Car nerds like Mazda. You read it in most any review in most any auto publication — the Mazda gets the enthusiast nod: best to drive, most engaging, etc. The reason for that is simple. Mazda likes car nerds too. The company works hard to take care of us. That’s why when driving the updated Mazda 6, we expect feedback from the seats and wheel to come through unfiltered and for the car to respond well to driver inputs. After all, that’s been the case for decades. However, when updating the 6 this time around, Mazda focused on refinement.
That and the shape. This 6 take cues from the Vision Coupe concept, which looks great. Clear identifiers come from the forward lean, shape and pattern of the grille, the general profile and wheel design. It’s a cleaner shape, more tightly wrapped and athletic. Details like the standard LED headlamps strike a big contrast from the 2017 model, which does visually convince you the 6 is going up-scale.
That vibe keeps going inside. If you order the Signature trim level, the 6 comes adorned in Nappa leather, suede, and real wood along the doors and dash. Those leather-bound seats are wider than before and now can include cooling. More important, they are comfortable, supportive and align the driver well to the wheel and controls. It’s no race seat, but you’ll stay comfortable on your commute, even if you take the long way home.
The 6 offers more tech too. Much bigger than before, the heads-up display shows more information in clear, appropriate sized fonts. The screen mounted in the center console for audio, navigation, and the rest is now an 8-inch color touchscreen and is named Mazda Connect. And, of course, safety systems like adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, lane-keep assist, and, our favorite, the adaptive front-lighting system which 'bends' the headlights around corners in the dark.
But what’s really safe is that you’ll have the necessary muscle to escape other drivers on the road. Plucked from the CX-9, the 6 Signature comes with a 2.5-liter, turbocharged, inline-4 engine. With the aid of forced air (and premium fuel), 250 hp becomes available at 5,000 rpm and a whopping 310 lb-ft of torque at a healthy 2,000 rpm. The standard motor on Sport trims makes a reasonable 187 hp and 186 lb-ft of torque, but has the benefit of being offered with a six-speed manual.
Yes, even Mazda, the gold standard for driving enthusiasts couldn’t muster a way to give us the turbo motor and a clutch pedal. Oddly enough, the automatic is also six-speeds. In the days of 8-,9-, and 10-speed gearboxes, that surprises. But Mazda says the bigger displacement turbo motor gives a fat enough torque curve to negate any need to add more cogs. And they’re right: the engine/transmission combination drives brilliantly, with strong pull in most any condition. But the higher speed boxes usually gain a broader gear ratio range, which improves both highway fuel economy and from-a-standstill acceleration. And I don’t mind gear shifts generally.
You may think this is all adding up to Mazda focusing on the wrong things and losing its way, but no. Thankfully, these improvements to the looks and interior come in addition to a satisfying driving experience. The steering wheel still passes on its knowledge of the road. It’s a family car — there aren’t Nurburgring lap times to talk about; in fact lateral limits are quite low (not impressed with the Falken tires Mazda chose), but the 6 still engages the driver.
Flick it into a corner and body roll is minimal and controlled beautifully. Part of that control is thanks to new shock absorbers that include a rebound spring, which adds control of movement to the shock in both directions. And, despite being a family sedan, understeer is also mitigated and easy to manage. Mazda played with the suspension geometry to limit it, which allowed the engineers to soften the spring rate for a calmer ride. Don’t worry, not every bump will send your spouse’s Starbucks to the floor mat in a foamy explosion.
2018 Mazda 6 profile in action
Though the Mazda 6 Sport starts at $22,840, the Signature cars with the turbo engine and luxury equipment sticker for $35,640 — reasonable numbers among the class the 6 competes in. Compared to the similar in size and demographic Volkswagen Passat GT tested recently, the 6 is just as much fun and more refined.
And remember, it’s not about capability, but enjoyment. For those of us who get pleasure of out driving, you can still count on Mazda to put the effort in to providing it. But this time, more of that non-driver stuff is there too. It’s like your favorite star football player graduated from etiquette school, still the top athlete, but he now also knows how to fold a napkin and eat soup without hovering over the bowl or slurping. We like it. A lot.
On Sale: Now
Base Price: $35,640
As Tested Price: $35,640
Powertrain: Turbocharged 2.5-liter I4, 6-speed automatic, FWD
Output: 250 hp @ 5,000 rpm, 310 lb-ft @ 2,000 rpm
Curb Weight: 3,305 lbs
Fuel Economy: 23/31/26(EPA City/Hwy/Combined)
Pros: Engaging drive, smooth ride, comfortable seats, lovely to look at
Cons: Lateral limits lower than expected, no manual offered with the turbo engine