Eric Peters: 2017 Mazda6 new car review

By Eric Peters

It’s odd that the sportiest car in its class has less engine than the others in its class. The car is the Mazda6 – and it comes only with a four.

Meanwhile, you can get a V6 in rivals like the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Nissan Altima.

But don’t blame Mazda for this.

The reason the 6 no longer offers a six has to do with the difficulty of meeting Corporate Average Fuel Economy mandatory MPG minimums – 35.5 MPG at the moment; if your fleet averages less, you get hit with “gas guzzler” taxes, which are tacked on to the price of the car, making it less competitive in the market.

CAFE fatwas are particularly hard on companies like Mazda, which sell fewer cars than the volume sellers like Toyota, Honda and Nissan.

They can afford to offer sixes in their sedans because they build (and sell) so many four cylinder-powered versions. The relatively small number of thirstier sixes they sell get lost in the wash.

To give you some idea: Toyota sells around 35,000 Camry sedans each month. Honda is slightly second. It sells about 30,000 Accords per month.

Guess how many Mazda6 sedans are sold each month?

About 3,500.

Toyota and Honda sell more cars in about five weeks than Mazda sells in a year. And that’s what lets them “get away” with – to use the perverse language of our time – offering V6s in their sedans – while Mazda no longer can.

But, it’s not all dreary news.

You can still get a manual transmission in the Mazda6 while the Camry and Altima are automatic-only, regardless of the engine you pick – and the 2017 Accord’s optional V6 only comes with an automatic transmission.

The Mazda’s also got lines.

If there’s a better-looking car in this class, I must’ve missed it.

WHAT IT IS

A Miata with four doors and trunk space.

Well, almost.

In terms of driving verve, it’s close.

Unlike most of the others in this class – which is the mid-sized sedan class, priced in the low $20s to start – the Mazda6 is a car made for people who need a practical family car but still enjoy driving. As opposed to sitting behind the wheel.

If you understand the distinction, you will appreciate the car.

Base price is $21,945 for the Sport trim with a six-speed manual transmission; if you prefer to go with the optional six-speed automatic, the price rises to $22,995.

A top-of-the-line Grand Touring with the automatic stickers for $30,695.

Other cars in this class/price range include the Toyota Camry (base price $23,070) which is more focused on being a quiet family car. And the Honda Accord (base price $22,355) which is focused more on being a tech car.

The closest shave for the 6 is probably the Nissan Altima ($22,900 to start) which is also sportier-than-most and is available with a powerful V6. However, the Altima’s only transmission – whether you stick with the standard four cylinder or buy the optional V6 – is a continuously variable (CVT) automatic. You can’t get a manual.

Which takes away points from the Fun-to-Drive factor.

WHAT’S NEW

In addition to standard Torque Vectoring Control – a system that automatically adjusts power delivery to the front wheels in relation to steering angle – you can now get heated rear seats.

Grand Touring trims come standard with Lane Keep Assist and you can also order a Traffic Sign Recognition system with the Grand Touring trim.

WHAT’S GOOD

The car for the person who wants a Miata – but needs the extra seats.

Standard manual transmission.

No turbo, CVT or ten speed automatic.

Lower starting price than others in this class.

As enjoyable to look at it as it is to drive it.

WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD

No six for this 6.

No turbo for the four.

No wagon version of the 6 for us (they sell one in Europe and Japan).

Great-looking LCD touchscreen; not-so-easy-to-use knob input.

Tiny center console storage cubby.

UNDER THE HOOD

Most of the cars in this class have a standard and optional engine; the 6 comes standard with – and only offers – one engine. It’s a 2.5 liter four that makes 184 hp and 185 ft.-lbs. of torque. No turbo, but very high compression (13.0:1) which is great for power (and efficiency) but usually requires the use of high octane premium fuel to avoid engine knock.

But that’s not the case here.

Mazda’s “SkyActiv” design allows high-compression without high-octane, which is important for more than just power because it’s a significant money-saver since high-octane premium gas generally costs 20-30 cents or more per gallon than regular unleaded. You save about $3 per tank filling up the 6’s 16.4 gallon tank with regular vs. premium. If you fill up five times a month, that works out to about $15 per month, about $200 per year. If you own the car eight years, you’ll save $1,600 or so at current prices.

That’s a decent little pile.

The 6’s four also saves you money the straightforward way – by burning less of it. EPA rates the manual-equipped 6 at 24 city, 34 highway; 26 city and 35 highway with the optional six-speed automatic.

This beats the four cylinder/automatic-only Camry (24 city, 33 highway) as well as the four cylinder Accord with manual transmission (23 city, 32 highway). If you order the Accord with the optional continuously variable (CVT) automatic transmission, the mileage upticks to 27 city, 36 highway – slightly better than the 6 automatic-equipped 6. But the price you pay for that slight MPG advantage is the disadvantage of the CVT’s shrieky operating characteristics vs. a conventional automatic, as in the Mazda.

Same Catch 22 with the Nissan Altima – which only comes with a CVT whether you stick with the standard 2.5 liter four or buy the optional 3.5 liter V6.

The 6’s standard engine stacks up well vs. the standard engines you’ll find in other sedans in this class; it’s more powerful (Camry’s standard 2.5 liter four makes 179 hp; the Accord’s standard 2.4 liter four makes 185 hp; the Altima’s standard 2.5 four makes 179 hp) uses less gas and gives you better acceleration – zero to 60 in about 7.5 seconds.

The others – with their standard fours – need about eight seconds to make the same run.

But, the others offer an upgrade. Camry, Accord and Altima all can be ordered with larger – and much stronger – V6 engines: 3.5 liters, 270 hp in the Camry; 3.5 liters, 278 hp in the Accord and 3.5 liters, 270 hp in the Altima.

Equipped with these engines, the Camry/Accord/Altima blow the four-cylinder-only 6 into the weeds. In a straight line, at least. The V6-equipped others can bolt to 60 in six seconds or less – quicker than most V8 muscle cars of the 60s and almost two seconds quicker than the 6.

Interestingly, their mileage isn’t that much worse than the four-cylinder-powered 6’s:

22 city, 32 highway for the V6 Camry; 21 city, 33 highway for the V6 Accord and 22 city, 32 highway for the V6 Altima.

The difference is only about 4 MPG overall.

It doesn’t seem like much – and it’s not, as far as you and I are concerned; you know – the people who buy and drive the car. But as far as the government is concerned, it’s a huge difference.

Note that the CAFE fines mentioned above begin to apply when a car company’s “fleet average” dips below the sacred number, 35.5 MPG. Note further that the four cylinder versions of all these cars get there (or very close) as far as their highway numbers and their averages are not far behind.

The V6s, on the other hand . . . that slight dip really tamps down the average. Just like the single C you got in statistics did to your GPA back in school.

This is also probably why Mazda doesn’t offer a turbocharged version of the 2.5 liter engine, the one use in the larger/heavier CX-9.

But that engine’s 250 hp would definitely even things up.

ON THE ROAD

This is a four door Miata – with twice the trunk space.

Like the Miata, it’s not all about the engine. It’s easy to make a car go fast. Just add more horsepower and stomp on the gas pedal. It’s trickier to make a car fun to drive.

The 6 excels at that, in spite of its relative horsepower deficit.

Part of the fun is working the revvy (7,000 RPM-capable) four cylinder engine via the manual transmission. Slipping the clutch, heel-and-toe-work. This is a pleasure not available in the automatic-only six cylinder competition.

Acceleration by itself is not always exciting. When you aren’t involved in the process, merely along for the ride. A coach seat in an Airbus – vs. being in the open cockpit of a Stearman barnstormer.

And there is lateral acceleration.

All modern cars “handle” well in the sense that they don’t pop hubcaps or squeal tires in the corners – unless you’re taking those corners at least 10 MPH over the posted limit (and usually more like 20).

All new cars feel more stable at 80 than the cars of 30 years ago felt at 60.

What separates the 6 from the family car herd is not just the ability to snake through the esses with guile, but the way it feels in your hands as it does so. Mazda controls body roll without resorting to ultra-stiff coil springs and struts –  the general practice in sporty cars – which will shake loose any kidney stones you may have in the process. The 6 rides softly – almost as softly as a Camry – but unlike the Camry, this softeness in no way impinges on its ability to thread the needle. Mazda relies on thick anti-roll bars – and torque vectoring control to get that effect.

Torque vectoring is not traction control or even stability control – systems that use the ABS system to automatically apply the brakes to correct the vehicle’s line during cornering. These are reactive system. Torque vectoring is different. It works by using engine braking (modulated via subtle alterations of ignition timing and power delivery) to weight the front wheels during high-G cornering, effectively increasing their contact patch and thereby, their grip on the road.

The system is totally in the background – unlike traction and stability control, which you can feel come on when the brakes are pumped (and throttle suddenly cut). These after-the-fact systems may keep the car under control, but they do not enhance the feeling of being in control.

Which brings a couple of other/related things.

The 6 has traction/stability control (they all do) but unlike some, you can turn the 6’s systems off and while in motion and they do not come back on, insolently, once the car reaches a certain speed.

You decide; you are in control.

Also: The 6 does not have an electronic speed limiter. Regardless of trim – and whether you go with the six-speed manual or the optional six-speed automatic – top speed is 137 MPH. Some others make you pay extra for their top speed. Not directly. But by up-selling you to the optional engine, or making you buy an optional wheel/tire package.

Otherwise, you get a lower top speed.

For maximum responsiveness, you’ll want the manual-equipped car with the available 4.10 final drive ratio; 3.81 is standard otherwise (with the automatic, too). If you want maximum mileage, Mazda offers an “e-loop” option that reduces the final drive to a more MPG-friendly 3.59 ratio – but be aware the car will feel less peppy coming off the line.

AT THE CURB

The 6 may not have a six, but it has looks in its corner.

Not that the Camry, Accord or Altima – and the others in this class – are ugly cars. But they are as forgettable as yesterday’s oatmeal. From the side, most of them look as though the panels interchange.

No panel on the 6 looks like it would fit a Camry or an Accord – or  any other car in this segment. It is a visually arresting car without being Too Much. Elegant is the right word here. And given the starting price, that is exceptional. The 6 does not look like a lesser car when it is parked next to a $50,000 Mercedes CLS or BMW 640i.

It makes them look lesser – given what they cost.

That’s not car press hagiography. It’s an acknowledgement of this car’s price-transcendant beauty. And it is proof that form does not have to follow function.

The 6 is as practical a car as the more appliance-like cars it competes with.

Front and rear seat legroom (42.2 inches and 38.7 inches, respectively) is as generous as in the Oatmeal Special Camry (41.6 inches front, 38.9 inches rear) and the Accord (42.5 inches front, 38.5 inches rear) and much less lopsided than the front-passenger-friendly but second-row-not-so-much Altima (45 inches up front but just 36.1 inches in back).

This practical interior space is also just as easy on the eyes as the car’s exterior. And – mostly – as easy to use.

Here we come to the one not-so-great thing about the 6 – about current Mazdas, generally: The control interface for the audio system, GPS and in-car apps.

It can’t be faulted on looks. But function isn’t as good as the more practical systems in rival cars. It’s a two-step process to – as an example – change the radio station. First, you rotate the knob on the console to select << or >> (to go up or go down) then you push the knob to select.

You can end-run some of this by using secondary controls on the steering wheel – which you can also order heated.

Also the back seats. In both cases, these are things that – as recently as five years ago – were only available in much-pricier cars.

It’s just a shame that the wagon version isn’t available in the U.S.

THE REST

Mazda is not the only manufacturer feeling the pressure to nix sixes. Next year (2018) the Accord will also lose its currently available V6. In its place, a turbocharged four. And that engine will be paired up with a ten-speedautomatic transmission. Better hope it never breaks after the warranty expires.

All because of the CAFE fatwas – and not just the current (35.5 MPG) one. The 2018 Accord is the result of worry about the proposed uptick to 54.5 MPG by 2025, a fatwa that Trump promised he’d rescind but the threat still looms.

If it does go into effect, we’ll be lucky to get 2 liter fours – and forget manual transmissions, because they are impossible to program to do well on Uncle’s fuel economy test loops.

Meanwhile, the 6 – though it doesn’t offer a six – isn’t afflicted by these over-the-top technological Band-Aids. 

Not yet.

Carpe Diem.

While you still can.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Despite the 6 not offering one, it’s still the standout in this class of car –  if you care about driving – and have a wandering eye.

 

Eric Peters is the automotive columnist for the Southern Arizona News-Examiner. Visit his website for all things automotive at ericpetersautos.com.

 

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