In Europe, a new Mazda 6 range was premiered in late 2007, and went on sale in January 2008. For the American market, however, the original 6 continued throughout the 2008 Model Year, and was only replaced for 2009. One reason for the delay is that the new US model is unique to the US, being larger than the European and Japanese offerings, in a bid to counter the most significant criticism of the outgoing model: namely that it was “too small”. The outgoing model has been a doyen of the “mid-size” category of rental car for some time, but, surprisingly, it is only now that I have managed to secure one to test out.
I collected the test car in the dark, so all I knew from the discussion I had in the Hertz Gold Booth is that I had got “the red one”, rather than a grey one. Imagine my surprise to find that “red” really meant a sort of metallic magenta colour, which proved predictably difficult to photograph in the New Mexican bright sunshine. “Grey”, of course, really meant silver, and would have been far better for photography. As you will see, the fates intervened, and I ended up with both cars! There was a further surprise in store for me: I had assumed from the rather large spoiler on the boot lid that this accompanies the 3.0 litre V6 model, so was quite taken aback when, on lifting the bonnet, to find that in fact I had the 2.3 litre 4 cylinder engine. By this time, I had already driven the car, and it felt too smooth, and, frankly, too nippy to be the entry level 4 cylinder model, but, my eyes convinced me otherwise. Research revealed that the spoiler is one of the additions that comes with the “Value Edition” trim level, along with a manually switchable 5 speed automatic gearbox, all-way electrically adjustable seats, a leather trimmed steering wheel and a few other trim differences.
Although Europe was reasonably impressed by this car, the American press really loved it, like they love its little brother, the 3. The “Zoom zoom zoom” theme has really resonated in the US, and this car has by far the best reputation as a fun car to drive, among the mid-sized family cars. Having sampled several of them, it’s not hard to see why. Even when I knew that only 4 cylinders and 156 bhp were propelling me, the 6 does not disappoint on the road. The engine is impressively smooth, and yet it is also willing, so you can quite happily hang onto each gear all the way to the 6500 rpm red-line, without your ears feeling on the limit, or it actually ceasing to achieve anything. Having said that, the 6 is equally happy to be driven more gently, where the shifts between the 5 ratios of the automatic transmission are literally impossible to detect. There is a quasi-manual option, too, if you nudge the lever to the right from drive, where you can now flick back for an up-change and forwards for a down-shift. In either mode, there is a display on the dash to tell you which gear is currently selected. My only issue with the gear selector is the rather complex set of backwards and sidewards moves to get from Park to Drive, though I quickly got used to it. Much of the test distance was conducted on the I25 freeway, at a steady speed, where I used the cruise control.When climbing hills, if the speed dropped more than about 5 mph, there was a rather jerky downchange, and the car then worked hard to get back to the speed. Even more impressive was the fuel economy. On the first day, I got about 27mpg (US gallons), but on the long drive down to White Sands National Monument, this improved massively. I reckon I could just about have done the 580 mile trip on a single tank, but my nerve failed me, and I filled up en route back. The consumption averaged 35.5 mpg, which I thought was exceptionally good. My first reaction on turning the wheel is that the steering is incredibly light. Almost too light, but it does have decent feel, and at speed you do have a good idea of what the driven wheels are trying to do. Mazda 6 handles well, as you might expect from a Ford Group product, allowing you to tackle the sharp curves of freeway intersections and rural roads with some gusto. No issue with the brakes, either, which feel powerful and as if they will do their job properly. The ride is generally good, though it is less soft and squashy than on some American cars. In my opinion, that is a “good thing”. There was just a bit of wind noise from around the ‘A’ pillar, but otherwise, this is a pleasingly refined cruiser, with little engine noise to intrude.
Inside, the story is not quite so positive, but it’s not bad. The complaints about lack of space are not really justified, in my opinion. If people want a bigger car, they should buy a full size. The trouble is that every manufacturer responds to these complaints by enlarging successive generations of their models, so very soon what would have been a mid-size car becomes categorised as a full-size, viz the fact that the Toyota Corolla and Ford Focus are now called mid-sized, but the Sonata, G6, Malibu and Altima are all deemed to be bigger than that, yet they are the true competitors to the Mazda, and not the Corolla and Focus. There seemed to be ample space in the back of the car to accommodate 2, or perhaps 3 people, without them feeling as deprived of legroom as they would in say the old model A4 or 3 Series. There is a generous boot, which is deep from front to back, and which can be extended by folding the rear seat backrests forward.
The interior finish is perhaps the weakest point of the car. At first glance, it looks a bit like old-school Japanese with slightly shiny plastics dominating. In fact, they are generally of a decent quality, and are soft-touch. The dash itself is black, with just a dark carbon grey finish to the centre console to “liven” things up a bit, so it all looks rather sombre. Everything fits well, and the quality of the switches is far better than say the Mustang which I had returned earlier in the day. I also noted that the key is a much higher quality item than you usually encounter at this level, rivalling almost the Audi item that is also in my pocket at present. The dash itself is well laid out, with the two main dials in a hooded cowl, along with the minor instruments and warning lights. These all glow a discrete shade of orange after dark. The indicators must be quietest I have every come across, with next to no sounds generated when they are in operation. One ergonomic annoyance is the internal release lever for the boot, which is a small switch so low down that it is also easier to use your left knee to operate it. The alternative is to use the key fob to open the boot, as there is no separate release on the boot itself. The seats, finished in a good quality velour material, proved very comfortable, and have a wide range of adjustment up, down, back and forth. They had a good test, as I drove nearly 600 miles in one day, and it certainly did not feel it. The column has reach and range adjustment, too.
Overall, then, I liked the Mazda 6. I really can see why the US press rated it so highly over the past several years. The new car has a much higher quality feel to the interior, so as long as all the good points have been retained, it could still be the absolute top of the class. The first 2009 models are trickling into the rental fleets, so hopefully I will be able so sample one well before the car has ceased production.