"Mazda Makes a Marvelous Mid-Sizer"
It's well known that Mazda is working through some corporate challenges at the moment, but the company's second-half news has been, in general, far better than the headlines from the first half. Global sales are up 12 percent, the CX-5 has sold 200,000 units worldwide and U.S. dealers are begging for more inventory. There's also a new factory on the way in Mexico that will assuage the profit-killing exchange-rate woes of building cars in Japan, and the next-generation MX-5 Miata – whenever it arrives – is going to bring an Alfa Romeo roadster with it.
Still, at the moment, it's probably true that there is more love for Mazda – or perhaps there's actually more nostalgia – than sales traction.
The company would like its brand new midsize segment competitor to change that.
So in one corner we have the 2014 Mazda6. In the other corner we have the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, Ford Fusion, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima, Volkswagen Passat and Chevrolet Malibu. That is not an exciting list for a car enthusiast, but arrayed en masse it's like Neo taking on the endless Agent Smiths in the playground scene in The Matrix: Reloaded – what the other cars lack in individual character they more than make up for in suffocating, sledgehammer numbers. Example: Mazda's entire export production – that's every one of its models that it sells in every other landmass besides Japan – in August 2012 was 44,495. That same month there were 36,270 Camrys sold in the United States alone.
We asked Mazda6 Program Manager Hiroshi Kajiyama what the 2014 sedan was meant to embody, how they wanted to evolve from the second-generation car and what customers had requested. Kajiyama responded that customer perception of the last generation Mazda6 wasn't clear, that it didn't have a definable character, so they wanted to eliminate any vagueness in the 2014 car. That's why all of the big terms the company has used for the last two years – words like KODO, Takeri, Skyactiv, Sustainable Zoom-Zoom, long-term vision, light weight, driving pleasure, performance and efficiency, uniqueness and mass appeal – were folded into the recipe for the 2014 Mazda6.
The concern is that when so many strong flavors get thrown into the pot, the result often doesn't make coherent, appealing sense: you know there's a lot going on, you're just not sure what it is.
The aim was to pull the Evoque trick. The little Englishman is the Land Rover of the small premium crossover segment not merely due to the words on the hood, but because it embodies unique and definable brand values. Likewise, Mazda engineers didn't want to create a Mazda for the mid-sized segment, a charge one might apply to the last car, but the Mazda of the midsize segment.
Kajiyama said his team benchmarked the BMW 3 Series, Audi A4 and Volkswagen Passat. He said they also studied the Camry, Altima and Fusion, but that he wouldn't let his engineers drive them to and from work. Why not? "I told them 'Your senses get dull.'"
It worked. The Mazda6 definitely isn't.
And it starts with its looks. There are two "Take this to the bank!" aspects of the 2014 Mazda6, the first being that it is the most intensely styled car in the segment. We also happen to think it is the most handsome in the segment by far – and by "far" we mean at least one Astronomical Unit.
The KODO "Soul of Motion" design language was introduced in 2010 on the "Don't You Ever F@&* With Me" Shinari concept, but it's the Takeri concept introduced in Tokyo a year ago that has colonized our thoughts. At the time, Mazda said the Takeri concept would "strongly influence" the 2014 Mazda6, and it turns out that was an understatement. Look at the Mazda6 next to the Shinari and Takeri and it's obvious they were all hatched in the same nest – the Mazda6 has the same bold face with the same relationship between elements and organization of elements (the main difference being that the chrome piping underlining the wing grille makes a minor overlap with the headlights instead of being an element of the headlights); same carved, highly dimensional hood; same front fenders that fork into upper and lower shoulder lines; same upswept character line below; same rear fenders that begin to swell from the center of the car, then jut out and hang, muscled, over the rear wheels; and a greenhouse whose A-pillars have been moved rearward by 100 millimeters to emphasize the length of the hood.
Highlighting, pun intended, the forward aspect is a brand-new headlight design featuring Mazda firsts: LED halos around the single-element bulbs and LED daytime driving lights. The way the hood cuts back over the bulb, the way the LED DRLs are interrupted by the bulb and the fact that the bulbs are so far outboard intensifies the impression of a piercing stare. It make us think anime or Autobot, either one being a good thing, and Mazda estimates a coefficient of drag of just 0.26, which is even better.
It's the rear where the influence of those concept cars fades. That's not entirely true, of course, but after the knockout thrill up front, the joys are milder in back. Still good looking, but milder. The taillights, carrying on the motif from the front, are single rounds elements hung way outboard with constantly illuminated red slashes superposed in elongated housings. Between the lamps, the trunk has a larger opening that reveals a cavern with 17.3 cubic feet of cargo space, but that does include the sub-trunk – compared to the Toyota Camry at 15.4 cu. ft. and the 2012 Ford Fusion at 16.5 cu. ft
All that metal is rested upon a 111.42-inch wheelbase. That's a tidy bump over its predecessor's 109.8-inch wheelbase, and longer than three of the segment's big guns: the Camry and Altima both at 109.30 and the Accord at 110.20. The front axle on the new Mazda6 was moved forward 50 mm, and the combined overhang is nearly four inches less compared to the previous car, which is deceptive in that it appears to have shrunk by more than that.
Weight has been managed through the minute optimization of elements, part of the overall Skyactiv philosophy that includes Skyactiv powertrains, Skyactiv-Chassis and Skyactiv-Body. Twenty percent more high- and ultra-strength steel, by weight, has been included in the body, along with rigid, injection-molded foam that saves weight versus using a structural member. The HVAC unit is smaller and uses less power, the windshield is lighter, even the titanium bolts are only as long as they need to be to ensure safe performance.
The Euro-spec sedan with a 2.5-liter gasoline engine, automatic transmission and i-ELOOP brake energy regeneration system weighs 2,992 pounds. That's a 337-pound weight loss over the current Mazda6 with the automatic, otherwise known as "having your cake." When it comes time to eat it, you'll be happy to know that torsional rigidity has been upped by more than 30 percent.
The Mazda6's length mixes right in with the competition: at 191.5 inches it is 2.2 inches shorter than the second-generation sedan and 3.4 inches shorter than the 2012 Accord, but 2.3 inches longer than the Camry and 0.9 inches longer than the 2012 Fusion. The sleeker cabin does extract minor penalties in roominess, though, most notably in that the 2014 sedan is smaller in almost every dimension by a fraction of an inch compared to the outgoing car; the only gain is in rear legroom, again, by a fraction of an inch.
Without a sunroof it has 38.4 inches of front headroom, half of an inch less than a Camry, 2.2 inches less than the Altima and a whopping three inches less than the Accord. In back, it's closer, the Mazda6 only losing 1.4 inches to the Accord at the high end and beating the Altima by 0.3 inches. Down below, your legs will get 42.2 inches of front legroom and 38.7 inches of rear legroom in the Mazda6. That front number beats the Camry, loses out to the Accord by a 0.3-inch hair and gives up two inches to the Altima; the rear number beats the Accord and Altima and is within .2 inches of the Camry. Mazda did, however, widen the opening underneath the front seats for more foot room.
We'd be surprised if any of those numbers were genuine disappointments, but we'd be shocked if the cabin appointments caused any sad faces. Yes, these are subjective assessments, but to this reviewer's eyes, it's the nicest cabin in the segment, and that includes the 2013 Ford Fusion. The instrument panel treatment on every other competitor sedan – as it was done on the previous Mazda6 – is a dominant center console usually accented with lots of shiny faux-metal, and it breaks the horizontal member in two. The IP on the 2014 Mazda6 is arranged in two highly dimensional horizontal zones, the upper and lower portions divided by either a dark or a gunmetal metallic insert. It goes easy on the aluminum-look tidbits, sticking mainly with basic black plastics in various textures and gloss black accents. It only took one glance for us to decide that it looks cleaner and sportier.
Soft touch plastics are used on the upper dash and armrests. The ***** utilize black button centers with metallic surrounds as before, but they're much nicer now, the button area is soft-touch and the surrounds are fluted. They, along with the black-backed glass screen for the climate control, come off as almost Volkswagen in their feel and quality. Polished aluminum-look bits include the shifter surround, the door pulls and trim on the door handles, and the bottom spoke of the steering wheel. The wheel itself is small, but it's thick, wrapped in leather and feels great in the hands. Due to its smallness, though, the two horizontal spokes look like they're made entirely of buttons.
Behind it, the dash cluster is uneventful, a rev counter on the left, speedo in the middle and a 3.5-inch multi-information display inside an analog gauge surround, where data such as fuel consumption, adaptive cruise control settings and i-ELOOP operation is provided. Illumination has reverted to white lights from the previous red and is aided by LED backlighting.
The new, lightweight sport seats with increased whiplash protection are available heated, the driver's seat is eight-way adjustable and both front seats offer more support everywhere. When we first got in, we suspected they were a bit small, especially the bolsters – but it turned out the seats fit you like something you wear to the gym, being just enough and just right. We spent hours in both front thrones and got nothing but comfort to show for it. They will come in either black cloth or black leather, or a white leather surface with black sides and back.
The rear seats have longer cushions and are at least as comfortable as the fronts, and they fold 60:40 into a flat cargo area. If there's no one sitting back there, the front seats lean back 98 degrees – which makes us think Mazda should offer pillows as an option because this will be an awesome naptime-during-a-road-trip car. Other nice touches were the attractive headliner and roof lights for rear passengers.
The only disappointing item in the cabin is the infotainment touchscreen: at 5.8 inches it is only a shade larger than a Samsung Galaxy Note 2 mobile phone. Placed higher up the center console than on the previous sedan, it is recessed and surrounded by a thick plastic fill panel that draws your attention to the unit's small size. The thick bezel at least leaves room for a next-generation system with a larger screen, which we understand isn't far off.
There were no complaints with the TomTom navigation system, however, and although there aren't a great deal of bells and whistles, it does include all of the essential features like Bluetooth, voice command operation, address book, along with Pandora compatibility. It will even display and read out your messages on a paired phone. We also liked having the option to use the touchscreen directly, the buttons next to it or the rotary command **** and buttons between the seats.
Europeans get five engine choices, we get Hobson's Choice: the 2.5-liter SkyActiv-G with 189 horsepower and 189 foot-pounds of torque. We will get the choice of either the six-speed automatic or the six-speed manual. The zero-to-62 mph blast with the automatic transmission clocks in at 7.8 seconds, terminal velocity is 138 mph and the car will achieve 37.3 mpg on the European cycle. The compression ratio has been tuned to 13:1 for global markets so that U.S. customers can use regular gasoline – an important consideration for midsize-segment buyers. The other four engines that we don't get, both gas and diesel, use a sky-high 14:1 compression ratio.
In Europe they'll also get the stop/start system that Mazda calls i-stop, and the company's i-ELOOP brake energy regeneration system. We won't get i-stop at all, or at least not until Mazda can demonstrate its benefit to consumers with a higher fuel economy number on the Monroney. The i-ELOOP (Intelligent Energy Loop) system will come "later in the first model year in the U.S.," as an option. Its innovation is in being capacitor-based; able to be fully recharged in ten seconds of deceleration, it can power the car's electrical systems for one minute and it doesn't reroute power through a lead acid battery – parallel circuitry runs straight from the capacitor to a DC/DC converter to the accessories. The entire system adds just 10 kilograms to the weight underhood.
Putting it all together, we come to the second "Take this to the bank!" aspect of the 2014 Mazda6: the handling is fantastic. If this segment weren't such a big deal we'd be inclined to call it merely "excellent," but we want to make sure there's no misunderstanding as to the performance gap between the Mazda6 and its competitors. The engineers making the presentation practically turned us into The Autoblog Candidate with repetitions of "A precise and responsive ride," followed by "as if it knows the driver's intentions" and "achieve synchronized interaction in all areas" and "New Mazda6 and driver become one" and Jinba Ittai.
Nevertheless, their commitment to the phrases doesn't mean they were wrong.
The 2.5-liter engine kept reminding us of the late, great Walter Payton, because it is sweetness. When we spend every other day writing about family sedans with more than twice the horsepower of the 2014 Mazda6, it's a joy to have our horsepower need-versus-want meter recalibrated by a car that knows how to use what it's got.
The accelerator pedal is now anchored at its base to the floor, instead of hanging, and has been reprogrammed for more linear response throughout its range. This fixes those hair-trigger missile launch accelerations that wheeze out after 27 mph, a driving particular that the segment is known for (admittedly, because it impresses buyers on test drives).
Get on the 2.5 and it'll let you know it's working, but the in-cabin resonance is never unpleasant and doesn't intrude on the enjoyment. There's a mechanical kickdown switch when the pedal is 95 percent depressed; place the pedal against the detent and even at highway speeds the sedan will scoot up and salute. Push past the switch and the transmission will downshift as far as practicable, and the little four-pot will give you all she's got. At no time during the entire day's drive did we wish we had more power.
In truth, the billowing French countryside isn't the place to test the handling limits of anything much beyond a 15-year-old Peugeot panel van, but there are cloverleaf highway entrances, long uneven sweepers beset by cracks and crumbling macadam, and the occasional whoop-de-doo. That is to say, if you're committed, you can at least find out how a challenger in the vanilla segment answers the performance call in a field of sedans better suited to tests of baby seats and reliability.
Suspension rigidity has been raised through tweaks like that previously mentioned rigid foam being applied to the suspension mounting areas. The front MacPherson struts are stiffer, the multi-link rear suspension has raised mounts and new bushings, and both get new cross-members and are lighter overall. And even though the 2014 model has more ground clearance than the outgoing car, it has a lower center of gravity.
Those cloverleafs and sweepers not only failed to unsettle the car, navigating them at speeds that, frankly, you just wouldn't do in a family sedan unless one of the occupants was on fire, the 225-section tires never squealed. There was no heave, no sensation of roll and transitions through roundabouts were looking in the direction of flick-flick. Over whoop-de-doos, our stomachs occasionally went afloat but the car didn't.
The electric power steering was fine – or as our co-driver, not a fan of EPS, remarked, "It doesn't suck as much as most of them." Again, we weren't on the proper roads to judge fingertip feeling, but it seemed to play a single, totally acceptable tune throughout the day. Someone used to driving a Miata will consider it mute – good luck getting feedback from it. However, it most certainly isn't deaf – it'll carry out all of your commands confidently, albeit quietly.
On the straight and narrow at back-road speeds, the ride is a solid balance of sporting intentions overlaid with comfort. On the highway, the only thing we noticed was the minor wind noise around the mirrors. In town, our only niggle was the i-stop, which cut the engine imperceptibly but restarted it with a shake.
Now for the bad news: We drove Euro-spec, late pre-production cars, tuned for European tastes and riding on low-rolling resistance summer tires. Models for our market will get all-season tires and a recalibrated suspension. That means U.S. cars won't ride exactly like the cars we drove. But we were promised the changes would get us "98% of what we experienced."
They had better.
Since you can't launch a new car without enough acronyms to embarrass the State Department, at its most-highly-optioned – read, "won't happen in our market" – the new Mazda6 has a 76-GHz radar, a 24-GHz radar, cameras and a near-infrared laser managing its varsity-lettered convenience and safety systems. Those include MRCC (Mazda Radar Cruise Control), Distance Recognition Support System (DRSS) that calculates the distance to the car ahead and informs the Forward Obstruction Warning (FOW) system to display the word "BRAKE" in the 3.5-inch display in the dash cluster, SBS (Smart Brake Support) to brake automatically at higher speeds in case the driver doesn't take any avoiding action (and is a feature we won't get), Smart City Brake Support (SCBS) to automatically brake at lower speeds, Lane Departure Warning System (LDWS), the blind-spot-seeing Rear Vehicle Monitoring (RVM) system, Emergency Stop Signal (ESS) that blinks the hazards during heavy braking, High Beam Control (HBC), Adaptive Front-lighting System (AFS) and, only on automatics, Hill Launch Assist (HLA). There's also the Comprehensive Parking Assist System, which is the front and rear parking sensor and for some reason wasn't good enough to get an acronym.
We'll contribute one more acronym to describe the 2014 Mazda6: OMG. The little Hiroshima firm has done a great job with the sedan it would love to make some noise with. Yes, it looks fabulous, but no, the back of the car can't keep up with the front. Yes, the interior is well designed, but no, the infotainment screen isn't anywhere near large enough, and there really isn't that much cabin storage space, and there isn't any big convenience technology news beyond address book updates and Pandora compatibility. Yes, it is all-day comfortable and the ride is superb, but no, the electric power steering hasn't quite shaken off the Novacaine (but it's not nearly dead, which is a huge plus, especially in this segment). We could go on – we've got plenty of other yeses. But we're out of nos. After a day in the car, we really liked what we saw and what we felt.
That sound you hear? That's the elephant in the room, and his name is fuel economy. It will do no good to be taken on a brilliant ride and then told it will cost us half of everything we own every two weeks. When we asked project manager Kajiyama what the numbers were, he said to guess. Our co-driver offered 25 city, 32 highway, and Kajiyama shook his head as if to say, "You fools!" Another Mazda rep said "It'll be better than that," in the same "Oh, we got this" tone that Marcellus Wallace from Pulp Fiction used to tell Jules that he was sending The Wolf. If the EPA backs up that confidence, things get a lot better for everyone, including the segment itself.
The 2014 Mazda6 goes on sale later this year in Europe and in January 2013 here, offering your choice of eight colors. Soul Red Metallic, Blue Reflex Mica, Meteor Grey Mica and Jet Black Mica were all specially developed to highlight the KODO design language, while Stormy Blue Mica, Aluminum Metallic, Snowflake White Pearl and Solid Arctic White are offered if you like your KODO on the down low. Wheel options will be 17 or 19 inches, and in a win for us, our 19-inchers will have higher luster spokes and darker inner spokes.
When we were taking photos of the car a Frenchman walked by, looked at the car and exclaimed, "Look at that – that's a beautiful car. Mazda is too unknown..." We agree, and while the Mazda6 won't change that by itself, it is a terrific way to start.