The Mazda6 has always been the automotive equivalent of a hole-in-the-wall restaurant: Small and cramped, lousy location, but the food is out of this freakin' world. Now, imagine that the guy who owns the place has decided to improve. He's built an addition, painted the walls, hired a couple more waitresses -- younger, prettier, and not so surly -- and cleaned the place up a bit. That what Mazda has done with the 2009 Mazda6. The ambiance is better, but is the food still any good? Read on. Price range $19,220 - $33,903, EPA fuel economy estimates 17-21 city, 25-30 highway.
First Glance: Super size me!
The Mazda6 has always been popular among people who love to drive, but it fell down on many of the aspects most important to mid-size buyers: Back seat room, trunk space, engine power, and (by Mazda's own rather candid admission) build quality. Normally, having a niche product is a good thing -- but with almost 3 million Americans buying mid-size sedans in 2007, and only a small fraction of them taking home a Mazda6, Mazda decided it was time to get a bigger slice of the pie chart.
Mazda's formula was simple: Copy Nissan. Back in 2001, the Nissan Altima was a smallish four-cylinder sedan sized somewhere between a compact and a Camry. In 2002, Nissan introduced a bigger Altima, exclusive to the North American market, with options including a muscle-car V6 engine. Sales exploded, and the invincible duo (Toyota Camry and Honda Accord) became the invincible trio.
The 2009 Mazda6 follows the same pattern. While the previous Six was the same as the car sold in Europe, the new Six is exclusive to the US, Canada and Mexico. Everything is bigger -- length, width, cabin and trunk volume, engine sizes, even the car's commitment to safety. The new Six casts a shadow larger than the Camry and Altima and just a shade smaller than the Accord. Viewed from the front (link goes to photo), there's a distinct family resemblance to Mazda's RX-8 sports car, while the teardrop-like profile reminds me of Nissan's Maxima (as well as Mazda's MX-6 from the 90s -- anyone remember that one? Man, what a beautiful car.)
In the Driver's Seat: More of the same, and that's a good thing
Inside, the new Mazda6 bears a close resemblance to the old Mazda6, which is mostly a good thing. The black dash is a bit dreary, but it doesn't reflect in the windshield like some lighter-color dashboards do. Seats can be covered in cloth, leather, or -- my favorite -- a cloth-and-leather combo that features cloth on the bits that touch your thighs and back, so you won't sear your skin on hot days. The back seat is on par with the Camry and Altima, though it doesn't offer the stretch-out space of the Accord. But the biggest improvement is the trunk. Packing the old Six for a trip was a challenge, but the 2009 Mazda6's trunk is a huge 16.6 cubic feet -- plus it has non-intrusive hinges that won't squash your stuff when you close the lid.
The new Six comes in SV, Sport, Touring and Grand Touring models. The $19,220 SV gets power windows, locks and mirrors, air conditioning, CD/MP3 stereo, six airbags, antilock brakes, and electronic stability control, though you'll have to step up to the $20,920 Sport model to get keyless entry, floor mats and an audio input jack. The $22,375 Touring adds alloy wheels, nicer interior trim, power driver's seat and keyless push-button ignition, while the $25,580 Grand Touring gets leather seats (heated in front), dual-zone climate control, auto-dimming mirrors, rain-sensing wipers, and a new blind-spot warning system. Most options are grouped into three simple packages, though SV and Sport models can't be had with a sunroof and navigation is only offered on the Grand Touring.
On the Road: What I like about you
Mazda has super-sized both of the 6's engines for 2009. The base motor is now a 170 horsepower 2.5 liter four-cylinder. The standard 6-speed manual is a stick-shifter's dream, with a light clutch and super-precise shifter. But the optional ($900) 5-speed automatic is no slouch, either. The Nissan Altima has always been my favorite four-cylinder mid-size because of its continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), which does a better job of delivering power than a conventional automatic. But the Six's auto 'box surprised me -- it downshifts promptly whenever power is needed, and while it has a manual gear-change function, I never felt the need to reach for the lever. Fuel economy trails the CVT-equipped Altima, but only slightly -- 21 city/30 highway for the automatic Mazda6 vs 23/31 for the Altima with CVT. (The stick-shift's numbers are 1 mpg lower.)
Sport, Touring and Grand Touring models offer an optional V6 with a 6-speed automatic transmission ($2450 - $2980 over the automatic 4-cylinder, depending on trim level). At 3.7 liters and 272 horsepower, it's very big and very powerful. Still, it doesn't feel as quick as the V6 Altima, which develops 270 hp but exploits it better thanks to its CVT transmission. Compared to the 4-cylinder Mazda6, the V6 is smoother, quieter and more refined, but it's also thirsty -- EPA figures are 17 MPG city, 25 MPG highway. Thanks, but I'll take the 4.
What I like best about the Mazda6 is the handling. If you like curvy roads, you're going to love the Mazda6. It's an absolute delight to drive, yet its ride is as comfortable as can be.
Journey's End: Aaron has a new favorite mid-sizer
When I arrived at the Mazda6 press preview, my favorite mid-sizer was the Nissan Altima. By the time I left, I had a new favorite. The 4-cylinder Mazda6 is more fun to drive than the 4-cylinder Altima, plus it comes with standard electronic stability control (ESC), a miraculous bit of safety technology that helps the driver keep control of the car in a panic situation. Nissan doesn't offer ESC on the 4-cylinder Altima. That said, if I was looking for V6 power, I'd still take the Nissan, which handles better than the 4-cyl Altima, feels faster than the V6 Mazda6, and offers ESC as an option.
Is the Mazda6 the car for you? Depends on your priorities. If a high fun-to-drive factor isn't one of them, you might prefer the more mature feel of the Toyota Camry or the Chevrolet Malibu. And if you're raising a family of 6-footers, check out the roomier Honda Accord; it's nearly as good to drive, though I don't like its button-happy interior.
There's still one unknown, and that's build quality. The Mazda6 is built in the same Michigan plant that makes the Ford Mustang. Toyota, Honda, Nissan and Subaru all achieve top-notch quality in their American-built cars, but Mazda continues to struggle. I don't see how that's going to change overnight.
Would I buy one? Definitely. The Mazda6 is brilliant to drive, it's reasonably priced, and I like that you can opt for the 4-cylinder engine and still get all the bells and whistles. Mazda's set a modest sales goal of just 80,000 units in 2009. I'd gladly take one of them. -- Aaron Gold