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New Car Test - Mazda 6 Luxury Sedan

Struggling a class above its natural position.

By Julian Edgar, Pics by Mazda and Julian Edgar

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In the week that we had the Mazda 6 Luxury we did over 3000 kilometres. And how did we feel about the car after all that distance? Well....we were largely indifferent.

The Mazda 6 is certainly not a bad car, but equally it's not the breakthrough that Madza and some media seem to believe. Excellent steering and handling? Certainly. A high equipment level in the tested Luxury auto sedan? Yep. Space efficiency that is very good? Sure is. But equally an engine which is way underpowered for the aspirations and price that Mazda are saddling the car with (at least in the tested form), NVH which at times is astonishingly bad for a forty grand car, and a build quality which is far less than we expect from this maker.

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Let's start with the driveline, because for us it's the make-or-break aspect of the car. There are two distinct ways of looking at it: this is a four cylinder and so should be compared with other four cylinders (like the four cylinder Camry, for example); or alternatively, this is a medium sized car being sold as a luxury sporting machine - and so should have the engine to give it the performance and refinement that's needed.

Take the former and the Mazda 6 doesn't do badly: with 122kW from its 2.3-litre four it outpaces the 2.4-litre Camry by 9 per cent, and with 207Nm at 4000 rpm, it's down over the Camry by only 5 per cent. So it's very much in the same ballpark as the most recent of its opposition. Well, its opposition if you're adopting the 'must compare it with fours' premise, anyway... But it's important to note that there's not one four cylinder Camry that even comes remotely close to the test Mazda's $40,270 sticker price...

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So what about some other similar-sized $40,000 sporting cars - isn't that a much more realistic comparison from a buyer's perspective? We think it is - and then the Mazda 6 powerplant looks a bit silly. After all, typical in this size and pricing class is the 6-cylinder Camry - with 16 per cent more power but a whopping 35 per cent more torque from its 3-litre V6. Or the Magna/Verada V6 with even more power and with 53 per cent more torque! And it's the torque figure which is critical - with the Mazda 6 saddled with 1408kg to lug around (that's just 8 per cent less than the V6 Camry), when you put your foot down you always feel that you're driving a struggling four cylinder, not effortlessly powering off into the distance - as you'd expect from the sales pitch.

Of course, you can also find other cars which have similar power and price to the Mazda - the Peugeot 406 ST 2-litre, or the Renault Laguna Expression. But here's the key difference: the Renault and Peugeot are both at the bottom of their respective model ranges, which means that you're buying the body integrity, build quality (etc) of a generally more expensive car. With the Mazda 6 Luxury, you're buying the top of the range model - which still has most of its ingredients from the bottom of the range.

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Perhaps part of the problem is Mazda's marketing push. "Feels like a sports car... Looks like a Mazda6" say the print ads. "Meet the all-new Mazda6, the five-seater that's as much fun to drive as any two seater. Its 2.3 litre engine with S-VT, Activematic transmission, multi-link suspension and ABS make it feel like a sports car."

In the handling that's fair enough - the Mazda 6 corners with astonishing aplomb... it's just that it doesn't go effortlessly hard in straight line.

And sports sedans should.

In this price range, where there are plenty of cars that are all the way from slightly warm to stove-hot, that's a mix of characteristics that we simply couldn't get our heads around. Maybe our feelings would have been different if we'd been testing the Limited sedan - less equipment, same basics... and way cheaper at $30,350. But when you're in forty grand sporting four-door territory, the expectations are completely different.

Perhaps the best summary is to say that the $40,270 Mazda 6 Luxury sedan has the showroom appeal of a $50,000 luxury car, the acceleration and NVH of a $30,000 car, and the handling of a $40,000 sports car. Whether that is seen as praise or condemnation depends very much on what you, the car buyer, value most...

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So what makes the Mazda 6 such an attractive showroom proposition? In Luxury trim level, it's simply loaded with equipment. Inside you'll find a Bose sound system (which, as you might expect, sounds very good), leather, climate and cruise control, a glass tilt 'n' slide sunroof, trip computer and plenty of airbags - including side curtain bags. There's no traction or stability control, and the electrics are confined to the driver's seat. But there's no doubt that the car is well-equipped.

And doesn't it look good? From its effective high-tech headlights through to its 17-inch alloy wheels wearing 215/45 Bridgestone Potenza RE050's, it looks low, sporty and fast. (Although don't look too hard at the wheels - or you'll see the small brakes!) Ignore the lack of mid-range torque and the limited top-end power and the Mazda 6 can be hustled along a windy road very fast. Helped no doubt by its very high performance tyres, the double wishbone front and multi-link rear suspension is extraordinarily poised and competent, the steering direct and precise. There's plenty of grip and when the inevitable front-wheel drive understeer occurs, it can be tweaked with your right foot. While aerodynamically the Mazda 6 is mostly stable (and in terms of drag, it looks very slippery), occasional gusts can discombobulate the car, requiring a quick corrective steering input. But show it a fast 20 kilometre country stretch, be prepared to hold WOT for a lot of the time, and the 6 is very at home. (And a much longer drive? See the breakout box.)

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But the engine is quite loud - with a pronounced induction roar - and on some surfaces the tyres are astonishingly noisy, with most of the din coming from the back. In order to get adequate acceleration, the auto box (just a four speed) has been programmed to change down early; the result is that in normal driving there are usually plenty of engine revs on board - which adds to the lack of refinement. Talking about the gearbox, compared with nearly all other cars, its manual tiptronic-style lever works backwards - in the 6 you push forward to change down a gear.

Mazda has previously had a very good reputation for build quality, but with the 6 we wonder about that. The paint on the test car exhibited lots of orange peel, one rear door was hard to close (and the glass rattles horribly if a window is down a little when any door is shut), the trip computer stopped working five times over the week, and the odometer/trip meter lost more than 500 kilometres from the true count. (But when the trip computer was dead, the odometer kept working!)

So where does all that leave us? Well, if you want a thirty-grand medium sized car with outstanding dynamics, good looks and good space use, we'd guess that the Mazda 6 Limited would be worth a long hard look. But if you have forty grand to spend on a well-equipped sports sedan - and unless you really get off on lots of fruit - we think that there are plenty of better cars around than the Mazda 6 Luxury...

A Trip
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In addition to our normal test drive over country and city roads, we also took the Mazda 6 on a 2500-kilometre return trip through the outback. The departure point was the Gold Coast, the destination Longreach in central Queensland, the event the landing of a Boeing 747 at the tiny town's airstrip (the plane is now part of the Qantas museum), and the timeline just over three days.

All the roads are sealed and of reasonable quality, and with speed limits all 100/110 km/h it was a case of setting the cruise control and pointing the Mazda's nose. There is effectively only one short hill, little need to overtake and no requirement to stop except for fuel or food.

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On the debit side was tyre noise, seats which gave numb bums if not adjusted perfectly, vision through the rear screen which distorts around each demister wire, a radio whose aerial is very directional (excellent reception one minute, then go around a slight bend in the road and the sound degenerates into static), a cruise control that can surge badly when resuming, dismal overtaking performance, and fuel economy (8.8 litres/100km) which was quite poor considering the gentle drive, flat road and lack of performance. (And premium fuel, at that.)

On the plus side was the on-road poise, good steering, excellent climate control, Bose sound system (CD when radio reception wasn't available!), good headlights, excellent interior packaging, clear instruments and controls (including illuminated steering wheel buttons for the sound systems and cruise control), and a plentiful supply of cupholders.

But to be honest, on this trip there were lots of other cars we'd have preferred to have been in - and some cost a lot less than the Mazda...

Why you would:

  • Excellent handling and steering
  • High equipment level
  • Good interior packaging

Why you wouldn't:

  • Engine off the pace in this $40,000 class
  • NVH can be high
  • Firm ride
  • Questionable build quality

The Mazda 6 was provided for this test by Mazda Australia

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