GREAT STRIDE FOR­WARD

MAZDA‘S PRE­MIUM PUSH

Mercury (Hobart) - Motoring - - FRONT PAGE - CRAIG DUFF

Mid-size sedans are as pop­u­lar as pim­ples right now and car brands are re­spond­ing by load­ing them up with fea­tures to try to en­tice buy­ers back into the seg­ment. Take the up­dated Mazda6. Sales are down 18 per cent this year so Mazda has lifted its game — again — and com­pletely re­worked the tasty cabin as well as fitting the 2.5-litre turbo first seen in the CX-9 SUV.

The in­te­rior is now se­ri­ously im­pres­sive to look at and touch. The ar­ti­fi­cial suede in­serts on the dash and door trims are an ob­vi­ous ex­am­ple of Mazda look­ing to lift the feel of the cabin, though greasy fin­gers may take a long-term toll.

The seats have been re­designed to im­prove cush­ion­ing and the top-spec Atenza now has seat ven­ti­la­tion. Un­like most cars that blow cool air on your back and butt, the Mazda6 uses its fans to suck the hot air away from your body.

A new nose that does away with the sep­a­rate fog lights in the bumper makes it easy to spot the facelift. It is part of a con­certed “less is more” ap­proach to make the car look more re­fined by delet­ing vis­ual clut­ter. For the same rea­son the chrome strip on the back of the car is now a one-piece item to avoid gap lines.

The 2.5-litre turbo will be fit­ted to the GT and Atenza ver­sions. The Sport and Tour­ing vari­ants con­tinue with the nat­u­rally as­pi­rated 2.5 (140kW/252Nm), which now has cylin­der de­ac­ti­va­tion to save fuel.

With a re­spectable boost in power, the 2.2-litre turbo diesel (140kW/450Nm) can be or­dered in the Tour­ing, GT and Atenza ver­sions of the sedan or wagon.

The head-up dis­play now pro­jects di­rectly on to the wind­screen in place of the pop-up plas­tic panel on pre­vi­ous ver­sions. It looks bet­ter for the driver and kept the de­sign­ers happy be­cause they could do away with the di­vider lines on the in­stru­ment cowl.

An eight-inch in­fo­tain­ment screen is op­er­ated us­ing a dial mounted be­tween the front seats and re­mains one of the eas­i­est to op­er­ate in a main­stream model.

Mazda’s mar­ket­ing chief Alas­tair Doak pre­dicts 3700 sales in the first year with the sedan ac­count­ing for 69 per cent.

Prices start at $32,490 and top out at $50,090. That’s sim­i­lar money to the likes of the Ford Mon­deo and Subaru Lib­erty, while the VW Pas­sat starts at $35,990 and the Toy­ota Camry can be had for $27,990.

In that con­text the Mazda6 rep­re­sents good value. The safety suite is pretty com­pre­hen­sive,

run­ning from au­ton­o­mous emer­gency brak­ing up to 80km/h to adap­tive cruise con­trol, ac­tive lane-keep as­sist, rear cross-traf­fic alert and blind-spot mon­i­tor. The Atenza adds a sur­round-view cam­era and adap­tive LED head­lamps with 80m bet­ter vis­i­bil­ity.

The up­dates also re­flect Mazda’s move to es­tab­lish it­self as a pre­mium main­stream brand, much as Honda was seen as 30 years ago. That’s smart mar­ket­ing and should help de­fend it from the Euro­pean brands that are in­ten­tion­ally pric­ing their en­try level mid-size sedans at the top end of the mass mar­ket mod­els.

ON THE ROAD

The Mazda6 has long distin­guished it­self with its on-road manners and this ver­sion ex­tends that ap­proach. This is about as good as mid-size sedans get un­til you start spend­ing more money on Ger­man ma­chin­ery.

The steer­ing is as pre­cise as ever, it changes di­rec­tion with poise and the 6 wasn’t at all both­ered by bat­tered back roads around Bal­larat. The ba­sic bal­ance shone through on a quick stint on gravel that also high­lighted the im­proved un­der­body noise damp­en­ing.

For those tech­ni­cally in­clined, the body has been stiff­ened and the sus­pen­sion mounts re­in­forced to im­prove its abil­ity to roll over ruts and pot­holes with­out up­set­ting the oc­cu­pants.

The turbo de­liv­ers a solid surge of torque across a de­cent rev band and en­dows sinewy per­for­mance. The power de­liv­ery is akin to the bet­ter turbo diesels — with­out the noise, the smell and the low-down lag.

Fuel con­sump­tion is of­fi­cially rated at 7.6L/100km; we re­turned 10.2L/100km af­ter some en­thu­si­as­tic driv­ing on an en­gine that had less than 1000km un­der its belt.

The seats feel plush and on the ba­sis of three hours seated in the Atenza they’re as com­fort­able as they look. Rear head­room is tight for any­one over 180cm and there’s not a huge gap to slide your feet un­der the front seat to try for more leg room, though it wasn’t an is­sue for my 170cm frame.

The six-speed auto — there’s no man­ual gear­box on any ver­sion — does its job with­out be­ing no­ticed, the hall­mark of a well-cal­i­brated transmission. Pad­dle-shifters are there if you’re so in­clined but in most sit­u­a­tions you’re bet­ter off let­ting the auto do its thing.

There’s the op­tion to put it into sport mode to hold revs longer or you can slip it into Eco and it will shift gears early and of­ten.

Let the auto serve up the torque and the Mazda6 is de­cep­tively quick around a set of bends. Just as im­por­tantly, it is en­joy­able and the body con­trol means the pas­sen­gers won’t bother to look up from their de­vices to see why they’re be­ing shaken about.

The traf­fic sign recog­ni­tion, dis­play­ing as both an icon in the dash and a red mark on the speedo, wasn’t fooled on our 300km drive.

In tan­dem with in­tel­li­gent speed as­sist, it is an in­creas­ingly valu­able fea­ture in states like Vic­to­ria — where driv­ing a few km/h over the limit can have dire con­se­quences.

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