• By: Neil Moore

Often Overlooked, Mazda6 a Worthy Contender

“Best-kept secret” may best describe one of the more striking choices in the intermediate segment.

Family rides like Camry, Accord and Fusion are ubiquitous, but the Mazda6, with its curvy KODO—Soul of Motion design language, is a less common sight.

Just over 1,700 had been sold in Canada by the end of October – a mere fraction of the competition – leaving me scratching my head.

Why aren’t consumers snapping these up?

Styling is handsome. Gone is the goofy-looking “smiley” grille, replaced by a large five-sided unit that pulls back into a pair of narrow-cut headlamps. These draw your eye to Mazda6’s flared wheel arches, which in my ride encompassed a set of nineteen-inch, high lustre gunmetal alloys.

There’s no shortage of creases and curves, and with its long bonnet and short rear deck, Mazda6 looks almost coupe-like.

Let’s talk about performance.

All models are powered by a 2.5-litre naturally-aspirated four cylinder. It’s sky-high compression ratio of 13:1 ensures better fuel economy, but with 184 hp and 185 lb/ft of torque, power would appear modest for a mid-size car.

But when you drive it with a six-speed manual, and punch the throttle of an engine that responds willingly, and with a snarl as you approach redline, it seems power isn’t too far off the mark. Sure, I’d still suggest a turbocharger on GT models – or a return of the Mazdaspeed6 – but like the iconic MX-5, this big sedan has just enough juice for a little fun.

And kudos to Mazda for offering this gearbox on all three trim levels: GX ($24,695), GS ($27,995) and GT ($32,895). Manuals have been downplayed to the point of nearly disappearing in this segment, so I’m impressed that Mazda still cares about the gearheads who enjoy this dying art.

A declining number, mind you, as the ‘take rate’ for this feature is only 10 percent. The rest are opting for Mazda6’s six-speed automatic with manual shift mode.

This top-trim Mazda6 has a nice mix of tones and textures, with ample soft touch materials, leather upholstery and satin chrome brightwork. The seven-inch infotainment screen can be operated by a rotary controller just behind the shifter. (automatic model shown)

Handling retains even more of Mazda’s signature zoom-zoom.

The independent suspension – Mac struts with stabilizer up front, multilink with stabilizer in rear – is firmer than most family haulers. Mazda6 may not be a sports sedan, but it carves corners almost like one, and with G-Vectoring Control (GVC), it feels less like a front-driver.

Standard on all Mazda6 models, GVC adjusts engine torque to steering input, creating an optimal load on each wheel. When you begin a turn, for example, load is shifted to the front wheels for more grip. Maintain a constant steering angle through the curve, and the load shifts rearward for more stability.

My own take is that hard cornering feels more predictable, and steering is smoother. GVC even improves straight-line stability, making tiny adjustments when going over rough or slippery roads so that you make fewer corrections at the wheel.

But this attention to tighter handling doesn’t come at a cost of ride comfort.

Seated in Mazda6’s comfy front buckets, which have more side bolstering than competitors, you’re reasonably well insulated from the asphalt below.

The passenger cabin isn’t Lincoln- or even Lexus-quiet. But that’s not why people buy Mazdas.

Still, it was pleasant enough for my wife, who is no fan of sport sedans, thanks in part to increased sound insulation, more sealants, well-fitted weather stripping around doors, and thicker front door windows. Top-trim GTs upgrade this with an acoustic membrane between glass layers.

The interior wouldn’t look out of place in the premium segment, with its abundant soft-touch materials, stitched leatherette in the dash and door panels, and satin chrome brightwork.

My GT tester was upgraded with leather seating (with two-position memory for the driver), and benefited from dual-zone climate control, heated steering, power sunroof and 11-speaker Bose audio.

No need to lean forward to operate the seven-inch infotainment screen. Just behind the gear lever is a tilt-and-turn knob (with buttons) that works like a mouse.

A small detail, but one I really liked, is the adjacent knob for audio. It’s an anomaly where nearly everything is now multi-function, but it saves tapping on touchscreens or fiddling with rotary controllers just to tweak the volume.

All Mazda6 models get seat heating in the rear, with ample leg and head room for most.

Even the base Mazda6 gets this infotainment system, but with six-speaker audio, along with rearview camera, tilt/telescopic steering with audio and cruise controls, pushbutton start, heated front and rear seats and 17-inch alloy wheels.

Nappa leather with contrasting piping comes with the Premium package ($1,500), which is only available on automatic transmission GT models. Ditto for the Technology Package ($2,400), which includes a full suite of driver aids like smart brake support (detects obstacles and slows car), radar cruise control, lane departure warning, lane keeping assist, high beam control, and i-ELOOP.

The latter is a regenerative braking system, which stores electricity in a high-volume capacitor to run the vehicle’s accessories – which can rob up to 10 percent of fuel economy. Mazda went this route instead of a battery, as capacitors react more quickly to the ebb and flow of power.

You still get a load of standard safety tech with all GT models: rearview camera, hill launch assist, smart city brake support (senses pedestrians and obstacles), blind spot monitoring with rear cross traffic alert, and traffic sign recognition (TSR).

TSR is uses a front-mounted camera and nav system to read and display the posted speed limit on your heads-up screen. Exceed it and the system blinks three times or delivers an audible alert. Great for areas with speed traps or photo radar.

Indeed, Mazda doesn’t come up short on technology, and like its competition, offers ample amenities for the dollar. It may not deliver tire-shredding performance, but is arguably a top contender for those who value agility and handling.

Is this important to buyers of mid-size family cars?

If sales figures are any indication, maybe not. But for those who view their ride as more than a daily commuter – or grocery getter – Mazda6 is definitely worth a test drive.

With its short rear deck and long bonnet, the Mazda6 has a coupe-like silhouette.

SNAPSHOT: 2017 Mazda6 GT
BODY STYLE: mid-size sedan
ENGINE: DOHC 2.5-litre SkyActiv-G four cylinder (184 hp, 185 lb/ft of torque)
TRANSMISSION: FWD with 6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic with manual shift mode
FUEL ECONOMY: (as tested with 6-speed manual) 9.8/6.9 litres/100 km, (with 6-speed auto) 9.1/6.7 litres/100 km
CARGO: 419 litres
PRICING: GX ($24,695), GS ($27,995) and GT ($32,895) – packages, options, freight and taxes extra
WEBSITE: mazda.ca