GREAT STRIDE FORWARD
MAZDA‘S PREMIUM PUSH
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.