"Hey, how do you like the new 6?" he asked, eyes darting across the surface of the car.
"It's awesome," I replied, fresh off 200 miles of twisting mountain roads, a grin still on my face. We chatted a bit more before he pulled out of the gas station and merged back onto the highway. I've been stopped by gearheads before, but only when I'm driving something extremely fast or extremely exclusive. This was the first time it happened in an affordable family sedan.
That's probably because the Mazda6 isn't just any old affordable family sedan. From how it looks to how it drives, it distinguishes itself from a pretty crowded pack.
Here's hoping for an upgrade soon
From the entry-level $20,990 Sport model to the fully loaded, $31,490 Grand Touring I drove, the Mazda6 is easily the best combination of style, handling, power, practicality, and efficiency available in its class. If you're looking for a midsize sedan and don't care about pairing your phone, streaming Pandora, or getting directions, stop reading now. Go out and buy a Mazda6. You'll love it.
Otherwise, be prepared for this otherwise fine car's major flaw: The optional infotainment system seriously lags behind the competition. Mazda gave the all-new 6 head-turning looks, one of the best automatic transmissions on the market, and a improbably powerful and efficient four-cylinder engine. Then they saddled it with audio and nav controlled by a tiny, sluggish, 5.8-inch touchscreen. Like having spinach in one's teeth during a job interview, it's not a deal breaker, but it sure is distracting.
Navigation, provided by TomTom, got me where I needed to go, but it was hardly user friendly. Animations were stilted, and the screen was too small to get a good view of a dense city center. Want to zoom in on a street up ahead to see if it's a one way? On most nav systems, you'd press the screen near where the street appears, and then press the zoom button. Touch the Mazda's screen anywhere, however, and it'll bring up a prompt to enter a destination—a prompt that's not apparent in any way on the home screen. There's no way to zoom in on a location unless you're already there.
Finding the music you want to listen to is a similarly disappointing chore. Sure, you can connect your smartphone, but wading through playlists is slow and distracting. With all menus alphabetically ordered but only a page up/page down option for scrolling, you can't quickly jump to "P" if you want to listen to, say, Parliament. There's an option to shuffle songs, but you can't un-shuffle them once the button is pressed. Graphics are disconcertingly sparse and make the whole kit feel at least a decade old.
Even the physical controls proved confusing. The screen is surrounded by buttons that can switch the system among its various functions. But the exact same buttons are on the center console, surrounding a cheap-feeling clickwheel. Get rid of the first set of buttons, and you'd have another two inches of touchscreen. A screen embedded in the gauge cluster shows basic vehicle information, but doesn't display any data from the navigation or audio systems.
A few positives: embedded Pandora functionality had no problem syncing with an iPhone over Bluetooth, even pausing and resuming a song automatically when a phone call came in, and the nav system's voice recognition was actually quite good. The whole setup is also entirely modular, which means owners can add navigation to a Mazda6 as long as it has a touchscreen—even if it didn't come from the factory with nav. It also means that Mazda could theoretically come out with an update.
That's exactly what's planned for the upcoming Mazda3, which features a new user interface, a flashy 7-inch touchscreen, support for streaming audio through Aha, and even a heads-up display. From what we've seen so far, it looks awesome. But, apparently it wasn't ready before the Mazda6 went on sale.
A Mazda representative told us that the company couldn't discuss whether the Mazda6 would get the same setup found in the upcoming Mazda3, but pointed out that both systems are easily upgradeable. Software can be updated by simply switching out an SD card, and all components are modular. Let's hope the folks at Mazda can turn around the 6's infotainment system as quickly as they reinvented its powertrain. If they did, this car would be just about perfect.
My car came with forward collision warning (which I thankfully never used) and Mazda's take on dynamic cruise control which, unfortunately, doesn't work at low speeds. The two options come packaged together for only $900—depending on your insurance deductible and your tendency to tailgate, it may be worth it.
Catching eyes and turning heads
A few years ago, Mazda made the conscious decision to focus on how its cars look. Every so many years, all models would be refreshed with a new iteration of a unified design language. The latest, featured on the Mazda6, is called "Kodo," which Mazda says means "soul of motion."
It's certainly got soul. Outside, curves flow gracefully. A less talented designer might inadvertently make the twin fender arches look like the McDonald's logo. Instead, they fall into each other across the doors at slightly different angles, like waves crashing on the shore. A prominent nose gives the whole design some gravitas, but a low lip may scrape concrete curbs in parking lots.
Step inside and you'll see the best interior that Mazda's ever created. An understated dash design is accented by metallic red accents, a welcome departure from the fake carbon fiber trim that's showing up everywhere. Red stitching accents the upholstery, and smoked plastic covers the climate control indicators.
Seats are comfortable all around, there's plenty of room in the backseat and the trunk, and at 5'10" I found the driving position more "just right" than the third bear's chair.
The best view is from behind the wheel
The new 6 features Mazda's highly-touted Skyactiv setup, which reduces weight and increases power through a series of technological advancements. First off, the engine has an insanely high compression ratio, which means you can wring more power out of every drop of gasoline. A host of other advancements means the Mazda6's four-cylinder engine gets excellent fuel economy, while the driver's right foot can summon tons of power at the low and mid ranges.
The car I drove also featured Mazda's incredibly advanced automatic transmission, which combines two separate technologies (a torque converter and a multi-plate clutch, if you're interested) for the best combination of smoothness, efficiency, and swift shifts at both high and low speeds.
The result: This car is an absolute blast to drive. Gear changes are immediate, appropriate, and imperceptible. Acceleration is brisk and there's plenty of on demand power for passing and merging. Even with electronic power steering, so often a subject of complaint when executed poorly, the 6 felt responsive, nimble, and poised in corners and straightaways.
Mazda nearly made the perfect midsize sedan
The Mazda6 is one of the most interesting competitors in the crowded midsize sedan segment, set apart thanks to eye-catching design, engaging handling, and an attractive price. Despite its upsettingly sluggish and outdated infotainment system, the Mazda6 is still worth serious consideration. But if you're looking forward to streaming your favorite songs or asking your car to find you a coffee shop, you should be aware of the Mazda6's limitations.
The Mazda6 comes in three trim levels:
The base model, starting at under $22,000, comes with the option of a manual or automatic transmission. If you choose the manual, you lose out on the 5.8-inch touchscreen, Pandora, and even Bluetooth.
The next step up adds dual-zone climate control, a power driver's seat, leatherette trim, and the ability to add option packages like keyless entry and navigation. You can kit out your Touring almost to the level of the upscale Grand Touring.
Fully loaded, the Grand Touring only has three major options at the current moment: Radar cruise control, lane departure warning, and forward obstruction warning
Soon, you'll be able to add the Technology Package. That includes Mazda's i-ELOOP regenerative braking system which promises to slightly boost fuel economy.
Currently, there's only one engine option on the Mazda6: a 184-hp, 2.5L four-cylinder gasoline engine, which you can mate to either a six-speed manual transmission or a six-speed automatic. A diesel is coming very soon.
The IIHS rates the Mazda6 a Top Safety Pick +. It gets top "Good" scores all around, with the exception of the small overlap test. On that, it gets a second-best "Acceptable." It's not yet been tested by NHTSA.
EPA estimates for a Mazda6 equipped with a manual transmission are 25 city, 37 highway. The automatic gets 26 city, 38 highway, and adding the i-ELOOP regenerative braking system bumps that up to 28 city, 40 highway. No numbers yet on the diesel.
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