Car reviews - Mazda - Mazda6 - sedan/hatch/wagon range
Styling, extra space, improved noise/refinement, extra performance, even sharper steering/handling, value for money
Room for improvement
Rear vision in hatch, still not the quietest in class, many rivals offer a six-speed auto, could still use more power
15 Feb 2008
MAZDA has done it again. Far from resting on the laurels earned by its original Mazda6 - which became one of Australia’s most popular mid-sizers of all time and was second only to Toyota’s fleet-favourite Camry in terms of popularity - the revitalised Japanese maker has followed up last year’s all-new Mazda2 and seven-seat CX-9 with a new medium-size sedan, hatch and wagon range that is better in almost every respect.
First, although its heavily stylised tail-lights can appear to have been an afterthought from some angles, we think the sedan’s plunging roofline makes the four-door the pick of the Mazda6 bodystyles – despite the fact the wagon is one of the best load-lugging shapes around and the hatch’s roof is even more coupe-like.
And, with a seatbelt warning panel that protrudes from the roof lining and a gimmicky rear wing, the “faster” rear glass makes rear vision poor in the hatch.
Of course, that is a minor complaint in one of three striking new bodyshell designs that, overall, represent an unmistakably more modern, yet faithful follow-up, to the first Mazda6’s ground-breaking upmarket styling.
Even more important, however, are the advances Mazda has made in the ride and handling department – an area in which the original Six set new benchmarks for a Japanese mid-sized model. Our first drive, on European roads last year, revealed the new Mazda6 as an even sharper device that does not sacrifice ride comfort for dynamics.
Our first taste on local roads, via a testing 500km-plus route through the Victorian and New South Wales high country between Albury and Canberra (including a long stretch of unsealed surfaces in torrential rain) proved the new Six is equally at home on Australian roads, including typically coarse-chip back-roads.
Excessive engine and road noise was one of the few criticisms levelled at the first Six and its successor is noticeably better in both respects. A direct comparison with Ford’s equally striking new Mondeo will prove or disprove it, but we suspect the Mazda still falls short of some of its medium rivals when it comes to interior noise suppression.
Of course, a full-noise blast through some of the best undulating roads in Australia was always going to test the larger and more flexible four-cylinder in the new Six, which sounds pleasingly purposeful and feels more muscular at low engine speeds, but still struggles with steep inclines.
Notwithstanding its totally linear power delivery, all three versions of the Mazda6 we drove required upwards of 4000rpm (and sometimes closer to the 6500rpm cut-out) to deliver consistently rewarding open-road progress, and the unexpectedly wide gap between the second and third-gear ratios in the five-speed automatic transmission made the self-shifting version feel decidedly slower than the slicker-shifting manual.
The addition of highly ergonomic paddle shifters on the steering wheel for the auto model (thumb-push to change down, pull back to change up) made light work of the inevitable cog-swapping, but the more closely spaced ratios of a six-speed automatic such as the one offered as standard in the Mondeo would make it even better.
That said, the smoother, quieter new powertrain still gives the slightly heavier new Six a significant performance edge over its predecessor overall.
It's also and more fuel-efficient. We clocked up a surprisingly frugal 9.0L/100km in a manual hatch and about 10.5L/100km in an auto.
But improvements in the chassis department are likely to be more apparent to most drivers.
The stiffer new bodyshell that helps make the MkII Six so much quieter also makes it even more accomplished than its formidable forebear when it comes to dynamics. The first Six established itself as one of the best-handling front-drive mid-sizers ever, and its replacement is unexpectedly better.
Despite the fitment of RX-8-style electric power steering, which blights many models, including BMW’s Z4 sports car, the Six turns in with even more alacrity and precision than before. There’s so much feel and feedback from the well-weighted tiller, as evidenced on the extensive slippery gravel we encountered, that switching off the unobtrusive yet highly effective standard stability control system is not nearly the confidence-sapping ordeal it can be in many cars.
Mild, safe understeer develops at the (seriously sufficient) limit of adhesion and there is a hint of bump-steer when pushed too ambitously over mid-corner road ruffles, but once pointed in the right direction the Six holds a line mid-corner with the precision of many German mid-sizers.
This Mazda’s new-found level of high-speed cornering composure and straightline stability makes it an all-weather, all-road performer par excellence.
The new Six’s chassis is so taut it makes the omission of an all-wheel drive, turbocharged MPS version (apparently forever) even more disappointing and the possibility of a new-generation turbo-diesel option is mouth-watering. In fact, it feels tight enough to handle V6 power.
Despite the distinct lack of bodyroll and pitch, ride quality remains cossetingly compliant - although the 18-inch wheeled Luxury Sports flagship we drove was appreciably firmer and coarser than cars on 17-inch rubber.
Thanks to higher-quality materials (the Luxury Sport’s piano-black console finish is a stand-out) and even better attention to detail, the strikingly upmarket interior not only manages to improve on the previous model’s already sophisticated dashboard design, but does an impressive job of attracting as much interest as the stylish exterior.
The highly ergonomic cabin layout, user-friendly performance and extremely neutral handling combine to make the new Six one of those cars that feels instantly familiar, unintimidating and satisfying to drive in any circumstance. And it offers more of the unashamedly sporting Japanese personality its predecessor introduced six years ago.
We love the clever mobile phone-style “CF-Net” steering wheel controls that cycle through the various air-conditioning, sound system and, in upstream versions, trip computer functions, for instance, as well as the supportive seats and more spacious rear seat that more comfortably accommodates three adults.
There is enough boot-space to get Falcon drivers asking questions and, along with the split-folding rear seat that is missing from a Commodore, there’s still room for a full-size spare wheel/tyre across the range.
The new Mazda6 is not perfect and will face considerably stiff competition from Ford’s relatively unknown new Mondeo and, again, Honda’s upcoming Accord Euro replacement.
But, as a successor to the model that sparked a sales resurgence for the struggling Japanese brand early this decade, the new Mazda6 exceeds all our expectations.
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