Thursday, April 4, 2013

Test Drive: 2014 Mazda 6 Touring


Update: See how the Mazda 6 did in our 2013 Mid-Size Family Sedan Comparison.

Zoom-zoom.

Mazda has made it their credo, promising to offer a dose of the "zoom-zoom" spirit in every product they put out - from their sedans to their sports cars, to their SUVs. The MX-5 Miata and, now deprecated, RX-8 were the purest examples in their embodiment, but even the recently introduced CX-5 shows driving dynamics that would be at home in a small hot hatchback. With the introduction of a new 6 sedan, Mazda is hoping to further demonstrate that their "zoom-zoom" spirit is alive and well and adaptable to truly any platform that they choose. Combine that with the Skyactiv suite of technologies, which include fuel efficient drive trains, ultra-light yet super-strong body structures, and advanced energy recapture devices, Mazda is looking to further cement its position in the marketplace, taking an ever increasing share of the sales pie from the likes of its Japanese brethren at Honda, Nissan, and Toyota.
When the original concept for this latest Mazda 6 was introduced, I was stunned at how bold and rakish it looked, but, as with most concept cars, tempered my expectations and prepared myself for crushing disappointment when the final product would be delivered. Boy was I wrong! The overall shape of this new Mazda 6 barely strayed at all from the stunning Shinari concept unveiled to the world at the 2010 Los Angeles Auto Show. All of the subtle details, including those shoulder lines, the aggressive fascia, the taut haunches carried through. Even the rakish roof-line found its way into production along with the massive 19-inch alloy wheels. This is one of those production cars I could sit and stare at all day just because it is so utterly drool-worthy. The fact that it is a 5-seat mid-size family car with excellent utility is icing on the cake.

Opening the door and stepping inside, the car feels surprisingly airy, despite the low-slung roof an steeply raked windshield. Visibility is excellent in all directions everything immediately feels familiar. While the design of the interior does feel a bit dated compared with the exterior, it still offers a fantastic place to be that is clean, easy to use, and is filled with soft-touch materials in all of the right places. The plastic trim in our Touring model test car is glossy, but finished in such a way as to offer some texture that looks vaguely like a wood grain. Unlike most fake wood trims, this is so subtle that most people will likely just assume it is a piano black lacquer. Nothing about the interior screams luxury, but neither does it feel like Mazda skimped on anything. The 5.8-inch screen in the center stack is on the small side, but is a touch screen as well as having a redundant controller mounted behind the shifter. What it lacks in wow-factor is made up for by being functional.

Climbing into the back seat, I was impressed with the amount of rear seat legroom, which felt comparable to the rather large-ish competitors it contends with today, and surprised by the amount of headroom. I had expected the rear headroom to be severely compromised by the swoopy roofline, but not only was headroom not a problem, it was downright plentiful with a good 4-5 inches of space between my head and the headliner.

Back up front, I fired up the car and took a moment to make sure everything was set just right. During that time, I realized that the motor was so smooth and quiet that I had hardly even noticed it during the few minutes it took to tweak everything into place. Out on the road, it became immediately apparent that Mazda had done a good job tuning the electronic power steering. It felt impressively natural, weighting up nicely with increased steering angle and yet still felt communicative, if not quite as communicative as the Miata. For a mid-size sedan, this was one of the better setups I have experienced in some time. This raised my confidence and encouraged me to really begin to push the car a bit harder. Dipping into the gas, however, generated some mixed feelings about this motor. The 2.5L direct injection inline four-cylinder is fitted with a variety of technologies to help it sip fuel at a miserly rate. Despite this, the motor never felt down on power, offering decent torque down low for daily driving, though it is certainly not powerful enough to offer a visceral thrill of any sort. Factor in the rather pedestrian soundtrack as the revs ran up and the excellent fuel economy numbers, I can only say I am conflicted and would, if I were ever to purchase this as my own car, immediately take it home and remove the intake resonator and possibly even install a cold air intake just to give the car a more "zoom-zoom" soundtrack.

Driving around the back roads, which have been brutalized due to this year's massive winter storms, the ride is stiff, though not unpleasantly so. The bumps and potholes are certainly felt, but the spring rates and damper rates are well sorted, offering quick quelling of any excess motion and allowing the chassis to stay planted across even the worst surfaces. A plush magic-carpet ride this is not, but in a sportier car, I certainly do not mind it, especially since I am certain the the massive 19-inch wheels and low profile tires are largely to blame. The upside to the stiff ride is that the car handles really well, living up to the Mazda credo. Nothing can be done to entirely avoid understeer as this is still a FWD sedan, but the chassis offers good feedback and weight transfer is easy to manage with applications of brake and throttle as needed. Grip is plentiful despite the relatively narrow tires.

Bringing the car back to the dealer, I have to admit I was a little disappointed I could not take it out for even longer. To me, this car offers a great compromise between sportiness, comfort, amenities, and power. It is easy to see where Mazda focused its efforts and funds in developing this car. The stunning exterior design, excellent driving dynamics, and outstanding fuel economy are all things I would much rather have than the extra electronics in the center console. That is not to say that the car is missing out on electronics because Bluetooth phone integration for calling and streaming audio is standard along with Blind Spot Monitoring and rear cross traffic detection in our Touring spec model.

So at the end of the day, what is one to make of the new Mazda 6? To put it simply, in my humble opinion, this is one of the best mid-size sedan buys on the market today. There are few competitors that look this good, drive this well, and offer the kind of gas mileage that makes even the most ardent tree-hugger feel all warm and fuzzy inside. For the aging enthusiast with a family, this is also one of the few competitors in the mid-size sedan marketplace that will offer a manual transmission in more than the very base model. Unless something else comes along, Mazda is going to be getting my money. The only things I am holding out for at this point are the wagon model, which offers extra convenience for the growing family, and the high-output diesel engine that will offer even better gas mileage and monster gobs of torque without giving up much in straight line performance.

Dear Mazda, please give me a wagon bodied, diesel powered Mazda 6 mated to the lovely Skyactiv manual transmission and you can pretty much guarantee my writing a check for one. Until then, I still really genuinely believe that the Mazda 6 is a great buy for most mid-size buyers.