Car reviews - Mazda - Mazda6 - Atenza sedan
Excellent safety equipment and instrument panel update, classy and comfortable, still a cracker dynamically
Room for improvement
Glitchy sat-nav, usability quirks, cheap-feeling boot, over-zealous self-locking, space-saver spare
20 Dec 2016
Price and equipment
AT $45,390 plus on-road costs, the Atenza tested here is the most expensive petrol sedan in the Mazda6 range and comes comprehensively loaded with equipment.
To spend more requires selecting Mazda’s more fuel-frugal and punchier diesel engine, the advantages of which are offset by rattle, clatter and additional vibration.
It is probably easier to list what the Atenza doesn’t come with: Ventilated front seats, rear window blinds, a panoramic sunroof and wireless device charging. See Mazda’s South Korean rivals if any of these items are a must-have, because the only option on the car tested was $250 metallic paint.
Then again, the Mazda6 is pretty high up the tree in terms of safety tech with this latest update and that is hard to put a price on.
We only really missed the cooled seats and rear blinds, especially as the black Nappa leather upholstery and black headlining of our test car conspired to make the interior oven-like as the start of summer was marked by a searing heatwave.
Fortunately, the dual-zone air-conditioning proved mighty effective in the hot Queensland conditions of our test. The classy new leather-wrapped multi-function steering wheel required oven gloves, though.
These matters aside, the big news for the updated Mazda6 is the safety tech, with effective, accurate traffic sign recognition added to the excellent and now full-colour head-up display and the inclusion of pedestrian detection with the autonomous emergency braking system that now operates at up to 80km/h (previously just 30km/h).
Collision warning and mitigation has also been improved, with an operating range between 15km/h and 160km/h. It works, as our Mazda demonstrated by flashing up ‘BRAKE’ in the head-up display on a 110km/h stretch of motorway when cars in front of us braked hard to avoid a tyre in the middle of the central lane. It also let us know once it was disengaged below 15km/h.
The adaptive cruise control is among the best we’ve used, as was the spookily accurate driver fatigue warning. Lane-keeping assistance is not quite up there with the Germans but still flashes up a warning if it thinks the driver has taken their hands off the wheel, while the blind-spot monitoring and lane-departure warning systems are enhanced no end by icons in the head-up display.
We never had cause to test the forward obstruction warning, which makes the driver check their intentions when the gear selector is in Drive and they go to accelerate into a stationary object. We wished the standard electric park brake had an auto-hold feature and would activate automatically when parking.
Through the 7.0-inch touchscreen, Bluetooth phone connection was easy to set up but using the audio streaming and USB input less so, with a dated interface and cryptically named ‘root menu’ required to access playlists, which are pumped through an excellent Bose 11-speaker stereo. There is also Internet radio integration, and sat-nav that sometimes refused to work without restarting the car on this, and other Mazdas driven around the same time.
Better was the fish-eye reversing camera and front/rear parking sensors with rear cross-traffic alert, and the auto-dimming rearview mirror was great on the motorway at night. As expected at this price point, while the front seats have power adjustment with eight directions and a two-position memory for the driver and six directions for the passenger.
There is a restrained elegance about the Mazda6 interior, backed up by quality materials, convincing finishes, classy ambient lighting and a general sense of solidity.
Put it this way, stepping into the Mazda6 Atenza after spending time in an Audi or Lexus would not feel disappointing. This is easily one of, if not the best cabins for the money.
The Mazda6 also has some of the brand’s best front seats, quite unlike the bum-numbing perches fitted to its SUVs. They are excellently shaped for comfort and support, with plush Nappa leather upholstery and classy titanium-coloured piping that helps break up the overwhelming blackness of the Atenza cabin, which for some reason has the type of coalface-coloured ceiling usually reserved for creating a purposeful ambience in performance cars.
We were also impressed by the head-up display, which rivals those of premium brands for colour, clarity and range of functions. Even better, it remains visible when the driver is wearing polarised sunglasses. The road-sign recognition is swift and accurate, as are the driver-assistance displays.
During everyday driving, the only reasons we needed to look at the instrument panel were for the fuel gauge and trip computer, the latter having been upgraded for more comprehensive functionality.
Taking up a third of the instrument pack, it’s now a full-colour digital display with attractive graphics proving Mazda can do nice interfaces. But ambiguous labelling meant it took us a while to figure out which steering wheel button scrolls through the options and resets the trip.
Plenty of well-sized storage options are scattered throughout the cabin, although the rear door bins are for small drinks bottles only.
Mazda’s weight-saving measures conspired to furnish the boot with a flimsy carpet floor and even flimsier, wobbly plastic storage tray beside it. The space-saver spare is seriously skinny, too, and at 474 litres, the boot is far from class leading in capacity. Several cars from the next class down can fit more cargo. The aperture is a bit small and the lip gets in the way when loading bulky objects, too.
As expected for the mid-size sedan segment, tall adults can sit in tandem, but what surprised us was that legroom was not a significantly greater in the Mazda6 compared with the Mazda3 sedan.
Fitting an Isofix child seat is straightforward and the doors are tall and wide enough for easy loading and unloading of infants from their rear-facing capsules. But yes, it is a bit more difficult doing this with a low-slung sedan than one of the never-endingly popular SUVs.
Much improvement has gone into engine refinement and sound-deadening since the current-generation Mazda6 went on sale and it shows. No longer do we mistake the petrol engine for a diesel at cold-start or complain about vibrations coming into the cabin. We never noticed wind noise and even the long-time Mazda bugbear of road roar only reared its head on the coarsest of country roads.
Letting down the interior experience was the MZD Connect multimedia system.
Only after three weeks behind the wheel of various Mazdas did we finally became accustomed to it, but the naff red-on-black graphics and clunky menu system still grated.
That it took so long for us to get our heads around it says a lot about the user-unfriendliness, but apart from the lack of Apple CarPlay or Android Auto smartphone integration, the Mazda system is not lacking in features.
Its rotary controller with secondary volume knob and shortcut buttons represents a successful combination of Audi MMI and Mercedes Comand systems that looks and feels really upmarket, but the execution is woeful. It is the single biggest letdown of otherwise excellent interiors.
Worse, the sat-nav got stuck on a ‘loading’ screen that required a full engine restart to rejuvenate – a problem we encountered on more than just this Mazda.
But like we said, we eventually got used to the infotainment system and its foibles did little to spoil our enjoyment of an otherwise excellent car with beautiful interior. And the sat-nav glitch, while annoying and inconvenient, is probably just a dealership software update away from rectification.
Engine and transmission
The 2.5-litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder petrol engine fitted to our test car produces 138kW of power at 5700rpm and 250Nm of torque at 3250rpm.
Rivals vary greatly in engine outputs, from the weedier 129kW/225Nm Honda Accord to the grunty 180kW/350Nm from a Hyundai Sonata or Kia Optima and the howling 191kW/350Nm flat-six Subaru Liberty. A VW Passat in the same price range produces similar figures to the Mazda but its smaller 132kW turbo engine generates its full 250Nm of torque at much lower revs.
Numbers only tell part of the story and the Mazda unit is a peach. In the relatively heavy Mazda6, the engine provides adequate and willing, rather than rapid and rousing propulsion – it’s pretty perky in the 170kg-lighter Mazda3 – but goes about its duties with enough verve and vigour.
We are happy to report the engine to be responsive and smooth during normal use. Only at high revs under part throttle does it sound a bit thrashy.
The six-speed automatic transmission continues to impress as a Mazda masterpiece, providing quick and slick shifts, intelligent ratio selection, and driver satisfaction, achieving the latter even without resorting to the slightly slow-responding paddle-shifters.
It outclasses the various dual-clutch units out there, not to mention the dull CVTs used by the brand’s Japanese compatriots (except Honda with its old-school five-speed auto).
Our week of mainly suburban driving in hot, humid weather with the air-conditioning pelting returned fuel consumption of 9.2 litres per 100 kilometres, which increased to 9.4L/100km after we flogged it along our dynamic test route. Much better was the 5.3L/100km achieved during a mix of 110km/h and 100km/h motorway driving.
For comparison, the official combined-cycle consumption is 6.6L/100km and for the record, we previously averaged in the mid-sevens when road-testing a petrol Mazda6 so the heat and air-con loads probably contributed to the additional thirst.
Ride and handling
There is no doubt the Mazda6 Atenza rides pretty firmly on its 19-inch alloy wheels, but none of the big hits we subjected it to caused bottoming out and impacts are both well controlled and quickly recovered from. On really poor surfaces the Mazda deals with each obstacle in turn rather than storing up the energy and losing composure.
It is also impressively consistent between low- and high-speed driving. Some cars are crashy in urban scenarios but settled on the motorway, but the Mazda has both ends of the spectrum well covered with sufficient compliance and plenty of confidence throughout. Likewise, suspension noise is now well suppressed, a key improvement over bump-thump-prone early examples.
Downsides? The quick steering rack hits its lock-stops sooner than expected and results in a rather large 11.2-metre turning circle, which makes tight car park spaces a challenge.
On the other hand, the steering weight is well judged at all speeds and comes alive when tackling fast, twisty roads. Few competitors come close in this regard and the Mazda6 remains a top choice for keen drivers. Such was our enjoyment along the dynamic test route that we almost turned around for another go.
To that end there is plenty of grip, but not so much that it gets boring without attracting unwanted attention from radar-toting employees of the taxpayer.
Where this big, front-drive Mazda truly impresses is in the tight bends that cause most cars to, literally and figuratively, come unstuck. Whether this is an effect of Mazda’s G-Vectoring Control system we are not sure, but the ambitious entry speeds we could sustain and build on, neatly and safely all the way through a bend, was staggering.
A great driver’s car rewards you when you get it right and the Mazda6 is one of those cars. It manages this without resorting to a rock-hard ride, adaptive dampers or multitudes of driving modes (there is just a Sport setting on the transmission) and that is quite a feat.
What if you never drive for fun? Will you still enjoy the Mazda6 while commuting or running suburban errands? Absolutely, and that’s the beauty of it.
Safety and servicing
ANCAP awarded the Mazda6 range with a maximum five-star crash-test safety rating when it was launched in December 2012. While the car’s strong structural integrity will have remained the same, it has been fitted with a lot more crash-avoidance technology since then.
Service intervals are 10,000km or 12 months, with Mazda’s capped-price maintenance program alternating between $301 and $330 per visit plus a range of extra-cost items.
Unlike most competitors, Mazda’s three-year, unlimited kilometre warranty does not include roadside assistance, although customers can purchase two levels of cover through the Mazda Australia website.
Mazda has done a great job of ensuring time does not diminish the appeal and relevance of its mid-size sedan, coming from the advantageous position of a brilliant starting point when the current Mazda6 generation launched in late 2012.
If you refuse to follow the crowd into an SUV with the promise of more practicality and the allure of adventure, the Mazda6 is a fantastic reminder of why Australians have loved sedans for decades. We maintain that nothing drives quite like a well-sorted sedan.
Classy, spacious and efficient, the Mazda6 is a pleasure to drive and a joy to drive hard. It remains, in many ways, a cut above the competition and the latest update has elevated it substantially in numerous areas.
Most of all, it provides the most feel-good factor from a mid-size sedan without venturing into luxury brand territory.
Subaru Liberty 3.6R ($42,490 plus on-road costs)Desirable again thanks to a sharp redesign inside and out, and an absolute bargain with a long equipment list including the clever EyeSight active safety technology and, of course, Subaru’s excellent all-wheel-drive dynamics. The 3.6-litre flat-six engine is thirsty but sounds great and provides armfuls of thrust.
Toyota Camry Atara SL Hybrid ($40,440 plus on-road costs)A great effort with heaps of interior space, superb fuel-efficiency, a decent turn of speed and even some surprising dynamic sparkle. Sharply priced, too.
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