By Chris Haak
Thanks to the likes of the Mazda3 (and MazdaSpeed3), MX5 Miata, and the diminutive Mazda2 subcompact, Mazda has staked out its claim as the “Zoom-Zoom” car company for years. It’s not exactly “The Ultimate Driving Machine,” but it has perhaps more meaning than “We Build Excitement” did against a backdrop of the Pontiac 6000 and Daewoo-builtLeMans did.
We now find the Mazda6 in the middle of its life cycle, and its competitors are not slowing down their pace of improvement. During the week that I spent evaluating the Mazda6 S, I found that the car had plenty of zoom from its big 3.7 liter V6 (which produces a class-leading 272 horsepower and 269 lb-ft of torque), but that the car lost a bit of its handling prowess into its transition from a lithe midsizer into a super-sized Americanized midsize sedan.
Autosavant last reviewed a Mazda6 over two years ago, when we spent a week in a 2009 Mazda6 i Grand Touring. In the likely event that you’re not a student of Mazda’s model-naming conventions, that means that the other Mazda6 we reviewed was equipped with Mazda’s 170-horsepower 2.5 liter four cylinder, and was otherwise the top trim level Mazda6. That other Mazda6 had leather and navigation, which the Touring Plus model does not have. This particular Mazda6′s MSRP is also about $1,000 less than the 2009 Mazda6i Grand Touring’s asking price.
There are a number of reasons why Hyundai’s Sonata - and likely Chevrolet’s 2012 Malibu – are skipping V6 engines in their mainstream front wheel drive sedans. First, they make the front end of the car too heavy, and skew its weight distribution and harms its handling. Second, modern four cylinders are sufficiently powerful for most people, and modern V6s produce far more power than most drivers need or would use. Third, modern direct-injected turbo fours produce more torque – at lower RPMs – and similar horsepower to the big-bore V6s. The 2011 Hyundai Sonata (and Sonata Turbo) is proof-positive of the non-necessity of the V6 engine in these cars. It goes without saying that the smaller four cylinder engines also get better fuel economy than their V6 counterparts do.
What this all means is that the V6-powered Mazda6 is a hoot to drive in a straight line. The 3.7 liter V6 pulls strongly in any gear, at any speed, and seems to be about class-average in terms of refinement and NVH isolation. However, torque steer and wheelspin are both issues when stomping on the accelerator from a stop or very low speed. Further, when it comes time for a change of direction, the additional mass on the front end makes its presence known, and there was a surprising amount of understeer.
At first, I was a bit surprised to feel it from a product of the Zoom-Zoom company, but the car was equipped with a set of Bridgestone Blizzak snow tires (not pictured). The Blizzaks are fantastic in snow, but in early March, I had no snow to drive on. Sadly, tires optimized for snow and slippery surfaces are not optimized for dry pavement. Making matters a bit worse, the steering wheel seemed to be excessively large, and was connected to a steering box that had a slow ratio. The end result was that this particular Mazda seemed to like straight roads as much as the Miata and MazdaSpeed3 likes curvy ones. The Blizzaks were also quick to offer wheelspin off the line, and also impacted dry-pavement stopping distances. That being said, if you plan on driving in winter weather, you should seriously consider a set of good snow tires like these.
When reviewing the Mazda3 and MazdaSpeed3, I was impressed by the quality of the interiors in those compact cars, particularly in the 3 with leather and a moonroof. I was a bit disappointed, then, that Mazda chose to bestow this next-step-up sedan with an interior not much better than what’s found in the Mazda3, except that it’s bigger. The car’s interior design is fine, with controls withing easy reach and everything being easy to operate. But the fact that the only surface on the upper dash soft to the touch was the passenger side airbag cover was a bit disappointing for a Mazda (though it’s similar to what you’ll see in an Accord or Camry).
I am not a huge proponent of plastic “wood” in car interiors, but Mazda’s use of a darker hue seemed to work well in the 6. Above the dash, the A-pillars are covered in plastic (in an unfortunate reversal of the short-lived trend to cover mainstream sedans’ pillars with headliner-like fabric), but are an ivory color that brightens the otherwise all-gray interior a bit.
Though perhaps the Mazda6 lost a bit of its handling prowess in its move to a more “American” size, the upshot is that the car no longer falls on the small end of the size spectrum as the first-generation car did. It’s within a fraction of an inch of the Accord in most key measures, with the exception of headroom. The car is reasonably roomy inside, with plenty of legroom for tall drivers (and tall passengers behind tall drivers). Taller rear-seat passengers need to watch their heads and hats, though; rear-seat headroom is a bit compromised by the sporty downward-tapering roofline. I had no trouble fitting a Britax Marathon convertible car seat, or a Britax five-point booster seat in the 6, and my kids had enough room between them that they mostly left each other alone. The non-removable rear headrests did require some grunting and complaining before I was able to get the top of the convertible seat wedged underneath it.
With its aggressively-bulging front fenders, tapering roofline, low hoodline, and swept-back headlamps, I had always considered the Mazda6 to be the most attractive entrant in the competitive midsize sedan category. However, Hyundai’s Sonata now trumps the 6 in terms of outward appearance with that car’s coupe-like profile. Still, the 6 has visually aged fairly well over the past three model years, and its feature set – such as satellite radio, Bluetooth phone/streaming audio, available navigation, and blind spot monitor – is competitive with the best the class has to offer in 2011, even though the 6 had them in 2009.
The area in which the Mazda6 S disappointed the most was in observed fuel economy. I’ve always had more trouble using restraint when driving powerful, torquey vehicles, so I blame a good part of my observed 17.5 MPG on driver behavior, but the EPA ratings of 18 MPG city/27 MPG highway seemed difficult to achieve without applying hypermiling techniques. A few years ago, those EPA ratings would be mid-pack, but the Honda Accord V6 checks in at 20 city/30 highway (3 MPG better combined), and the Sonata Turbo is rated at 22/33 (5 MPG better combined). The EPA estimates that the Sonata Turbo’s annual fuel cost is almost $500 less than the 6′s, yet both cars have similar horsepower specs. If you needed further proof of Hyundai’s rationale for going with the all-four cylinder strategy, right there it is.
Under acceleration, the big V6 has a nice growl from low end through its midrange, but in the upper reaches, there’s a little more intake roar than might be expected. This high-RPM soundtrack, while not necessarily unrefined, is shared with the related Ford Duratec V6s. Honda’s V6 complains less when its legs are stretched.
Mazda has a nice implementation of blind spot monitoring in the Mazda6. The warning lamps quietly illuminate on the mirrors when a vehicle (or something the car thinks is a vehicle) enters your blind spot. When your turn signal tells the car your intent to move into the spot where the Mazda thinks another car is, it gives an audible warning beep. There’s a margin for safety built into the warning, too; on a few occasions, I got a warning even though I was not about to collide with another car, but I was perhaps changing lanes a few feet sooner than the 6 would have advised.
You can buy a new 2011 Mazda6 for under $20,000 (that is, if you exclude the mandatory $795 destination charge), but the tested model is actually the second-most expensive in the hierarchy, with only the Mazda6 S Grand Touring above it. This S Sedan Touring Plus starts at $27,080, and is the cheapest way to get into a V6 Mazda6. With lots of standard features, the only options on my tester were ULEVII emissions ($100) and Sirius satellite radio ($430). If you want leather seats with a V6, you have to step up to a Grand Touring for another $2,240. The Grand Touring also gives you keyless start/entry, heated seats, and a backup camera. Navigation – not available on the Touring Plus – is a $2,000 option on the Grand Touring, and the Technology Package adds xenon HID headlamps, rain sensing wipers, auto dimming rearview mirrors, and other niceties for another $1,750. But this particular car came in at $28,405. Not cheap, and when you use TrueDelta.com to compare the Mazda6 S to the Honda Accord EX V6, the Honda is surprisingly $1,000 less expensive when accounting for equipment differences between the two cars.
Mazda has earned a reputation as a purveyor of driver-oriented vehicles, and the 6 more or less stays true to that. However, we’d really like to see what the company could do with a version of the MazdaSpeed3′s turbo four under the hood of a future MazdaSpeed6. Mazda needs to step up its game a bit in terms of fuel economy from its mainstream offerings, because buyers looking at the 6′s competitors may see more gaudy numbers on the window stickers, and not even give the 6 serious consideration. The car is a pleasure to drive, and would probably be even more fun with a set of summer tires on a warm, dry road.