The best in the crowded midsize segment | The driving experience here is as good as I remembered it in the previous car.
The midsize family sedan segment has always been an exceptionally fierce place for automakers to play in. Long dominated by the Japanese, the slice of the pie that remains is one that is still highly sought after. Cars like the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, and Nissan Altima have all set the expectations and are essentially the benchmarks for what the rest of the category strives for. At the end of the day, all these offerings are simply very utilitarian, high-value “medium-size” tools that integrate into your daily life. They go about their work in a quiet and efficient way, which is exactly what the vast majority of consumers are looking for.
The enthusiast in all of us may prefer to be piloting a rear-drive, high-powered sports car. However, this simply isn’t practical a lot of the time. Responsibilities in life often change the way people think about their transport, but settling down with a beige appliance isn’t the only choice one has. Mazda has been on a roll lately, and the engineering behind their much-touted SKYACTIV technology has paid dividends in reminding people that the driving experience matters and is not to be overlooked.
I had the chance to test the then-new 2014 Mazda6 in late 2013 and came away impressed by how good it felt on my daily grind. With generous helpings of interior space, Mazda’s excellent driver interface (steering, brakes, and seating position, among others), and an attractive exterior design, the 6 was close to the top of my crowded list of fun daily-drivers I would be happy to own. It wasn’t perfect, however, so the early timing of the 6’s release, combined with the rapid pace of development in the segment, meant the interior feature set became a little dated sooner than I have liked. Items such as the satellite navigation interface were no longer class competitive with the new entries within a year.
Essential to the midsize segment nowadays, mid-cycle product refreshes bring aging models up to the always-evolving benchmarks. Mazda has been hard at work on all their models, from top to bottom. Hot on the heels of the Mazda3, the 2016 Mazda6 is starting to show up in dealer showrooms. Mazda provided us with the keys to a loaded 6 GT, painted in an interesting shade of Titanium Flash Mica. Most importantly, this specific car is equipped with a six-speed manual transmission! I’ll be taking a closer look at what’s different and updated compared to the former Mazda6.
I’ve always thought the Mazda 6 was a good-looking car – one of the sharper entries in the class. It’s not quite over-styled like the pre-refresh Hyundai Sonata was, nor is it too conservative like the current Chevrolet Malibu is. Its swoopy lines speak of a modern design without being too over-bearing. The 2016 update brings newer headlight clusters with updated LED daytime-running lights in the GT model. The GT model also adds an LED light “signature” running across the bottom of the front grille. It is subtle but once you take a good look at night, you’ll probably find the updates to be incredibly attractive. Out back, LED taillights are now standard equipment across the board. The titanium colour on my particular test car looks great in the sun, and does actually look like the slight brown hue you’d find on a titanium-finished wristwatch. The GT model rides on 225-section tires on attractive gunmetal 19-inch wheels.
The most significant changes, in my opinion, happen inside the Mazda 6. The pre-refresh model was never really bad in any one area, but became dated as the competition released their updated products. What stuck out to me was the interface in the TomTom-sourced navigation unit. The screen itself was fairly small, slow to respond (relative to today’s offerings), and the secondary controls in the centre console weren’t very well integrated into the main interface. Other than that, I liked the clean and functional layout.
Mazda went back to the drawing board and thoroughly updated the interior for 2016. The navigation and entertainment interface that is making its way through the rest of the Mazda lineup now finds a home in the updated 6. Not quite the floating tablet seen in the 3, the 7-inch touchscreen interface is of an in-house design, and makes much better use of the knob and buttons on the centre console. My particular test car featured the Pure White two-tone interior, which really brightened things up. Build quality is top-notch for the class, with tight panel gaps and lots of soft-touch surfaces everywhere. The white may not work for everybody, but I love the contrast between the different shapes and colours. These interior updates resolve pretty much all the points I had brought up last year. Second-row accommodations are very generous, especially in terms of leg room and headroom. Even more impressive was the deep trunk compartment. What I really liked is the bright LED interior dome lights, standard on the GT trim. Instead of the old-fashioned yellow incandescent bulbs lighting the cabin, brilliant white LEDs do a much better job and look fantastic.
There are two little details about the interior worth mentioning – the first item addresses the parking brake. Even though my test car was equipped with the manual transmission, the parking brake is of the electric variety. I understand the little switch eats up far less space than a handle would, but I like having an analog parking brake handle with my manual transmissions.
The second detail has to do with the heads-up Active Driving Display (standard on the GT model). Being able to see your speed at a glance is a very useful thing. I was on my way home on a sunny afternoon, when a man in a Porsche Boxster in front of me kept gesturing in my direction. It didn’t look malicious, so I rolled down my window when he got a chance to stop beside me at a traffic light. He mentioned there was something from the front of my Mazda6 that was badly blinding him every time he looked into the rear-view mirror towards my car. It turns out the little glass panel used to project the Active Driving Display towards the driver was also inadvertently sending the bright sunlight forward into the car ahead.
The updates to the interior and exterior of the 2016 Mazda6 are significant, but Mazda left the powertrains alone – which isn’t a bad thing. Under the hood lives a 2.5L gasoline inline-four engine, producing 184hp at 5700rpm and 185 lb-ft of torque at 3250rpm. This engine is part of the SKYACTIV family, encompassing direct injection, high compression, high efficiency, and a renewed focus on driving dynamics through smarter engineering. This engine has always been considered adequate, but those looking for big horsepower may want to look elsewhere. The real trump card is the availability of a six-speed manual transmission, regardless of what trim you opt for. Many competitors in this class simply don’t offer a manual transmission at all, or limit you to base models. If you were looking for a fully-loaded midsize family sedan with a manual transmission, the Mazda6 is about the only place you can turn to.
The driving experience here is as good as I remembered it in the previous car. The driver’s interface is something I pay a lot of attention to. This includes finding the correct seating position, how the steering and gear shifter feel in your hands, and how the pedals feel under your feet. Mazda have been long-time masters at this game, and the 6 continues that tradition. I particularly love how the precise the shifter action is, and how predictable the clutch friction point is. Even those without years of experience managing three pedals will be superstars in the Mazda6. The modest power output from the 2.5L engine means you’ll have to work with your hands and feet a little more often than with some other choices available. Some would moan and groan and claim that stop-and-go traffic will turn most into cynics. Not so with the Mazda6. This shifter and clutch interface here isn’t just class-leading in the midsize family sedan segment, it stands out as being a good standard for all cars.
The SKYACTIV engineering philosophy emphasizes efficiency, among other things. Mazda rates the 6 at 9.4L/100km in the city, and 6.4L/100km on the highway. I did a lot of city driving on my week with the 6, and managed an impressive 8.8L/100km. The large 62L tank allows for long ranges between fill-ups. Even with the sky-high compression ratio, the 6 will happily accept regular 87-octane fuel. As is often the case nowadays, the automatic transmission returns slightly better fuel efficiency ratings. Those who opt for the six-speed automatic won’t be penalized – it is a no-cost option on the GS and GT, and is a superb transmission all around.
In terms of pricing, the Mazda6 fits right in with the mainstream volume leaders in this segment. Starting at a competitive $24,695, the base Mazda6 GX doesn’t differ in the powertrain provided, but in equipment levels. The base 6 GX comes well equipped, with Bluetooth connectivity, heated seats front and rear, air conditioning, aluminum wheels, among other things. Stepping up to the GT, for $32,895, gives you all the gadgets, such as the active driving heads up display, leather seating, satellite navigation, HID headlights, LED fog lights, power everything, sunroof, and the list goes on. My tester was equipped as such, and I’d be perfectly happy with it as is. There is, however, an additional Technology package available ($2800) that adds various driver aids, such as lane departure warning, adaptive cruise control, and forward collision warning. It also adds Mazda’s i-ELOOP regenerative braking system. The only catch is that the Technology package is only available with the automatic transmission.
There will undoubtedly be some comparisons with competitors, especially those that offer either six-cylinder or turbocharged power. Some consumers may be attracted to the better value (based on horsepower alone), but I think that the target customer who might be looking at the Mazda 6, values the driving experience a little more than someone just looking to get from A to B in drama-free comfort. At no point during the week did I find the 184hp inadequate. It simply is “enough”, and the engine really wakes up beyond 3000rpm.
Staying up to date in this midsized family sedan segment is tough. Make the first move, and while you can pick up some good press for getting the jump over your competitors, it’s easy for those around you to study the changes you’ve made. This can have the effect seen with the 2014 Mazda6. As good as it was, the competition quickly set the bar even higher. The updates for the 2016 model do a great job of “future-proofing” the Mazda6, until the next big thing comes along. These updates also elevate it to my new personal top pick in this class. Mazda has shown, yet again, how it is possible to produce a hyper-utilitarian tool that also manages to make the daily commute more than just negotiating traffic light after traffic light.
2016 Mazda6 GT Gallery