America’s Big three automakers — Ford, GM, FCA — continue to move away from conventional automobiles, while the Asian automakers persist in making investments in a segment that they soon will not only dominate, but essentially own. The latest case in point: a $1.6-billion joint venture Mazda-Toyota auto plant going up in Alabama that will build a new class of subcompact crossovers based on the small car platform currently used by both automakers.
Mazda has had many automotive partners over the decades, including a long-term romance with Ford, however this latest link with Toyota may finally be the missing piece that gains tiny Mazda the marketing clout that makes the brand much more relevant. Small independent automakers like Mazda are finding that they can no longer afford the technological investment necessary to compete in a market racing toward electrification and autonomous operating modes.
Yet Mazda has not betrayed its roots — at least not yet. A week in the latest Mazda 6 proves that the brand still embraces the enthusiast driver’s heart with a four-door offering full of zoom-zoom.
Almost identical in size to both the top-selling Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, the Mazda 6 looks leaner, more athletic and certainly more sculpted than any of its contemporary rivals. Wearing a beautiful Soul Red Crystal paint that even the German automakers could envy, our Signature edition 6 was simply eye candy. Several observers even asked if the 6 was the latest Lexus sedan, a compliment for designers working with a decidedly smaller styling budget.
This sleek bodywork masks a huge trunk and a spacious rear seat, while the front cabin provides supportive seating and a more intimate space without being crowded. Much roomier than our recent Volvo, the Mazda fits better in every way; visibility is better, access is easier (despite the lower profile of a sedan), plus the cabin’s controls enable variously sized drivers convenient access. The console is a little busy, occupied primarily by a large mouse-dial control and ancillary push-buttons for the center info panel that requires just a few too many strokes and inputs to be less than distracting. The system is slow to start up and doesn’t remember settings from start to start, a nuisance more prevalent than not with today’s electronic “advances.”
But all is forgiven when driving the 6. The chassis is lovely to work with; it responds to your steering, braking, accelerating inputs with an eagerness and consistence that other makers strive to achieve — over and over. Ride compliance is superb, cornering is excellent, and the 6 just soaks up the road no matter what the surface is. Honda’s Accord gets a lot of acclaim for its drivability; it has nothing on this Mazda.
Base power is supplied by a 2.5-liter in-line four that produces 187 horsepower funneled through a six-speed automatic. Optional oomph comes from a turbocharger mated to this engine, adding 40 hp plus a jump to 310 pound/feet of peak torque, which turns the 6 into an exciting family sedan. The turbo engine lowers your EPA estimates to 23/31/26 mpg (29.4 mpg realized), however the fun quotient was notably higher.
Built in Japan, the Mazda 6 Signature features Parchment Nappa leather, 19-inch wheels, heated mirrors, seats and steering wheel, front, rear and surround-view cameras, power front seats, plus a portfolio of the latest driving aids like lane departure warning, blind-spot detection, forward braking assist, traffic-sign recognition, rear cross-traffic alert, adaptive cruise and adaptive LED headlamps. Include navigation, Apple/Android, heads-up display, front and rear parking sensors, plus ultra-suede trim and the base sticker zooms from $23,800 to $36,815.
All of this richness of virtues is offset by a 31 percent decline in year-to-date Mazda 6 sales, as many car models are reaching a crossroads. The onslaught of crossovers is forcing automakers to create various product niches, and then include captive incentives or model features to lure buyers into showrooms. Espousing a commendable, and very loveable, dose of zoom-zoom philosophy is apparently not enough, as the 6 lacks AWD, a hybrid offering or some other hard-to-define piece of cache that will help it weather the assault of Camry, Accord, Altima and Sonata.
Lovely to look at, rewarding to drive and comfortable to experience (but with an info/entertainment center that remains a work in progress), the Mazda 6 is what critics want all sedans to be, yet buyers have yet to embrace with the vigor that they deserve.