in a different color and needle your local Mazda sales advisor, and you might be able to score one of these for a cool 21 grand.
It's that price that makes up for a bit of the 6i Sport's shortcomings. The transmission has beautiful throws and it's refreshing to have a mid-size sedan let you row your own gears, but the clutch and engine vvvvvvibbbrrrrraaatttteeee a bit too much on initial take-off. The engine can sound a bit coarse towards the top of the tach, and the steering's numb, overboosted nature would make an RX-8 engineer weep.
But that's what you get for spending 21K on a mid-size sedan -- a bargain. Set aside those minor niggles and the 6 is actually very good, a spritely sedan that easily shrugs off its heft and likes to have fun. Unlike, say, the Nissan Altima, the 6 has more flavor. Whereas an Altima driver would be shocked to know that his/her car is made by the same people that invented the GT-R, I was ever-so-slightly reminded last night that my 6 sedan shares a badge with the small and mighty MX-5 Miata.
Ben Timmins, Associate Web Editor
Talk about irony: I've driven several Mazda6s, but not one equipped with Mazda's 272-hp, 3.7-liter unit. Instead, each car I've sampled has been fitted with the same 170-hp, 2.5-liter I-4 that can also be found in the smaller Mazda3 and Mazda5 model ranges. I might be missing two cylinders and a hundred horsepower, but I never really feel as if I'm missing out on something more. The 2.5-liter provides a respectable amount of midrange torque, and manages to hustle the 3272-pound 6 forward at a surprisingly brisk pace.
Evan McCausland, Associate Web Editor
Virtually every midsize sedan offers a stripper model, denoted by its stick shift, cloth seats, and limited options, and yet these row-your-own four-doors account for a tiny percentage of total midsize sedan sales.
My theory is that those who want to shift for themselves are of a more sporting bent, and the base-model midsize sedan driving experience otherwise has little to entice them. And buyers looking for the best possible price on a midsize sedan are often put off by a manual transmission.
That's too bad, because these cars offer a lot for the money. They have the space to seat four adults -- even an occasional fifth. Their trunks are roomy, and usually expandable via fold-down rear seatbacks. Their fuel economy often meets, or beats, that of much smaller compacts. They also usually provide a relaxed highway ride.
Although the Mazda6 Sport is of this class, a close examination reveals that it's not at the top of the class. Its fuel economy trails various versions of the Camry, the Sonata/Optima, the Altima, the Fusion, the Malibu, the Passat, and even the all-wheel-drive Legacy. In fact, despite being a six-speed, the manual transmission version of the Mazda6 can't quite match the fuel economy of the automatic. The easy clutch and light shift action are pleasant, but the shifter can be balky when moving into first or reverse.
Space inside is quite good, but the radically sloping rear door opening threatens the head of rear-seat passengers. Switchgear is simple and steering-wheel-mounted audio controls are included, but Bluetooth is not. The cloth seat upholstery isn't the best I've seen but it's not the worst, either.
Sure, there's a lot of value here, but there's just as much value in the base-model versions of the Mazda6's newer competitors.
Joe Lorio, Senior Editor
As Joe Lorio notes, the mid-size sedan segment relegates the stick shift to bargain basement models. I can generally see the logic to this - most midsize buyers have no interest in a manual - but I expected better from the "Zoom Zoom" brand. I hoped the Mazda 6 would drive less like a decontented midsize car and more like a slightly larger version of the 3, my favorite small car. These hopes are more or less delivered when you're traveling in a straight line. The six-speed manual feels precise and nicely weighted, and the big four-cylinder - bordering on overkill in the 3 - moves the 6 with satisfying verve. Alas, a sharp turn of the wheel spoils any fun. Whereas the 3 is the most nimble car in its segment, the 6 understeers, just like any other midsize offering. Larger wheels, would probably help quite a bit.
The lack of enthusiast appeal is hardly a deal breaker in a segment so focused on roominess and fuel economy, but the 6 isn't a leader in those areas, either. The 6 is due for a refresh, but in the meantime, an infusion of sporty Mazda DNA would help it stand out.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor
I left the office very late on Monday night after a fourteen-hour day helping put the March issue of Automobile Magazine to bed. I walked up to the red Toyota Camry in the dimly lit parking structure. The car was parked front end out. As I drove home, I marveled at the nice clutch action, the fluid manual gearshift lever, and the impressive body control, all of which seemed to be quite sporting for a Camry, even the new one. But I missed the stitched dash materials that I have admired in other 2012 Camrys I've driven and I thought, well, I guess they don't offer those in this base model. I pulled into my driveway at about midnight, utterly exhausted, and walked into my house and went to bed.
The next morning, I got in the car and wondered, what model of Camry exactly is this, anyway? So I looked at the key, because media evaluation cars usually have a key fob tag with details on the particular model, and to my utter embarrassment I realized I was driving a Mazda 6. Ooops.
Joe DeMatio, Deputy Editor
I find my colleagues' talk about this Mazda 6 as a "stripper" model mildly amusing. I guess stripper models have changed since the time I went shopping for my first new car in 1981. Back then, I was enticed into a VW dealership by an ad for a Rabbit for, I believe, about $6000. When I got to the dealership, there was only one car at that price, and it didn't come with either carpet (a vinyl mat covered the floor) or a radio. Not to mention air-conditioning or cruise control, which back in those days were definitely up-scale options. So when I got into this Mazda 6, it didn't strike me as a bargain basement model. Sure, it has a four-cylinder engine and a manual transmission, but it also has the aforementioned air-conditioning and cruise control, plus satellite radio; power windows, mirrors, and locks; keyless entry; and an adjustable steering wheel. Oh, and carpet.
This Mazda 6i Sport strikes me as a pretty good deal for someone who needs a family sedan but wants a more interactive driving experience than one usually finds in those cars. No, the four-cylinder isn't likely to send any visceral thrills up the driver's spine, but rowing your own gears brings a certain satisfaction that you just can't get in an automatic transmission car.
Amy Skogstrom, Managing Editor