2011 Mazda 6 2.5 iSport (USA)



The first car sold with Mazda 6 badging surprised everyone. After years when various iterations of its 626 predecessor offered little more than bland “white goods” style motoring, here was a car which hit the twin targets of being fun to drive and also all the practical things which are so important in a family car. Success in Europe was relatively modest, thanks to a combination of the badge, brand visibility and not a little national prejudice as to which cars tend to get priority in buyers’ minds. In America, the 6 fared rather better, not least because the US spec cars were actually made in the country, and for a while it was definitely the rental car that you wanted to get if you had reserved a “mid-sized”, as it was leagues better than anything else on offer. Unfortunately, the American press, in their wisdom, decided that the car was too cramped, though and they moaned continually that accommodation was tight, even though I thought it was perfectly fine. Mazda clearly listened, as when they came to launch the second generation model, although the global car was a mite bigger, they devised a different model for the American market from the one that they sold everywhere else in Europe, with the major difference being the size. Only offered as 4 door saloon, whereas the rest of the world got 6 door hatchbacks and estates as well, and lacking the oh-so-fun MPS model, the new 6 had the potential to do even better than its predecessor. But when the reviews came in, it was clear that the joie de vivre, or rather the “joie de conduire” that so characterised that first model had gone as a casualty of the supersizing. And so, in the all-important US family sedan market, the 6 has been a second tier player, selling far fewer cars than the three other Japanese major league models of Camry, Accord and Altima, and also losing out to the domestic duo of Fusion and Malibu. Initially a rare find in Hertz’ rental fleet, there are quite a few around at present, so with memories of the Fusion with which the car shares much under the skin still fresh in my mind, I decided to get one and see what I thought.

Although a 3.7 litre V6 model forms part of the range, the vast majority of Mazda 6s are sold with the 4 cylinder 2.5 litre powerplant and that is the one which featured in my test car. This is the same unit as you find under the bonnet of the 4 cylinder Ford Fusion, and it puts out 170 bhp just as it does in the Ford,  so I was pretty sure I knew what to expect. And indeed, that is what I got.  Just as in the Ford, this is a smooth, refined unit that ultimately cannot disguise the facts that it is both only possessed of 4 cylinders and that 170bhp is no more than sufficient to power a car of this size and weight. Drive the Mazda gently and all is well, but once you encounter a hold-up in the traffic and then need some acceleration, or you find some slopes, then you will have to work the engine that bit harder and whilst it can handle the challenge it gets quite a bit noisier in the process. There is a five speed automatic transmission (a 6 speed manual is available), which is very smooth, providing almost undetectable gearchanges. Fuel economy was pretty similar to that which I achieved in the Ford, as well, computing to 30.37 mpg US, which is 36.29 mpg Imperial. Although  the test roads were completely different – the Ford was sampled around Phoenix and the Mazda around San Francisco – the sort of motoring that constituted the test was broadly similar, so comparing them is valid.

Just as with the Fusion, I was disappointed by the steering feel on this car. Gone was what so impressed with the previous generation 6, and what I had here was what my notes called “loose” steering which was a bit too light. It did gain some weight and feel as you put on more lock, but this was far from the precise set up that I recalled from my previous test car. This slight feeling of lightness or sloppiness permeates through to the handling, as well, which was not quite as taut as I recall from the last model. It is nothing of concern, and with little body roll and typical front wheel drive characteristics including a modicum of understeer, taking this car on the Skyline Drive in the hills up above San Jose was still quite rewarding, though I cannot help but feel that I would have enjoyed the driver more in the older car. This one certainly rides well, with no cause for concern or complaint. There were no issues with the brakes, which worked just fine. A pull up handbrake is fitted between the seats. Despite the fact that you can’t see the front or back of the car, it was quite easy to position on the road and not unduly difficult to park, as I found out when I needed to squeeze into a couple of tight spaces by parallel parking. There is a good field of vision from the mirrors, though there is a small blind spot area which needs to be noted.

I am not sure that I would award many prizes for the interior design of the Mazda 6. For a start, it was almost unrelentingly all black, with just a trace of silver on the steering wheel hub and surrounding the audio unit to provide a visual lift. The plastics look hard and a bit cheap, though when you touch them, actually they are softer than you expect.  The overall effect is one that is that bit more stylised than in the first generation car, with a curve in and then a rolled surface out towards the lower part of the moulding which serves no practical purpose. There are four dials, each surrounded with a chrome ring, and quite deeply recessed for that “sporting” look. The larger pair are for speedo and rev counter and even these look a bit fussy, with a lot of calibration marks around the outside. The centre of the dash contains the AM/FM and CD capable audio unit, mounted quite high up. Some rather fiddly repeater buttons are on the steering wheel boss. Below this are three simple rotary dials for the air conditioning functions. Other functions are delivered by the twin column stalks, covering indicators, wipers and lights. It is all very simple and very conventional. This model of the Mazda had a plastic moulded steering wheel, and of its genre, it was less unpleasant than most.

Given the one of the design objectives of this car was to make more size for people in it, then you could say Mazda succeeded. The steeply sloping roofline means that you do have to duck slightly when getting into the back, but once installed, there is plenty of headroom. There is ample legroom as well, and enough width for three adults to sit quite comfortably in the car. So, in this respect, the designers did succeed. There is a good sized boot, too. It is wide, stretching right across the car and quite long from front to back, even though there is quite a stubby tail to the Mazda. The rear seat backrests fold forward so you can get far more length if required.  There is no extra space for anything under the boot floor. Inside the passenger compartment, the front seat occupants have a pair of door bins, a decent sized glovebox, quite a deep space under the central armrest and a rather small stowage area in front of the gearlever. There are two cupholders under a covering flap in the centre console. Rear seat occupants do not get door bins so are limited to the map pockets in the seat backs.

Mazda offer 4 different trim levels for the 6. These are Sport, Touring, Touring Plus and Grand Touring, and if the engine is the 4 cylinder, they are prefixed by the letter “i” and the 6 cylinder with the letter “s”. There is no badging on the car to indicate which is which, though. My test car was an entry level iSport. Equipment levels on the iSport cover all the basics, but provide nothing out of the ordinary. You get air conditioning, a tilt/telescopic steering wheel, an AM/FM audio unit with single slot CD and MP3 connection, cloth seats with height adjuster, folding rear seats and that is about it. Upgrade to a Touring and you will get manual shift capability for the automatic gearbox, fog lights, 17″ alloys, a leather wrapped steering wheel, 8-way power adjustable driver’s seat and an upgraded audio unit. The Touring Plus adds a blind spot warning system for the mirrors, an electric sunroof and a theft deterrent system. The Grand Touring brings dual zone climate control, heated leather seats, a rear view camera and a Bose sound system. Specifications for the s model cars are broadly similar though you do get the larger engine and a 6 speed automatic and on the Touring Plus, 18″ alloys.  Prices for the iSport start at $19,990 and rise to $29,990 for a sGrand Touring.


There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the Mazda 6, but the US press were right to be a little disappointed with this car, as it lacks the ZoomZoom  sparkle that made its predecessor a level of fun above its then competitors. I don’t think this version is any worse than the dread 5 rivals that outsell it, and indeed would take one in preference to a Camry every time. but nor is it any better than them in any significant area, so if there was a line of all the rival cars at the rental compound and I was asked to pick one, I would probably walk past this Mazda and get in either the Ford or the Nissan Altima, However, time is almost up for this second generation Mazda 6. Production has recently ceased, and whilst no US market successor has yet been revealed, it has been announced that the third generation model will be the global car, so expect it to be very similar to the stunningly good looking new model that was premiered in Moscow in August 2012. It will be made in Japan, not Michigan, which could trouble Mazda from a pricing point of view, but with those good looks and the promise of the SkyActiv engine, my expectations are that this could be the car to fight very hard for class honours again.


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