Through the memorable Zoom-zoom ad campaign and others like it, Mazda has positioned its 6 as the family sedan for people who like to drive, an enthusiasts alternative to the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. But how different is the 6, really? Automakers have long used similar claims to sell undistinguished machineryremember the Pontiac Grand Am?and there a number of real sports sedans available for not much more than a top-of-the-line 6, Camry, or Accord.
To see if the 6 makes good on its go-fast promiseswhile also delivering competitive levels of family-car utilityI test-drove two at a Mazda ride-and-drive event: a 6i and a 6s, both with an automatic transmission. I followed up the experience by test-driving a 6s five-speed at a local dealership.
Under the Hood
The aforementioned i and s trim names indicate which engine a 6 is equipped with. is are powered by a 2.3-liter, 160-horsepower Four, while the s benefits from a 3.0-liter, 215-horsepower V6 developed by Mazdas parent company, Ford.
If youre hankering for an exciting driving experience, youll likely find that the i stands for inadequate. While the 6s four-cylinder exhibits good manners in terms of noise and vibration, there isnt much oomphpower delivery remains flat and featureless until the tach needle crests 6,000 rpm. The Fours refined, distant nature (a plus for practical-minded folks) only adds to the lack of interest.
Thus, enthusiastic drivers are encouraged to stick with the s. While its V6 isnt especially powerful in todays crop of family cars (the Accord V6 boasts 244 horses; the Camry, 268), it does a credible job of tickling the drivers pleasure centers. Acceleration is accompanied by a lusty intake growl, and throttle response feels sharper and less slushy than in most rivals. The Camry and Accord clock faster 0-60 times, but the 6s subjective qualities make it more fun to drive in real-world conditions.
Fuel economy for both models is typical of the class, with numbers slightly lower than those of the Honda and Toyota. Four-cylinder 6s carry EPA ratings of 24/31 MPG, while V6 models are rated at 20/27 MPG. Both use regular-grade fuel.
Like most family sedans, the Mazda 6 is most often ordered with the optional automatic transmission: a five-speed automatic, in the four-cylinders case, and a six-speed in V6 models. Both of these transmissions are generally smooth and unobtrusive in operation, and both feature an occasionally useful manumatic gate. However, some drivers will find the notched, zig-zag pattern of the 6s shifter a nuisance.
If youre among the proud few who choose to stick-shift their family taxis, youll be pleased to know that a five-speed manual transmission is standard in both four-cylinder and V6 models. But be warned: if you go this route, itll be in spite
of the five-speeds tactile qualities, not because of
them. The shifters longish, lifeless throws and chalky engagements are marginally satisfying at best, and clutch feel isnt much better.
Twists and Turns
With only a subtly sporty V6 and an uninspiring manual transmission, its up to the 6s chassis to deliver on Mazdas sports-sedan claims. And so it does. Compared with the Camry, Accord, and even the sure-footed Volkswagen Passat, the Mazda feels like a trimmer, more tightly-drawn car from the drivers seat.
If theres a deterrent to such perceptions, its the 6s steering. The smallish, three-spoke wheel directs the 6s nose with surprising quickness and accuracy, but it doesnt convey a sports sedans sense of connection to the road. Effort errs on the light side, with a fluid touch in bends, and the drivers hands perceive only a faint tickle of road feel.
Theres also the issue of mass-market cabin isolation: in a bid to appeal to the widest possible audience, the 6 keeps its sporting intent well-hidden in routine cruising. Its suspension doesnt seem much tauter than its rivals, nor does the car hold a straight path with greater resolve. In a routine jaunt to the corner store, the 6 offers no more excitement than an Accord.
Where the 6 sets itself apart is on tighter, twister routes. Pushed hard, the 6 jinks and weaves more athletically than any rival, with satisfying tire grip and restrained body lean. The chassis nose-heavy weight bias and front-wheel-drive are always apparent, but unlike most family sedans, this one knows how to rotate on a trailing throttle, making quick back-and-forth transitions a hoot. Braking is similarly confident, with a firm, reassuring feel to the pedal.
The Mazda 6 tries hard to marry its responsive handling to a comfy family-car ride, and it mostly succeeds. Though its not as absorbent as the Accord or, especially, the Camry, the 6 rarely jostles its occupants, and it plies the highway in composed comfort. Its only notably deficient on badly broken pavement, where the suspension often feels on the verge of running out of travel.
Noise levels are a greater issue for the 6. Although its four-cylinder and V6 engines make gratifying sounds at high revs, the volume of both may test the tolerance of non-enthusiast passengers. Tire thrum becomes intrusive on coarse road surfaces, especially with the s models 17- and 18-inch Michelins.
If youre already sold on the sound of this Mazdas driving dynamics, its interior wont do anything to temper your interest. But it wont sway the heretofore unconvinced, either. In short, the 6s accommodations are midpack for the class.
Like most family sedans, the 6 seats its driver behind a moderately low cowl and a steeply-raked windshield, leaving a broad expanse of dashboard between the driver and the glass. The resulting atmosphere is airy and loose-fitting, rather than sports-sedan snug, but buyers with families are likely to appreciate the extra head- and elbowroom.
The 6s instrument panel makes a few nods to Mazdas zoom-zoom marketingred gauge lighting, triple-spoke steering wheel, and faux metallic trimbut generally, its a clean and innocuous design that attracts little attention, positive or negative. Materials quality is about average for the class, with precise switchgear, hard, pebbly dash texturing, and a lightweight feel to the cabins plastics.
All 6s are equipped with a tilt-and-telescopic steering column and height-adjustable seats, so its easy to find a suitable position behind the wheel. Nevertheless, class-leading driver comfort eludes the 6. Its firm front seats feel a bit flat and narrow, especially when trimmed in the standard cloth, making the 6 a weaker road-tripper than the Camry and Accord.
Rear accommodations are similarly middle-of-the-road. Six-foot passengers will find adequate leg room and good toe space under the 6s front seats, but theyll ride slightly knees-upthe rear cushion is too low to provide much thigh support. Moreover, 6 sedans are not fitted with raised rear headrests, despite their presence on hatchback and wagon models.
Fill Er Up
Depending on which body style you choosesedan, wagon, or hatchbackpracticality can be counted among the 6s key selling points. The Camry and Accord dropped their wagon variants long ago, leaving the base Subaru Legacy and the Chevrolet Malibu Maxx as the only other conventional wagons in the 6s price range. The Mazda is more fun to drive than either, with competitive cargo room to boot (60.5 cubic feet, versus the Chevys 41.5 and the Subarus 66.2).
The 6 sedan is a less remarkable hauler. Still, its 15.2 cubic feet of trunk space beat out the Camrys 15.0 and the Accords 14.0, and its rear seatbacks fold to create a surprisingly wide, unobstructed pass-through. In-cabin storage is good, too, with a dash-top cubby supplementing the smallish glovebox, door pockets, and center-console bin.
Overall, Mazda did an unusually thorough job of walking its marketing talk with the 6. Equipped with the V6, it engenders more twisty-road satisfaction than any other mainstream midsize sedan, with notably sharper steering, a more reactive chassis, and a sonorous engine growl. At the same time, the 6s more prosaic meritsspace, comfort, ergonomics, and utilityexceed those of most second-string family cars.
But does that make the 6 the best choice for enthusiasts seeking reasonably-priced family transport? Not necessarily. In top-line Grand Touring trim, the 6 lists for over $27,000, placing it in contention with premium sports sedans like the Acura TSX ($27,890), Mercedes-Benz C230 ($29,650), and Cadillac CTS ($29,660). These cars not only boast far higher levels of detail refinement than the 6, but are imbued with a rewarding sense of occasion that the Mazda cant hope to match. Theyre slightly more expensive, yes, but the return on those extra dollars is immense.
Thus, Mazdas 6 makes the most sense in s Sport or s Touring trim, wearing a price tag in the low-to-mid twenties. So outfitted, the 6 represents solid value not only for shoppers who find the Camry and Accord too ubiquitous, but for enthusiasts whose life circumstances dictate a midsize mainstreamer.
Feel free to check out my reviews of other midsize sedans:
Chevrolet Malibu Maxx
Ford Five Hundred
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