It's frequently difficult for a small automaker to break into the crowded market of midsize family sedans. It's hard enough for them to gain awareness against the best-selling Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Nissan Altima, but even once another car catches the attention of a prospective buyer, the further challenge remains of providing a clear reason to buy it over those models and other sales leaders from Ford, Hyundai/Kia, and Chevrolet.
Niche competitors have found success in various ways. Some have offered more style than the competition. Some have yielded superior driving dynamics. Others have pulled off impressive fuel economy.
The 2015 Mazda6, in its second year after a 2014-model redesign, does all of the above. A bold, aggressive front end flows into a sleek body. A punchy 184-horsepower four-cylinder engine yields peppy acceleration and economy-car-beating gas mileage. Handling is more spirited than the class norm. And while it doesn't have the roomiest interior in the class, it packs in a credible amount of space despite the swoopy styling.
But the tested fully loaded Mazda6 i Grand Touring model skips what was key to many other niche cars' success at breaking into the marketplace: value. It has a sticker price of over $33,320, and is missing several of the premium features that are making their way into a growing number of cars at or below this price, including a large, slick infotainment screen; a panoramic sunroof; and cooled front seats. It also doesn't have a luxury-grade interior or particularly quiet ride.
A base Mazda6 i Sport at $10,000 less, or even a $25,000 mid-level i Touring, are fairly strong choices compared to similarly equipped competitors, for the buyer who wants something more fun and/or expressive than the class norm. But if you want all of the coddling features that a $33,000 family sedan should offer, you'll probably be happier in a car more luxurious than a Mazda6.
Stylish on the outside
The 2015 Mazda6 reflects Mazda's new “Kodo – soul of motion” design language, distinguished by narrow headlights astride a large grille, prominently arched fenders, and a low-slung body. It's been more well-received than the classy but comparatively anonymous 2009-2013 model, which also suffered in the eyes of some critics for having been enlarged to accommodate American interior volume needs. The looks are further jazzed up with huge 19-inch wheels that are standard on all but the base i Sport.
The car's interior is far more pedestrian, though. A dark wood band stretches across the dashboard, and the perforated leather seats look nice, but otherwise the Mazda6's dash lacks either the expressive style of the car's exterior or the luxury touches that dress up many competitors at similar or lower prices. Materials are of decent quality, but nothing on the black and gray dashboard justifies this price tag.
Particularly galling at $33,000+ is the navigation/infotainment screen, a 5.8-inch TomTom-based unit that lacks the size, resolution, and readability of most competitors. It doubles as a touch-screen radio, but lacks the sophistication found in many cheaper vehicles. This sort of system would be wonderful addition to a cheap economy car, where the cost of a sophisticated navigation unit would be unpalatable to budget consumers, but it's not acceptable at this price point. The smaller Mazda3 compact car, whose 2014 redesign launched a few months after the Mazda6, has a much more sophisticated infotainment system; hopefully something similarly up-to-date can be retrofitted into the Mazda6 cabin before too long.
The gauges too are a weak point for the interior, gray and white with none of the crisp glow that's almost ubiquitous now, and with a black-and-white rectangular digital display screen artlessly shoehorned into one of the instrument cluster's three circles. Overall, the Mazda6's interior's styling feels a generation behind the competition; the gauges in particular, perhaps two or three generations behind.
The controls are at least user-friendly, which is increasingly scarce – but some competitors do successfully marry functionality with more style and more infotainment options.
In a final complaint, the turn signal is loose enough that pushing it back to its center position to cancel your blinker routinely nudged it the other way, presumably confounding nearby motorists. This is basic stuff, and not an issue this reviewer has had on any other tested car.
Interior comfort is good, though. The sporty-looking front seats overpromise, as their aggressive-looking bolsters actually curve outward gently and leave a wide flat space in the middle of the seat, but they otherwise yield no complaints. The rear seat is mounted a little too low to spare adults from banging their heads on the low roof, but the good legroom leaves it decently comfortable for two. It is not a great choice if you'll regularly need the center-rear position, though.
None of today's midsize family sedans is truly sporty, but the 2015 Mazda6 is one of the closest. It's lighter than most competitors at 3,200 pounds, and the taut suspension tuning keeps the body under control in cornering.
What the Mazda6 lacks, though, is the directness to the steering that would make the car a true joy fling around. It's heavy and slow at low speeds, and light and lacking in feel when you're going faster. It's only when you push the car hard that it wakes up, which greatly cuts into the potential for times you can enjoy it properly. The Mazda6 may meet or exceed the handling limits of a Ford Fusion or Honda Accord, but those competing sedans give you driving pleasure in a wider range of conditions.
The Accord and Fusion – along with most other competitors – also offer you straight-line driving excitement in the form of an optional larger engine, either a six-cylinder or a turbocharged four-cylinder. The Mazda6's standard 2.5-liter four is peppy and sounds decent for what it is, and the six-speed automatic transmission shifts smoothly. It stacks up very nicely against the entry-level powertrains from similarly priced competitors. But if you want more of Mazda's trademark “zoom-zoom,” you're out of luck. Mazda used to offer a V6 Mazda6 s model to complement the four-cylinder i, but that was discontinued in the 2014 redesign.
As noted, gas mileage from the Mazda6 is outstanding. The car was developed using the company's principles of “SkyActiv,” which essentially means a comprehensive fuel economy focus both in the powertrain and elsewhere. The most common Mazda6 – nearly every model with the six-speed automatic transmission – has EPA ratings of 26 miles per gallon in the city, 38 mpg on the highway, and 30 mpg overall in mixed driving. This beats some compact economy cars.
The tested Mazda6, the i Grand Touring with the $2,080 Technology Package, does better still – an increase of 2 mpg in each of the three EPA figures. It incorporates regenerative braking, a feature common on gas-electric hybrids that converts friction from the brakes into energy stored in a battery. In the Mazda6, this helps power the car's electrical accessories. This package also includes active grille shutters, meaning that open areas in the grille are sometimes automatically blocked off to decrease wind resistance. So equipped, the tested car returned an outstanding 34.5 miles per gallon in a mix of city, highway and suburban driving. Sadly, these fuel-saving extras are only available when bundled with every other features the Mazda6 offers.
A six-speed manual transmission is also available on the i Sport and i Touring, rated for 25 mpg in the city and 37 on the highway.
For even better mileage, Mazda has promised a 2.2-liter diesel engine, but after twice delaying this engine's U.S. launch, it's been mum on when it's expected to go on sale here.
The 2015 Mazda6 starts at $21,190 with a manual transmission and $22,895 with an automatic, plus $795 for the destination charge. This base i Sport model is decently optioned, with features that include power windows, locks, and mirrors; a six-speaker stereo with a touchscreen radio; Bluetooth connectivity; 17-inch alloy wheels; and (on the automatic) a rearview camera. That's a decent value if you don't need additional goodies.
The next level up, the i Touring, adds leatherette seats, automatic climate control, a power driver's seat, and a proximity key system; it starts at $23,845 with the manual and $24,895 with the automatic, plus destination. This trim also adds a pair of safety features you don't normally find at this price point – a blind-spot monitoring system, which warns you if you're changing lanes into a car you haven't noticed; and a cross-path detection system, which alerts you to cars driving past as you back up.
A $1,325 moonroof package also includes an upgraded Bose audio system, but at a sticker price of $27,315, it's at the upper limit of where the Mazda6 can justify its price tag. The availability of a moonroof on the Touring is a welcome change for 2015, and one that would have helped the 2014 car's performance in this reviewer's comparison of midsize sedans.
You can also add a $1,550 Technology Package, with the navigation system, rain-sensing windshield wipers, auto-dimming rear and driver-side-view mirrors, and an emergency low-speed automatic braking system.
The tested i Grand Touring, available only with the automatic transmission, starts at $29,895 plus destination. It is the only Mazda6 available with genuine leather seats, heated front seats, steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters for the automatic transmission, xenon headlights, and a power passenger's seat. Other standard features include the moonroof, automatic braking system, navigation system, auto-dimming mirrors, and the Bose audio system. The Grand Touring's $2,080 Technology Package includes the fuel-saving features, a radar-based cruise control system that matches the speed of a slower car in front of it, and a system that alerts you if you drift out of your lane.
The grand total on the tested car, including $300 for the red paint and $225 for various small accessories like a cargo net and door sill trim, is $33,320. Pricing site Truecar.com does not predict that you can haggle very far off the price of the 2015 Mazda6, dropping the total purchase price only to $31,211.
As noted earlier, the Mazda6 doesn't offer some of the luxury and convenience features found in a growing number of competitors, like a sophisticated infotainment system, cooled seats, or a panoramic sunroof -- even as it comes laden with other sorts of pricey technology that's rare among family sedans.
Mazda hasn't made it easy for the casual observer to figure out who should buy its cars. Fifteen years ago, Mazda's midsize sedans were fairly generic off-brand alternatives to the more established Japanese marques. Then the 2003 Mazda6 was a successful sporty sedan, before trying to use the credibility that car established to become more of a mainstream sedan in 2009 – losing many of its performance-minded customers while attracting few replacements who were looking for more than, once more, an off-brand bargain.
Today, the Mazda6 is a stylish, agile and fuel-efficient sedan that offers decent practicality at – when you go easy on the options – a reasonable price. What it's not, though, is a premium product or a true sports sedan. Shop it carefully against such class leaders as the Ford Fusion and Honda Accord, but if its strengths seem appealing, definitely give the niche player a chance.
Vehicle tested: 2015 Mazda6
Vehicle base price (MSRP): $21,190
Version tested: i Grand Touring
Version base price (MSRP): $29,895
Vehicle price as tested (MSRP): $33,320
Estimated transaction price as tested: $31,211
Test vehicle provided by: Mazda North America
Length: 191.5 inches
Width: 72.4 inches
Height: 57.1 inches
Wheelbase: 111.4 inches
Weight: 3,232 pounds
Trunk volume: 14.8 cubic feet
Turning circle: 36.6 feet
Engine: 2.5-liter I4 with 184 horsepower
Transmission (as tested): 6-speed automatic
EPA city mileage: 28 miles per gallon
EPA highway mileage: 40 miles per gallon
EPA combined mileage: 32 miles per gallon
Observed mileage during test: 34.5 miles per gallon
Assembly location: Japan
For more information: Mazda website
*Estimated transaction prices are based on data from Truecar.com and dealer quotes.