When Mazda launched the last version of the Mazda6, I figured it was a guaranteed winner -- it was roomy, cushy, and fantastic to drive. But when mid-size sedan sales fell off a cliff in 2009, the Mazda6 managed to plummet even further than the competition. Now we have an all-new Mazda6, and before I even drove it, I knew my fellow hacks and I would love it. But it's the market, not the critics, who determine a car's success -- so is the 2014 Mazda6 the right car for John and Jane Q. Public? Read on.
First Glance: Critical acclaim, public indifference
If you read my review of the previous-generation Mazda6, you'd think Mazda had found the solution to peace in the Middle East. Even setting aside my own biases -- like most people who do this job, I love cars with a high fun-to-drive factor -- I figured the Six's roomy seats and well-finished cabin would bring a stampede of buyers from Honda and Toyota showrooms. Clearly, Kreskin I am not.
So now we have an all-new Mazda6, and I feel that a bit more caution is in order. Mazda apparently feels the same way: While the previous-gen Mazda6 was designed specifically for the North American market, the new one is to be sold all over the globe. It's a smidge shorter than the old car, though its just as wide, and in terms of interior space it's still sized for Americans. This time around, the emphasis is on fuel economy -- a smart move as Americans adjust to the sort of fuel prices Europeans were paying twenty years ago. They've also moved production from the Ford co-owned plant in Flat Rock, Michigan, back home to Japan, which should address some of the Six's quality issues.
The Mazda6's styling has also taken a new direction. Instead of the controversial smiley-face fascia fitted to the smaller Mazda3 and Mazda2, the new Mazda6 gets an upright CX-5-style grille that gives the front end a squared-off look. I like it -- it looks less like a blob and more like, well, a car. (We can thank Europe's pedestrian-protection for the new front end profile. Who says government regulation is always a bad thing?) The bold front front fender crease carries over, but it's better integrated than in the old car. From the back, the Mazda6 looks a bit like a Hyundai. Ah well -- it's about time someone accused a Japanese automaker of ripping off the Koreans instead of vice-versa.
In the Driver's Seat: Good design but little differentiation
I was immediately impressed by the 2014 Mazda6's interior with its high-grade materials, straightforward control layout, and decent all-round visibility. The biggest disappointment is the optional TomTom-based navigation system. I've used stand-alone TomTom units and they aren't bad, but Mazda's implementation is pretty lousy -- the screen is small, there is no real-time speed limit display, and simple functions like changing the display from north-up to direction-of-travel-up are buried beneath a layer of menus.
My other big problem with the Six is the lack of differentiation between the trim levels. I drove two cars, a base-model $21,975 Sport and a top-of-the-line $30,590 Grand Touring, and from the inside I could barely tell them apart -- aside from leather seats a rather nice piece of red-tinged trim on the dash, there isn't much difference. (Compare this photo of the Sport's interior with this shot of the Grand Touring and see for yourself.) That's unfortunate, because there are a lot of cool features lurking inside the Grand Touring, including heated leather seats, Bose stereo, rain-sensing wipers, and optional radar cruise control. That said, even the base-model cars are nicely trimmed, with a leather-wrapped steering wheel, auto-off headlights, push-button ignition, and a color touch-screen stereo (though manual-transmission cars miss out on this last feature).
As far as sedan-ness goes, the Mazda6 does an outstanding job: Though interior volume is down slightly compared to the old car, front and rear legroom is increased, the latter to within half an inch of the limo-like Volkswagen Passat. Trunk volume is down, but still decent at 14.8 cubic feet.
On the Road: Zoom-zoom in the curves, if not in a straight line
The Mazda6 is the latest car to benefit from SkyActiv, Mazda's collective name for their new line of fuel-efficient engines and transmissions. The base engine is a 2.5 liter four-cylinder rated at 184 horsepower and 185 lb-ft of torque. Acceleration is brisk, though not quite racy, but the benefit pays off in EPA fuel economy estimates of 26 MPG city/38 MPG highway with the 6-speed automatic transmission and 25/37 with a manual. The stick-shift is a delight, but the automatic is pretty cool, too: In place of a torque converter, it uses a torque converter/dry clutch cross-breed that eliminates the slushy feel of a traditional automatic, but delivers smoother starts and more controlled "creep" than a twin-clutch automatic.
Instead of a V6 or a turbo 2-liter, Mazda plans to add a 2.2 liter turbodiesel later in the year. I drove a prototype version of this engine and was impressed beyond belief -- it drives more like a gas engine than most modern-day diesels. But can it really replace a V6? As much as I love diesels, I'll believe that when I drive it. (Stay tuned.)
Handling is where you'd expect Mazda to excel, and the Mazda6 doesn't disappoint. Honda set the fun-to-drive standard with the 2013 Accord, albeit (in my opinion) at the expense of ride quality. By comparison, the Mazda feels a bit dialed back -- it's not quite as sharp in its responses as the Honda (or the old Mazda6; I blame the new electrically-assisted power steering setup), but it grips just as well and the ride is much more comfortable and compliant. The end result -- how fast you can get from one end of a twisty road to the other -- is the same as the Accord and notably better than the Nissan Altima and Volkswagen Passat.