I will make a pretty bold statement and say that the all-new Mazda6 gave me nearly the same driving pleasure as the high-end European sedans it aims for – notably, a BMW 335i I sampled at approximately the same time.
With looks, handling and ride – not to mention a well-detailed an comfortable leather interior, plus an impressive amount of rear-seat leg room – the Grand Touring edition of the 2014 Mazda6 seemed like an accurate rendition of the well-equipped Bimmer, for about $20,000 less. My very well-equipped 6 was just under $31,000, and the most basic version can be had for just under $21,000.
Crazy comparison. Sure. But Mazda really wasn’t kidding when they said they were no longer trying to just simply compete with the Altimas and Camrys (and Malibus) of the world: They wanted to craft a machine that was more like a Lexus or an Infiniti, but keep it affordable – and remarkably fuel-efficient.
Motoring enthusiasts will immediately point out that the 6’s standard 184-horsepower, 2.5-liter four-cylinder seems laughable compared to a high-output European machine, but even BMW has joined the global efficiency game and offers a 180-HP, 2.0-liter four-cylinder as an equivalent option for the odd, extra-frugal buyer.
Which means, technically, that you’re rocking a stylish Japanese ride with a tad more power than a European prestige vehicle. And I think that you’ll be mostly impressed with the 6’s boost and its cruising capabilities, with some fast-acting, wheel-mounted paddles to goose the six-speed automatic transmission, if required on uphill slogs.
The car also comes the closest you can get to a European-styled driving sensibility, with responsive handling and a crisp but comfortable ride – with driver’s seat ride height and position far more natural and easy to access than those Euros’ deep seats. Yes, 100 extra horsepower would be awesome, but the 6’s high-compression engine can also return at least 38 MPG on the highway.
How did Mazda crack the mid-size malaise and craft a Really Decent Car? Style is central to this, and the 6’s lines are certainly as bold and contemporary as you’ll find in luxury imports of the same size, Japanese or otherwise.
A wide, low-to-the-ground air dam and a squared-off nose plus brilliant headlamps creates a strong first impression; a creased bodyline at floor level also adds presence, as do chromed window accents and tail trim. The air foil on the trunk lid and a black plastic fascia under the bumper with twin exhaust ports even brings a bit of sporty, RX8-worthy flair.
If you want to really burn out some retinas, order one in the nail polish-worthy Soul Red paint scheme – it’s quite the looker.
The story gets even better when you settle into the buttery leather seats and take a gander at the smart but simple instruments and controls, and listen to the Grand Touring’s standard, 11-speaker Bose audio system. There’s red highlight stitching on the leather, and even the faux wood trim on the dash adds finishing details worthy of a European interior.
Perhaps the biggest pleasure – especially to those three extra passengers who often make up the crew of a five-passenger sedan – is 38.7 inches of genuinely ample leg and foot room (an attribute the second-last Malibu was absolutely lacking).
To keep things simple, the 6’s navigation system is a variation of the TomTom rig you can buy at an electronics store – and it’s about the car’s only technological letdown. Otherwise, the car’s pre-loaded with the kind of stuff you used to only find on high-end imports, including a center console-mounted joystick to help with navigation input, a blind-spot monitoring system and even the Smart City Brake Support system – which uses a laser sensor to intervene on the brakes if you encounter vehicles or pedestrians in your path and are distracted.
In an unusual but welcome move, Mazda will be offering a 2.2-liter turbodiesel engine as an option, later this year; there’s also a hybrid-styled brake energy recovery system that can help power the car’s electrical system.
I got my turn in the new Mazda6 a little too late to put its Bridgestone Blizzak DM-V1 tires to the test, but they would certainly help make the car absolutely winter worthy, even without all-wheel drive.