Since its debut in 2002, the Mazda6 has been the plucky alternative family sedan. Offered with a performance turbocharged engine, all-wheel-drive, and a manual gearbox as the sole transmission offering, the Mazda6 has been the hot-handling counterpoint to stalwarts like the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.
But fast forward to 2019. These days, virtually any sedan you can name off the top of your head is being overwhelmed in the marketplace by crossovers and SUVs. So what happens when you become the alternative to the alternative?
Third time’s the charm
Credit where it’s deserved to Mazda Canada for not giving up even though it has three successful SUVs in the form of the CX-3, CX-5, and CX-9.
Yet if Mazda isn’t giving up on the family sedan market, it is giving in somewhat to the desires of sedan consumers. For the third time in five model years, the Mazda 6 receives a makeover for 2018. Mazda has exchanged some of the 6’s athleticism, in favor of the plush, premium feel and fuel economy that sedan buyers tend to prioritize.
The once-rackety Mazda has suddenly become one of the quietest, most luxurious sedans in its set, especially in higher-priced trims like the Signature model I drove.
It’s certainly more of an evolution rather than a revolution with subtly evolved exterior styling, a refreshed interior, and an additional engine option being the three most obvious upgrades and updates.
The big news here is the 6’s new turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder, borrowed from the company’s 7 passenger Mazda CX-9 SUV. This engine choice slots above the standard non-turbo 2.5-liter four cylinder, which now adopts cylinder deactivation and adds slightly more horsepower and torque.
Every 2018 Mazda 6 also includes an electronic parking brake, LED headlights, and a brand new 7.0-inch full-color instrument cluster display.
As your parents always told you, never judge a book by its cover because it’s what is on the inside that counts. Not only does the Mazda 6 carry forth its handsome exterior appearance, but its revised interior wows even more now with luxury-grade materials and a mature, expensive-looking design.
It wouldn’t be too far fetched to say that the Mazda6’s interior can easily compete with the similar entry-luxury vibe of a Genesis G70 or an Acura TLX. From the soft chestnut-colored stitched Nappa leather to the ultrasuede trim on the dash, to lightweight but precise clicks exuded from Mazda’s knurled-metal controls, everything feels a step more premium than its class.
My Signature trimmed Mazda6 even came with a Grey-brown Sen wood, a timber used in Japanese drums and furniture. And even the bright satin finish aluminum trim is actually made from real metal, not just metal-like aluminum.
While the iDrive like central commander is hooked up to the an infotainment system that isn’t quite as slick or as comprehensive as BMW’s system, it is easy-to-use and now includes support for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as standard equipment.
This isn’t just a software and hardware upgrade limited to the Mazda6, but virtually every model in their model range (Mazda3, MX-5, CX-3, CX-5, CX-9) going back as far back as 2014.
New for the 2018 model year is the addition of a top-down surround view camera, with the ability to toggle through curbside view for parallel parking precision. The camera quality is perhaps not quite as clear as that of premium luxury brands, but it’s certainly better than average.
Mazda says that customer feedback showed that consumers wanted the Mazda6 to be quieter.
Therefore, they took great pains to reduce the 6’s interior noise level. To get an idea as to the lengths they went to, consider the fact that their engineers added sound-deadening material to 20 body panels, the doors, and the firewall.
Even the shape of the front door pillars were subtly altered so that air would move more quietly over them at speed. My Signature-trim Mazda6 goes even further with new acoustic-laminated front window glass.
All of this hard work has paid off as the 6 is now luxury-car quiet, even at highway speeds.
For years, Mazda’s 6 has exclusively been powered by a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine making 184 horsepower. That engine, now making 187 horsepower still serves as the 6’s base engine. However, new for the rest of the lineup is a new 2.5-litre turbocharged 250 hp four cylinder from the CX-9. This engine actually shares two power ratings depending on the type of fuel you use. 227 hp on 87-octane, and 250 on 91-octane.
This max torque figure, by the way, is regardless of fuel octane level. The almost immediate max torque delivery makes the Mazda6 feel substantially more responsive during merging and passing maneuvers, especially compared to its main competitors such as the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. It also shines when on hill climbs, such as enroute to Whistler BC via the twisty Sea-to-Sky highway.
Mazda is also one of the few automakers that remains committed to offering its mainstream cars with manual transmissions. To get one in the Mazda 6, you’re limited to the base models with its lower-output, non-turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. Every other Mazda 6 comes standard with a six-speed automatic transmission.
I’m glad that Mazda has thought to include a pair of steering wheel mounted paddle shifters to help to make the driving experience a bit more interesting.
Although not a bad gearbox in its own right, you find that the 6-speed auto shifts up or down nowhere as quickly as the ZF 8-speed gearboxes in more premium makes. And it’s too bad as it would help to add to the Mazda’s perky, fun to drive nature, a unique selling point against many rivals. That being said, as far as adding to the “fun to drive” factor, I’d take this 6-speed auto over the Honda Accord’s CVT transmission any day.
How does it drive?
Mazda has always done things a little differently than others. Despite the Mazda 6 operating in a very conservative market sector, there is more to this car than just a family sedan.
In addition to the new engine choice and drastically reducing interior noise levels, Mazda took things a step further by re-tuning the chassis as well. Careful tuning of the springs, dampers, and bushings ensure the ride is more comfortable than before.
The game has also been upped with a crisper steering rack that responds better to driver inputs. This fast-reacting steering contributes to the car’s agile handling, and its steady, absorbent ride and quiet cabin. All in all, it feels substantially more premium than its price tag.
Slick, sorted gear shifts, consistent and considered control weights and engines that focus more on execution than pure numbers are all core elements that make many Mazdas the unsung driving heroes in their respective classes.
To that point, even when equipped with its new turbocharged engine, the Mazda 6 is not class-leadingly quick. This isn’t a car chasing eyebrow-raising performance numbers. But what the Mazda6 delivers in lieu of blistering acceleration is smoothness. Mazda’s engineers have tuned the turbocharged engine to take advantage of the automatic transmission’s relatively few six gears.
Relying on the engine’s torque more than gear changes, the 6 spends less time hunting around and shifting down to pass or accelerate, and its engine’s throttle response is crisp and satisfying particularly for a turbocharged motor.
As you would expect, advanced active and passive safety and driver assistance features are fitted to the Mazda6, with most being standard equipment. This includes radar-guided cruise control, lane departure warning, blindspot warning, and collision mitigation automatic emergency braking.
A wonderfully crisp full-coloured Heads-Up Display (HUD) rounds out the package. Kudos to Mazda for being one of only a couple of manufacturers to integrate the blind-spot warning display into the HUD. I’m not sure why more manufacturers don’t think of doing this.
You might have been expecting this review of the new Mazda6 to have been rather pedestrian. After all, the family sedan market is what we’re talking about here. But under the skin and inside the cabin, the new Mazda 6 has been through a wonderfully thorough refresh, even if the basic ingredients are much the same.
The improved lower, wider, and more aggressive stance aside, the way the refreshed Mazda6’s engine, suspension, steering, and brakes work together is supremely satisfying and makes tackling a winding road more fun than ever.
This all makes perfect sense from a company who abides by the design philosophy of “Jinba Ittai”, which essentially speaks to the symbiotic relationship developed over time by a horse and rider.
Is this the sort of family car that we should all be buying, rather than the arguably compromised SUVs and crossovers? That remains for you to decide, Mr and Ms Consumer.