2018 Mazda 6 first drive: a blown opportunity

June 4, 2018

Accords and Camrys long ago became shorthand for family cars. Fusions and Malibus have thousands of showrooms for buyers to stumble into.

In the vast universe of mid-size sedans, the Mazda 6 has toiled in semi-obscurity. It’s a fringe player, a Pluto with rarer news pegs.

Mazda’s blurry rep in 4-doors has, in the past, tried to focus on pert handling and good road manners. Great things to have, agreed, but the Miata-smeared marketing lens always put those facets ahead of family factors such as rear-seat space and entertainment options.

MORE: Read our 2018 Mazda 6 review

It’s more of the same for 2018, but this time, Mazda wants to correct at least one impression of its very pretty, very entertaining 6 sedan: That it’s too slow.

With the 2018 6, Mazda bets that forced induction can better its family-sedan fortunes, even while sedan sales figures drift slowly toward earth. It’s a blown opportunity to make up for past blown opportunities. Now, at long last, the Mazda 6’s acceleration matches its racy looks.

2018 Mazda MAZDA6

2018 Mazda MAZDA6

In the land of 301-hp Camrys

The turbocharged inline-4 engine from the bigger CX-9 gives the 6 the urgency it’s always deserved, while it carries on with the nimble handling it’s always had on tap.

Base cars still soldier on with a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder without turbocharging. Rated this year at 187 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque (up 3 hp and 1 lb-ft), coupled to either a 6-speed manual or automatic, the base Mazda 6 is the car we’ve dismissed so often in years prior as underpowered. We’re not wrong: that wan output can be eclipsed by 100 hp or more, even without a glance at a German brand. It can be eclipsed in a Camry.

Still lower on power, but long on gutsy acceleration, is the 6’s new 2.5-liter turbo-4 engine. Sold only on its three top trims, only with a 6-speed automatic, only with front-wheel drive, the turbo-4 builds up enough pressure to spin out 250 hp (227 hp on regular unleaded) and 310 lb-ft of torque. Plucked from the bigger CX-9 crossover SUV, the engine has hundreds fewer pounds to push in the 6 sedan. From launch, a whiff of turbo lag in Normal drive mode dissipates quickly, and the 6 strains at its leash, an unfamiliar feeling for this sedan. It’s better in Sport, which nixes the lag and keeps the engine burbling with a bit of a gruff rumble a few hundred rpm higher, and keeps it in lower gears that can be modulate with a flick of steering-wheel-mounted paddle controls. The turbo-4 6 can squirt into merge lanes with aplomb, and shuffles through its transmission with sweetly responsive shifts.

2018 Mazda MAZDA6

2018 Mazda MAZDA6

MORE: Compare the Mazda 6 with our top-rated 2018 family sedan

Gas mileage is down a bit, of course. Last year’s base car rated as high as 30 mpg combined; this year it slides to 29 mpg combined, while the Turbo merits EPA ratings of 23 mpg city, 31 highway, and 26 combined.

With its stronger thrust, the Mazda 6 also got buffed and tweaked, at the control-arm level. Mazda retuned shocks for a smoother ride, mounted the steering rack to the body for cleaner response, and added reinforcement to make the body itself stronger.

The 6’s absorbent but firm ride hasn’t gone away, even with the 45-series, 19-inch wheels and tires standard on all but the base model. It remains blessed with communicative electric power steering and with less noise and vibration, that appeal to the senses has been heightened. Flick the 6 into Sport mode and with slightly more steering weight, the 6 turns into a chatty road companion, delivering information about the texture of the road that’s absent in cars its size that smother ride and handling with hidebound and heavy steering and slap-happy 20-inch wheels. The Mazda 6 does not rebuke the road like a Fusion, it reveals it.

2018 Mazda MAZDA6

2018 Mazda MAZDA6

Sleek looks, slack infotainment

Mazda knew better than to disturb the 6’s preternaturally pretty shape. Its appeal hardly has diminished since it rolled out of the automaker’s studios for the 2016 model year. With lovely surfaces, thin highlights of chrome, LED headlights, and a catlike front visage, the 6 sedan still earns some of our highest ratings for sedan style.

The twin tiers of the 6 cockpit bear similar humblebrag hallmarks. There’s a low-key, high-wattage glamour in the way the 6 frames out a simple binnacle of gauges and maps out high-resolution head-up display data for the driver, caps the dash with an amply sized screen, and wraps it on range-topping Signature  trims in new dark, tightly grained wood and sueded cloth. “Stitch me like your French sedans,” someone may have said, and the result’s a natty affair.

Still, we can’t help but see the microfiber as something on the Rooms To Go spectrum, and the nappa leather that trims the cabin comes in handsome mocha shades but has a texture and stitch pattern that doesn’t live up to the hides’ reputation.

The redesigned front seats get cooled this year on high-spec trims, but they too could use some fine-tune. The vertical seat stitching locks drivers and passengers in place well, but the seat frame presses across the shoulders of tall drivers, and the lumbar adjustment is on the puny side.

2018 Mazda MAZDA6

2018 Mazda MAZDA6

MORE: What we thought of the 2017 Mazda 6

In back the 6 has the same space as before, with little room under the front chairs for fat toes, but good shoulder and knee space, and enough roof height to satisfy 6-footers.

In Signature trim like the car we tested, the 2018 Mazda 6 enjoys the benefit of a strong crash-test record with the features roster of an all-star team of available features: adaptive cruise control, a surround-view camera system, a head-up display, and automatic emergency braking.

At the turbocharged trim levels, the 2018 Mazda 6 has power features, a a 7.0-inch TFT display between the gauges, and an 8.0-inch infotainment display. It’s now a touchscreen usable only at a stop, but alas, Mazda’s horrific infotainment system offers nothing in the way of single-click favorites lists or  Apple CarPlay/Android Auto alternatives. It also no longer offers a CD player (RIP Columbia House’s mentions).

With a long list of features, the $35,640 Mazda 6 Signature has the nappa hides, ventilated front seats, safety gear, USB ports, navigation, LED headlights, and for a few hundred dollars, truly stunning “soul red” paint. It may not have the instant recognition in the family-sedan ranks, but the Mazda 6 finally has on thing nailed: a coherent performance statement.

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