The verdict: Fun to drive, great to look at and difficult to use, the Mazda6 is a fantastic car that’s let down by truly awful multimedia controls.
Versus the competition: It feels tighter inside than some of its competitors, but the Mazda6 is undeniably more engaging and entertaining to drive. Yet while it’s also blessed with a nicer interior, its multimedia strategy prevents it from being competitive with the latest and greatest sedans on the market.
The mid-size sedan class continues to shrink as buyers favor more expensive and spacious mid-size SUVs, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still buyers out there who don’t need or want to sit up high in a faux truck. For them, Mazda forges ahead with its mid-size family sedan, the Mazda6.
For 2021, the Mazda6 gets a new Carbon Edition trim level that amps up its already svelte looks with some additional visual tweaks. The competition is as fierce as it’s ever been, though — perhaps even more so now that the segment’s pool of buyers has shrunk year-over-year. Can the addition of a fun trim package keep the Mazda6 in the running?
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No Shortage of Style
One advantage the Mazda6 has always had over its competitors is its looks. The 2021 Mazda6 is the best-looking mid-size sedan Mazda has ever made, and it’s a damn sight prettier than any of its competitors. The car’s latest styling update has only made it more appealing, with low, swooping fender lines and aggressive cat-eye headlights that evoke comparisons to Jaguars and classic Alfa Romeos — two brands in a class well above the one where Mazda plays.
There’s no anonymous, generic family-sedan styling here; Mazda is carving out a niche for sedan buyers who want more than just a transportation appliance. The Mazda6 stands in stark contrast to the odd lines of the latest Honda Accord, the bizarrely fish-faced Toyota Camry and the utterly generic Nissan Altima and Subaru Legacy. The Carbon Edition adds a little more zoot to the lines, with black metallic-finish 19-inch wheels and tires, a gloss-black rear lip spoiler and door mirrors, and only one paint choice: Polymetal Gray.
Your Sportiest Alternative?
Other brands have sporty versions of their mid-size family sedans, but few live up to their promises. The Toyota Camry TRD looks aggressive and handles well, but it falls short in the powertrain and braking department. Honda’s big Accord is the same; it looks like it should be fun, but its size and softness ultimately betray any sporting intentions. Not so the Mazda6: Its combination of chassis refinement, light and nimble handling, and an absolutely dynamite turbocharged powertrain combine to make it the driving enthusiast’s choice in this category.
The Mazda6 Carbon Edition is powered by a turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 250 horsepower and 320 pounds-feet of torque if you fill it with 93-octane gasoline. Those figures drop to 227 hp and 310 pounds-feet of torque with regular 87-octane gas, which drops it lower than its competitors. The Hyundai Sonata N Line, for example, gets 290 hp from its 2.5-liter turbo four-cylinder on regular gas, while the Camry XLE’s optional V-6 hits 301 hp on 87 octane. The Carbon Edition I drove must have been filled with the high-zoot juice, as the acceleration it generated was plentiful. The engine is mated to an automatic transmission with six speeds, which is a few gears short of a lot of vehicles these days. That means that in order to achieve decent fuel economy, the Mazda6 likes to stay in higher gears. It shifts down quickly and eagerly when called upon with minimal lag, but it won’t hang in those lower gears long unless you’ve engaged Sport mode, which makes for a bit more frenetic around-town cruising. Suffice it to say that keeping it in its normal modes is the way to go; shift into Sport mode only when you plan on driving in a more aggressive manner.
You might end up wanting to do that more often than you think, though, especially if you live somewhere with twisty roads. The car is a hoot to toss around, with light, direct steering that provides decent feedback, plus a responsive powertrain that’s always happy to play — and none of that is compromised by a ride that’s too stiff or overly sporty. Balance is the name of the game here, and the Mazda6 provides it in spades. The only dark mark on its bright performance report card is its braking; pedal feel is too soft for a sporting-themed car like this. There’s little initial bite, and while a firm press on the brake does enough to bring the car to a halt, there’s not much in the way of pedal feedback. That makes things feel a bit mushy and less confidence-inspiring than I’d like. It’s enough to make you dial back your enthusiasm and keep your driving behavior in check so you don’t get into trouble on a back road.
If you get too happy with the throttle, your fuel economy is likely to feel the pinch despite Mazda’s SkyActiv engine management technology. Fuel economy for the big-engined Mazda6 is EPA-rated at 23/31/26 mpg city/highway/combined, and my week with the beast saw it net 24.5 mpg — not unexpected given the aggressive way I usually drove it. Surprisingly, the Mazda’s official rating is solidly in the hunt for a gas mileage prize right along with cars featuring eight- and 10-speed automatic transmissions, including the Honda Accord Sport (22/32/26 mpg), Hyundai Sonata N Line (23/33/27 mpg) and even the V-6 powered Toyota Camry TRD (22/31/25 mpg). Unlike those cars, however, the Mazda6 has no hybrid variant. There’s a non-turbo model that’s rated 26/35/29 mpg, but if you’re looking for big-time fuel economy in the range of 40-50 mpg, you’ll have to shop a hybrid competitor.
Dynamically, there’s little to fault the Mazda6. Inside, however, is a big problem. There’s no issue with the interior materials, which are top-notch, and kudos to Mazda for not being afraid to deploy some color, as well: The Carbon Edition includes deep burgundy-red leather hides on the seats and trim. The interior feels narrower than the cabins from Honda and Hyundai and its backseat legroom is on the tight side (especially compared with the limousine-like rear seats in a Volkswagen Passat), but Mazda did a good job meeting its goal of a near-premium environment that can chase the higher end of the market. And there aren’t a lot of controls to confuse you; Mazda keeps button clutter to a minimum and graces you with clear, easy-to-read gauges instead of a fully digital cluster.
No, there’s no complaint with how it’s all put together — the deal-killer is the car’s utterly inadequate multimedia system. It’s difficult to use, backward-thinking in its operational strategy and out of date. Perhaps that seems a harsh verdict to render, but the Mazda6’s multimedia system is bad enough to prevent me from recommending this car.
What’s the big issue? You can’t use the touchscreen while the car is in motion. If you want to do anything — like change the radio station or switch audio functions — you have to use a remote knob and five-way controller mounted low on the center console between the front seats. So instead of just touching the thing you want on the screen, which is up at eye level, you have to figure out how to find what you want via a remote controller, adding steps and distraction to the process. It’s absolutely daft and in need of a complete rethink — especially in an age when Hyundai and Kia offer some of the most amazing, state-of-the-art multimedia technology in the class. (Toyota and Honda still feel a bit behind, as well.) Even Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are affected by this setup; if you don’t intend to use the system that much, it won’t be a big problem, but if you do, it’s a serious issue — perhaps even a safety issue.
Priced to Compete
As an automaker, Mazda has designs on punching above its weight class with a lot of its vehicles, and it’s gone to great lengths to improve its interiors to reflect that. But even with its eyes set on loftier targets, it’s maintained more mainstream, competitive pricing. A basic 2021 Mazda6 Sport trim starts at $25,470 (all prices include destination). The Carbon Edition seen here is a few rungs up the trim ladder, starting at $33,945 but without much extra in the way of options — other than accessories like all-weather floormats or mud guards — so well equipped is the base model. Adding navigation gets you a $400 SD card that slots into the console and activates the embedded system. There’s only one trim above the Carbon Edition: Signature, which starts at $36,895 and includes even nicer Nappa leather trim.
That kind of pricing puts the Mazda6 Carbon Edition squarely in the hunt for mid-size sedan buyers. It even comes in on the lower side of the sporty variants offered by competing automakers. Its combination of driving fun, upscale interior design and materials, and a competitive (if not exactly class-leading) interior space would make it a solid alternative for people tired of the same old options from Honda and Toyota … if it weren’t for its abysmal multimedia system. The system will ruin the experience for many drivers; a car simply should not be so tricky and inherently distracting to use. Until Mazda has a solid rethink about how it approaches control of its onboard electronics and smartphone integration, my recommendation is to consider another brand.
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