First Drive: 2017 Mazda6 Grand Touring
The driver’s midsize sedan
You're forgiven if you consider the midsize sedan to be the automotive equivalent of the dishwasher. After all, the utilitarian segment is known better for its ability to handle the demands of everyday life than the demands of a twisty canyon road. But not all is bleak for single 20-somethings outgrowing their Mazda3 hatchbacks by becoming married 30-somethings. The 2017 Mazda6 offers plenty of space for the demands of a growing family without making the family's primary members feel like they're giving up.
First, the 6's qualifications for being a good midsize sedan: seating for five with enough space for a 6-foot-3-inch passenger to sit behind a 6'3" driver. The 6 boasts 38.7 inches of rear leg room, 0.2-inch less than a Toyota Camry and 1.2-inches less than the cavernous Volkswagen Passat, almost enough headroom for that rear passenger to not rub their hair on the headliner, and a big-enough trunk for a young family to easily bring what they need for a weekend getaway. (The 6 offers 14.8 cubic feet of cargo space, 0.6 fewer than the Camry and 1.1 fewer than the Passat). Further, noise is limited to what comes through the tires and the ride is smooth, though somewhat firmer than most buyers in the segment expect. The latter is no surprise for a Mazda, as the company continues to infuse its offerings with a splash of fun-to-drive character.
Of course, if you're reading this, you're probably not a typical midsize customer and welcome the firmer ride and more dynamic behaviors that tend to come with the territory. The sportier suspension means less body roll and improved cornering control on interchange ramps and mountain roads alike, while the precise and responsive steering, which offers just the right amount of weight and resistance, will keep you confident you're pointing the wheels in the right direction.
Part of the smile-inducing manners comes from the new-for-2017 G-Vectoring Control technology, which measures throttle inputs and steering-angle sensors — "among other things," per Mazda — and when it deems necessary, retards spark to create the equivalent of eight pounds of engine braking pressure on the front end to increase the contact patch, improving steering stability and turn-in feel.
Mazda says the behavior will "largely go unnoticed." Though it's impossible to determine how significant the benefit to handling feel is without having a similarly-equipped 2016 6 on hand, one thing is certain: the handling feel of the 2017 6 is quite good. Even if you're just navigating traffic, giving the wheel a tug to change lanes is a smile-inducing affair. "That felt good" or something to that effect will flash through your mind as your lips form a smile once you complete your maneuver.
Because of the 6's dynamic nature, the normally vestigial shift paddles are actually worth using. Or the manual shift gate, if you prefer that; in traditional Mazda fashion, it uses a pull back/push forward configuration. Either way, the 2.5-liter I-4 works best when the transmission is in the gear you want it to be in rather than the gear it thinks you want it to be in. The engine makes good use of its 184 hp and 185 lb-ft of torque, but with 3,304 pounds of car to pull, acceleration can hardly be described as spry, with the 6 needing 7.9 seconds to hit 60 mph. Once going, it will regain scrubbed speed fairly quickly, but even in the more-aggressively shifting Sport mode, you may miss that opening in traffic if you didn't pre-select the right gear.
When you shift yourself, the automatic holds gears to the rev limiter instead of upshifting for you, and downshifts as you decelerate. It's an enjoyable configuration, but the Mazda6 might be even more fun with a manual, which is available on the lower Sport and Touring trims.
The strongest selling point of the Grand Touring trim is the active safety package, which includes the usual alphabet soup of crash avoidance systems — blind-spot monitoring, lane-keep assist, rear cross-traffic alert, adaptive front lighting with high-beam control, and active cruise control. It also boasts a pair of pre-crash systems called "Smart City Brake Support," which uses a windshield-mounted laser and automatically brakes at speeds below 20 mph if it believes a collision is impending, and "Smart Brake Support," which uses the same millimeter-wave radar as the active cruise control and intervenes at speeds up to 90 mph, first by alerting the driver, then by applying the brakes.
If safety is a primary concern, it's all great stuff to have except for one glaring flaw: the adaptive cruise control cuts out once you slow to 15 mph, leaving you at the mercy of the laws of physics, which will send you slowly coasting into the car in front unless you're paying close attention. If you're eyeing a car with ACC to make your commute less painful, decide accordingly. That said, Mazda is rolling out a full stop-capable adaptive cruise control system starting with the 2017 CX-5. We'll be surprised not to see it show up on the 2018 6.
Another cool bit of Grand Touring-only tech is the head-up display. It shows information like speed, adaptive cruise control settings, navigation directions, speed limits, and other safety alerts. We'd add a gear indicator to that mix to make the HUD more useful during spirited driving. It's a neat piece of tech to have, but hardly special enough to be dealmaker or breaker.
Our tester also came with the $2,500 Grand Touring Premium Package, a mostly cosmetic equipment group that adds Nappa leather-trimmed upholstery, heated steering wheel and rear seats, a black headliner, bright finish interior trim, LED accent lighting for the shifter, and active grille shutters. Oh, and Mazda's i-ELOOP kinetic energy recovery system — aka KERS for you Formula 1 fans. The system uses an electric double-layer capacitor to capture recovered energy during braking and supplies electric power to the car during acceleration instead of using the battery. As cool as the concept sounds, the practical benefit is a nearly negligible, additional 1 mpg city. But hey, Nappa leather!
In all, the 2017 Mazda6 Grand Touring is a tech-rich offering that will satisfy most enthusiastic buyers in need of a family sedan, but with a base price of $31,570 its not a budget offering. (Our tester rang in at $34,530 including the premium package, $125 door sill trim plates, $75 cargo mat, and $300 for the Soul Red Paint). Those willing to sacrifice some tech and comforts like a Bose Stereo, moonroof, and leather upholstery in exchange for an even more-involving driving experience should opt for the $25,370 Mazda6 Touring with a six-speed manual gearbox. You still get the 19-inch wheels, keyless entry, and blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, and smart city brake support systems while gaining a third pedal. Sure, you have to make do with mere leatherette upholstery, but it's the one we'd get if we needed a midsize sedan but still had to scratch an itch to drive, using the money saved to buy a cheap Miata (what else?) for track use.
2017 Mazda6 I Grand Touring Specifications
|PRICE||$31,570/$34,530 (base) (as tested)|
|ENGINE||2.5L DOHC 16-valve I-4/184 hp @ 5,700 rpm, 185 lb-ft @ 3,250 rpm|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD sedan|
|EPA MILEAGE||27/35 mpg city/hwy|
|L X W X H||191.5 x 72.4 x 57.1 in|
|0-60 MPH||7.9 sec|