Car reviews - Mazda - Mazda6 - Limited sedan
Performance, dynamics, value, safety, space, quality, refinement, practicality
Room for improvement
The sedan’s lost its drop-dead gorgeous looks, no lumbar adjustment, very little else
14 Mar 2008
ONE of the most persistent automotive urban myths that needed to be debunked a decade and a half ago is that European cars always drive better than Japanese ones.
Of course, this is rubbish.
But we are constantly surprised by many people who consider something like a tired old Alfa 156 or BMW 318i “because it is European” and won’t even give an equivalently-priced Honda Accord Euro, Lexus IS200 or Mazda6 a look-in.
The latter is already a modern classic in our books.
Launched in the latter half of 2002, the Mazda6 single-handedly revived the company’s sagging fortunes with its sharp chassis and even sharper styling.
Except for persistent road drone and the over-familiarity that age and widespread popularity inevitably brings, it seems there is still plenty of life left in the old stager, which continues to look and drive beyond its station.
But a new Mazda6 is here, and the weight of world in expectation is resting on its reshaped shoulders.
Styling is a personal thing, but the base-model Limited sedan we are driving here – to our eyes – has lost the sinewy, athletic appeal of the previous version.
Where the old one was elegant and restrained, the new sedan is a little fussy around the C-pillar and tail-lights, heavy and somewhat anonymous from behind, and a little OTT with its RX-8-inspired front wheel-arches.
However, the hatch is better resolved, while the wagon seems like it is a 120 per cent Xerox facsimile of the previous version.
And this, folks, is where the whinging abruptly ends (save for a minor point or two), because the new Mazda6 is a superb follow-up that is better in almost every department.
While the previous dash – so emphatically reminiscent of the Alfa 156’s – now seems dated with its swathe of metallic-look trim, the layered-level look of the latest version is restrained, elegant and appealing.
This time the metallic accents contrast rather than dominate the varying grains of textured and shiny plastics that Mazda is so fond of utilising.
There is nothing ‘base model’ about the perceived quality and execution of the Limited’s material trim either.
Our only comment is that the use of black everywhere other than in the accented bits adds a touch of austerity. Inside, the vibe of the Mazda6 has gone from party to sombre.
The ambience is even a little oppressive in the back, since there is precious little contrasting trim to relieve beholders of the unrelenting sea of blackness.
We’re not fans of the hard, sheeny ‘cloth’ trim either. Whatever happened to soft, inviting velour-style seating? This material seems like an especially cynical way to force people to pay up more for the upstream model. And Mazda isn’t the only one doing this.
But, gee, the instrumentation is beautifully laid out, with clarity vying with sportiness to create a lovely fascia for the driver. The two-tone three-spoke steering wheel is perfectly sized and easy to locate ideally, while the stepped symmetry of the flowing centre console looks as good as it works.
We love the high-mounted integrated audio set-up, flanked by face-level vent outlets above and a trio of generic but crystal clear heater/ventilation/air-con dials. And the dash lighting includes illuminated blue pointer lights to indicate the direction of volume.
Mazda has nurtured a distinctive cabin design language that is undoubtedly Japanese in flavour but with a sort of Scandinavian sensibility too. The gargoyles that have marred so many previous efforts have no place in this car.
All four outboard occupants will find sufficient comfort and support – although the lack of a lumbar support adjuster in the Limited might put some folk off.
The new Six feel medium-to-large inside too, with ample leg, shoulder and headroom for four full-sized adults and a Halfling.
That old bugbear of Mazda’s – incessant road drone – is much reduced inside too, with such noises really audible only to rear-seat occupants, who may be able to trace it from somewhere within the rear parcel shelf.
Moving on to the big boot, we like the centre stoplight-mounted release switch and the fact that you cannot access the backrest release mechanism from inside the vehicle, adding a new level of security for boot-sited contents. It’s pretty volumous too, even with a full-sized spare lurking within.
This is all pretty impressive stuff, but since the Mazda6 is now larger, longer and wider, we expected both parcels and passengers to be better accommodated.
What astounds us most about the new model, however, is that all this comes at very little weight penalty (50 to 85kg) over the previous car.
So while the latest ‘6’ looks heavier... it’s actually lighter overall!
Under the bonnet is a larger version of the MZR four-cylinder powerplant that provided the previous model with so much of its driving pleasure.
Now uprated to 2.5 litres, it is still a beauty. With 125kW of power and 226Nm of torque on tap, it delivers a strong and steady stream of go from low revs all the way beyond the 6000rpm mark.
And it has lost none of its sweetness either, despite the fact Mazda says fuel consumption – already a strong point – actually drops even though performance has increased measurably.
In the wet it is possible to have the traction light flashing in first and second gear, so instantaneous is the torque under hard acceleration, while a smooth wad of power is there for the taking.
Our car was fitted with a six-speed manual gearbox that’s a carryover from before, save for a few modifications that result in a less notchy feel. The fact that Mazda offers this is excellent news for the keen driver, since the manual can draw the best from the 2.5-litre unit’s vast well of performance potential.
Backed up by a revised front-wheel drive chassis that has lost none of its lust for lively handling, the Mazda continues to vie for mid-sized driver’s car of choice with sharp, responsive steering and foursquare roadholding abilities.
Find a favourite corner and the Six transcends its size and seat count to slice through with stupendous ease, flowing in without any corrupting feedback coming via the tiller.
While Mazda seems to have made the wheel feel firmer and weightier, it is still light enough to be manipulated with ease.
We reckon the Ford Mondeo still has the more measured, communicative steering set-up, but it is really all down to preference of feel. What might seem a little heavy in the Ford is just fine for easy flickabilty in the ‘6’.
At higher speeds, the Mazda just keeps sticking to the road, tracking securely through fast corners and long straights, while its rough-road control also reveals a confident, controllable performer. If there was any nervousness in the way the old car behaved, then Mazda has well and truly exorcised that out of the new car.
Some drivers feel as if the brakes could have a little bit more feel when they are initially used, but they certainly have no trouble hauling the hot-to-trot Mazda up quickly and with no fuss.
During our testing sessions it continuously occurred to us how much nicer a Peugeot, Citroen, Alfa, Volkswagen or Audi would feel if their equivalent mid-sized sedans possessed the same degree of dynamic interactivity as the Mazda.
Then we would remind ourselves that this base car costs $250 less than $30,000 (before on-road costs), and that – ugly hubcaps and a lack of lumbar support adjustment aside – it simply comes with the lot.
If you love to drive and need a family car, why would you buy a competent but dull Toyota Camry, or any compact SUV, or a premium small-car? In the real world, the Commodore and Falcon are also likely to feel the supernova Six's intense heat.
Not only does the magnificent Mondeo (our favourite mid-sizer) have some serious in-house competition, but so-called sports sedans like the Alfa 159, Saab 9-3, Audi A4 and even the Lexus IS250 should also be worried.
Even the base four-cylinder petrol-powered Mercedes C-class and BMW 3 Series sedans won’t be able to shake the Mazda off too easily.
And none will be able to hide behind that old European-is-better urban myth forever either.
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