A midsize family sedan can't rely on looks alone, however, as substance is still at the heart of this market. Evaluated by this measuring stick, the Mazda6 still fares well, delivering a driving experience that's on the sporty side and a mostly high-grade interior. The Mazda6's only real miss — fuel economy — is more significant than ever, but if any midsize sedan has the ability to get buyers to overlook gas mileage figures that are a little behind the class leaders, it's this one.
A Winning Design
I'll admit that I wasn't sold on the Mazda6's new look when I first saw photos of the car. I'd already been a fan of the first-generation's lithe shape, considering it one of the best-looking family sedans available. The second-generation 2009 Mazda6 is one of those cars that you need to see in person to get a good sense of, and considering that it's on sale now, you should be able to find one near you if you want to see it for yourself.
The new Mazda6's front fenders will be among its most controversial elements; they're reminiscent of recent Mazda concept cars like the Ryuga. There's a dramatic bulge in the fenders that tapers off toward the front doors. The design is also readily apparent when viewing the car head-on.
Another interesting cue is the slit-like headlights. They're similar in shape to the ones on the Ryuga, and they make a striking design statement as they flow into the front fenders. I don't really like the body-colored grille Mazda has given the car. I would prefer something in chrome, which I think would go nicely with the slim headlights (see a side-by-side comparison with the 2008 model).
Some automakers have trouble finishing the final quarter of a sedan with styling that ties the whole car together — the new Honda Accord and Chevrolet Malibu come to mind — but the Mazda6 avoids this trap with a nicely styled rear end. The sleek roofline tapers downward to the short trunklid, and the rear is finished with wraparound taillights. It follows the smooth, flowing styling of the front of the car, which makes it work well.
Ride & Handling
In keeping with Mazda's tagline of offering "Zoom-Zoom" cars, the Mazda6's suspension tuning is on the firm side for a midsize sedan; if you've driven some of its competitors, it's much more similar to a Nissan Altima's taut ride than a Toyota Camry's relaxed suspension. While this kind of suspension tuning means you're more likely to feel bumps or holes in the road — some of which hit quite hard — it pays off when you get on a winding country road, where the Mazda6 handles corners quite nicely and resists body roll.
Wheels and tires can affect a car's ride quality, and the Mazda6 is offered with a number of different setups. Sixteen-inch steel wheels are standard, but I tested cars with 17- and 18-inch alloy wheels. The sedan with the 18-inch rims — which also have the lowest-series tires — had a slightly firmer ride than the one with 17-inch wheels and taller tires.
It doesn't take much muscle to guide the Mazda6 through corners, as its steering effort is on the light side. It's very responsive, though, as the smallest turns of the wheel make the car change direction. My one complaint with the setup is that it's too easy to turn the wheel when cruising along on, say, the highway. At times like this, it's nice to have the steering wheel feel a little heavier for enhanced straight-line tracking. The Mazda6's steering system doesn't have this sensation, though, which opens up the possibility for unwanted skittishness.
Going & Stopping
The new Mazda6 is available with one of two engines, and both offer capable performance for what they are. The base engine is a 2.5-liter four-cylinder that produces 170 horsepower (a cleaner version that makes 168 hp is sold in California and other more-restrictive states). The optional 3.7-liter V-6 makes a healthy 272 hp.
Mazda expects the four-cylinder to account for 70 percent of sales. It's a smooth engine, albeit one that doesn't make the greatest sounds. It offers decent but not overwhelming power, and it didn't have trouble maintaining a 70-75 mph cruising speed on the highway.
The four-cylinder teams with a standard six-speed manual transmission — which replaces the five-speed used in the previous version of the car — or a five-speed automatic.
The manual transmission offers an enjoyable shifting experience. The gear selector moves between gears with a solid yet slick feel, and the short-throw shifter allows you to make quick shifts. Overall, it's a very precise gearbox.
The clutch is also worth highlighting because it's very easy to get used to it; you'll be modulating the gas and clutch pedals to hold the car on inclines before you know it. The pedal doesn't require an excessive amount of pressure to depress, but in heavy stop-and-go traffic my left leg started to tire nonetheless.
A manual typically makes a lightly powered engine perform better than it would with an automatic, but with the Mazda6 the manual does more to expose the four-cylinder's lack of low-end power than it does to hide it. Accelerating in first gear from a standstill yields modest response unless the engine is revved very hard. It's not until you get some momentum and shift into second gear that the four-cylinder begins to pull with more authority.
I also drove an automatic-equipped four-cylinder sedan. The transmission didn't make any unpleasant shifts, but I was even more impressed with its clutchless-manual mode; nudging the console gear selector forward for downshifts and backward for upshifts elicited a nearly immediate response from the transmission without any delay in shifting — a big turnoff that's often associated with these things.
I drove the V-6 model, too, which is only offered with a six-speed automatic transmission (a manual was available with the V-6 in the previous-generation Mazda6). The extra power of the V-6 is most appreciated when accelerating at highway speeds, around 60 mph; the sedan lunges forward with an urgency that's just not there with the four-cylinder. Interestingly, the six-speed automatic's clutchless-manual mode doesn't offer the quick response of the five-speed automatic that's teamed with the four-cylinder — there's a delay between when you nudge the gear selector and when the transmission shifts.
Where the Mazda6's drivetrains come up short is fuel efficiency. This car was developed before the recent increase in gas prices, but so were a number of other newer cars on the market that get significantly better mileage than the Mazda6.
|Gas Mileage Compared (city/highway, mpg)*|
|4-cyl. manual||4-cyl. automatic||V-6 automatic|
|2009 Chevrolet Malibu||--||22/33**||17/26|
|2009 Hyundai Sonata||21/32||22/32||19/29|
|2009 Nissan Altima||23/32||23/31||19/26|
|2009 Toyota Camry||21/31||21/31||19/28|
|2009 Honda Accord||22/31||21/30||19/29|
|2008 Volkswagen Passat sedan FWD||20/29||19/28||17/26|
|*Sorted from best to worst according to four-cylinder automatic ratings.|
**With optional six-speed automatic transmission; rating is 22/30 mpg with the standard four-speed automatic.
As with its steering system, the Mazda6 doesn't demand much effort from the driver when braking — pressing the pedal lightly brings strong, natural response.
Larger Dimensions, Larger Cabin
One of the big changes for the second-generation Mazda6 is that the U.S. gets its own version that's been enlarged to meet the demands of the American market, according to Mazda. Even though the U.S. and European Mazda6s look remarkably similar, they have significantly different dimensions; the U.S. version is 193.7 inches long, 72.4 inches wide and 57.9 inches tall, making it 7.3 inches longer, 1.7 inches wider and 1.2 inches taller than the European model. That model is similar in size to the previous-generation U.S. Mazda6.
The primary benefit of a bigger car should be more room for passengers, and that's how it adds up for the new Mazda6, which has 101.9 cubic feet of passenger volume, compared to 96.1 cubic feet in the prior car. The new Mazda6 beats the old one in terms of legroom, headroom, hip room and shoulder room, too.
In addition to its larger dimensions, the new Mazda6 has a redesigned interior. It features mostly upscale materials, which helps the car keep pace with the Accord's high-quality interior, but the shiny, hard plastic trim on the lower part of the dash seems out of place in a newly upgraded model.
If you're familiar with the previous Mazda6 you'll note the new design's evolutionary nature. Where the old cabin had an upright center control panel, the one in the new sedan is angled outward. The upper portion of the dashboard has a nicely textured soft-touch surface, and below it my Grand Touring test car had interesting black-grained trim, which added some visual appeal to the cabin.
The front bucket seats offer firm cushioning that doesn't have a lot of give to it. Even though the Mazda6 is positioned as a sport sedan, the bucket seats don't have a lot of side bolstering, but I didn't wish for more when I drove it. Cloth seats are standard and leather-upholstered ones are optional.
Though the backseat feels a little smaller than the Accord's or Camry's, the difference is minimal, as the Mazda6 offers good space for taller adults, and the backrest is positioned at a comfortable angle.
Larger dimensions also result in a larger trunk for the new Mazda6, which now measures 16.6 cubic feet. That's up from the old car's 15.2 cubic feet, and it's larger than key competitors like the Accord (14 cu. ft.), Camry (15), Altima (15.3) and Malibu (15.1) offer.
The standard 60/40-split backseat can fold down when you need more cargo room, and when it's folded the back of the seat is flat with the cargo floor, forming an uninterrupted plane for laying long items flat. It's a nicely executed design overall.
A solid list of safety features is the price of entry in the family sedan arena these days, and the Mazda6 has standard all-disc antilock brakes, side-impact airbags for the front seats, side curtain airbags and an electronic stability system.
Mazda also offers a blind-spot warning system that keeps track of the area on either side of the Mazda6 and displays an icon in the side mirrors to warn when it may be unwise to change lanes. If you put your turn signal on anyway, it'll sound a warning tone. While there is arguably some safety benefit to this system, I find it largely unnecessary because if you properly position your side mirrors you can eliminate nearly all of the blind spots around you.
In the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's frontal-offset crash test, the Mazda6 received a Good overall rating — the highest score possible. There are six individual scores that factor into the overall rating, and the Mazda6 received Good scores on all but right leg and foot protection, which rated Marginal. As of publication, the IIHS hasn't subjected the Mazda6 to its side- or rear-impact crash tests.
Mazda offers Sport, Touring and Grand Touring trim levels for both four-cylinder and V-6 sedans, with increasing levels of equipment in each. There's also a budget-minded SV four-cylinder trim level that includes standard 16-inch steel wheels, air conditioning with a pollen filter, a tilt/telescoping steering wheel and a CD stereo with steering-wheel controls.
Sport models add cruise control, remote keyless entry and an auxiliary input jack for playing a portable music player through the audio system. When powered by the V-6 engine, Sport models also get 17-inch alloy wheels.
The midrange Touring gains 17-inch alloy wheels, fog lights, electroluminescent gauges, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter, push-button ignition, a trip computer, a power-adjustable driver's seat and an alarm system. With the V-6, 18-inch alloy rims and tires replace the 17 inchers.
The top-of-the-line Grand Touring gets automatic xenon headlights, LED taillights, heated and dimming outside mirrors, rain-sensing windshield wipers, the blind-spot warning system, automatic dual-zone air conditioning, heated leather front seats with a driver's-side memory feature, a power passenger seat, and Bluetooth cell phone connectivity. Choosing the V-6 brings 18-inch alloy wheels, too.
A touch-screen navigation system for the Grand Touring trim is a stand-alone option, and the Moonroof and Bose package for Touring and Grand Touring models includes a moonroof, Sirius Satellite Radio and a six-CD Bose audio system.
Mazda6 in the Market
The new Mazda6 has a lot of things going for it. Its unique styling manages to be original without being off-putting, it offers an engaging driving experience for a family sedan, and it has a spacious interior that uses good-quality materials. It's everything that a car going up against the likes of the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry needs to be to have a chance.
What remains to be seen is whether Mazda has improved its reliability. While it wasn't terrible, a look at Consumer Reports' vehicle reliability histories reveals some trouble spots for the previous-generation car. Tim Barnes, Mazda's director of product planning and strategy, said one of the automaker's goals with the new car is best-in-class initial quality. That's important for sure, but long-term dependability is how brands like Honda and Toyota have built a loyal following, and it's what Mazda needs from the new Mazda6 for it to be considered among the best in this segment once its newness has worn off.
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