The word “alternative” is typically burdened with a sense of shortcoming. People who describe the “alternative to” something are almost always talking about something less popular or perhaps less appealing than the go-to option. In the automotive industry “less popular” means “less sales” and Accord and Camry are the established mid-size standards. A funny thing happened back in the 1990s though, alternative music started to become more popular than pop music and around that same time Mazda designed the first Mazda6.
The first Mazda6, developed during the Ford era, replaced the 626 and was even built in Michigan. It shared its GG platform with the Ford Edge, Ford Fusion, Lincoln MKX, Lincoln MKZ, Lincoln Zephyr, Mazda CX-9, Mercury Milan, and the…uh…Besturn B70. I’ll admit, I had never heard of the Chinese market B70; it was built under the FAW Group who basically seem to rebrand old Mazdas. The initial 6 was a very attractive car and you could even get it in a wagon version. It was never considered fast by US standards, but that changed in 2006 when the Mazdaspeed6 arrived. Hitting 60 mph in the mid 5 second range, it was noticeably quick. I recall test driving one a decade ago and came really close to buying it.
The second generation Mazda6 showed up in 2009 and it was….well just OK. No wagon, no speed version, and apparently there was a penchant for something called the “yellow sac spider” to make its nest inside of the second generation 6’s fuel lines. That’s since been recalled, but I will forever give any second generation Mazda6 I come across a wide berth. Or set it on fire.
For the third generation, Mazda got the 6 back on track. That’s the good news. When it debuted at the Moscow International Motor Show, it was widely declared a fantastic looking midsize sedan and featured a bunch of new tech. The Mazda6 was back, and hopefully at that point no longer came with spiders. Or was attractive to spiders. Or was in any way spider related. I hate spiders. Unfortunately, that debut was in 2012, so this 2017.5 model I’m testing this week has been around for quite some time.
I’ll start on the outside, even in its aging state, the 6 is a still a great looking car. With broad, sweeping character lines, the midsizer has brought some much needed style to the segment that was previously missing from Toyota and Accord models. More on that in a bit though, times they are a changing.
Mazda has built a great corporate face, probably better than most other car companies. The 6 is immediately recognizable and easily compared to Mazda’s handsome SUV lineup. That’s a good thing. We’ve tested most, if not all, of Mazda’s SUVs and they are some of the best in the business; which makes sense since that’s what sells here in the U.S.. The soul red painted 6 that I parked in my driveway for a week passed the all-important “look back” test in which you look over your shoulder at your ride and hope you like what you see. The midsize Mazda sedan looks awesome, pure and simple.
It takes guts to install a white interior on something that isn’t a Bentley or Rolls, but Mazda did it. And while I’m not sure that I would spec my own 6 in this fashion, it’s pretty stunning. Across the interior, materials feel solid and more expensive than the sticker price belies.
Did you know that you can get a manual Mazda6? Well, not in Grand Touring guise, that only nets you a 6-speed auto; which is the way our test car showed up. But the fact that a new 6 exists means that Mazda loves you dear RFD reader. All trim levels share the same 184hp 2.5L 4-cylinder and it’s solid out on the road. It’s not going to win Race Wars or anything, a turbocharged option would be a nice box to tick. But in day-to-day driving it pulls solidly in almost all circumstances giving you a more “sport” than “sedan” feeling. The straight line performance is comparable, or perhaps a hair quicker, than most of its 4-cylinder power 2017 model year competition from Honda, Toyota, Volkswagen, etc. But as I said, never feels necessarily “fast” compared to the Speed6 from two generations ago.
The overall sportness is probably due more to the 6’s handling prowess vs. its flat out acceleration, the former being far superior in feel to most midsize options. We’ve moved on from the “Zoom Zoom” days to “Driving Matters” but it’s clear that the message is largely the same. You typically give up some comfort in exchange for handling prowess but Mazda has baked in some mystical stuff into the 6’s suspension. Turn in is crisp, body roll is (mostly) non-existent, yet it still manages to insulate the driver from wind and tire noise as well as bumps and potholes. It’s damn near perfect and makes one of the best daily drivers out there.
Braking is incredibly solid if not ground-breaking. Pedal feel is firm but pliable and pretty
You could commute an hour each way in comfort and then take the 6 out to an autocross event on the weekend. You might not win your class, but damn it’ll be fun.
Here’s where things get sticky. It’s widely accepted that Japan makes some of, if not the, best non-luxury marque midsize sedans on the market. You can disagree, but it’s just science! Which makes this Mazda6’s job a bit more challenging, because Honda and Toyota are wising up to Mazda’s game. The Accord and Camry were always good, but they weren’t all that enjoyable to drive, nor were they particularly attractive. Journalists like me used words like “staid” or “conservative” vs. “dynamic” or “fun”. Take a quick look at the 2018 versions of these cars below, they’re nice to look at. The Camry may even be considered “aggressive”. I was at the Detroit unveiling of the new style when the pic below was taken and many of us stood around giving the Obama “not bad” look. Begrudgingly. I even looked next to my right in time to see Rutledge Wood, who candidly gets paid to like Toyotas occasionally, giving off a “son of a bitch, they pulled it off” reaction.
So this is where Mazda needs to really up their game and give us the power to go with the looks. They already produce the most dynamic midsize sports sedan, and that’s even with the inherit limitations of the FWD platform. Imagine a turbocharged, AWD Mazda6 using some more of that magic suspension sauce and continuing that Mazda design goodness.
Although, this really going to be a continued David vs. Goliath fight against the Japanese sedan competition. If you check out Camry and Accord sales, we’re talking 300,000 – 400,000 units per year here in the States vs. 30,000 – 60,000 per year for the Mazda6. That’s an unreal disparity, but generally speaking sales of the 3rd gen 6 have been on the up-swing. And sales be damned, the 6 is just a fantastic car. Perhaps it’ll just be our little secret for now, makes for a more unique ownership experience if you don’t have to park next to a car exactly like yours.