Why have buyers all but ignored the most stunning midsize sedan on the market today?
“I wouldn’t buy it. I’d rather have a truck,” said the US Customs officer when I queried him on his take of the 2017 Mazda 6 Grand Touring I was attempting to return to Detroit. “But if I were to buy Japanese, I’d get a Toyota… or a Honda.” It’s a familiar refrain among American buyers: Toyota and Honda are viewed as the top mainstream carmakers of the land. Mazda? The small, Japanese independent automaker doesn’t even register—which, frankly, confused me.
Where I’m from—the Great White North—buyers can’t get enough Mazdas. Canadians bought more Zoom-Zoom-branded vehicles in 2017 than in any other year since 2010, making it the 11th most-popular brand in the country ahead of Jeep, Subaru, and every premium marque. In the States? It’s 17th—outsold by Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Lexus. For every Mazda 6 purchased in the United States in 2017, Toyota sold approximately 11 Camrys, Honda more than nine Accords. Constable Border Officer then turned my question back at me. “Would you buy it?”
Since its third-generation debut, I’ve absolutely adored the Mazda 6—and I’m not alone. Gaggles of automotive journalists have lauded the 6 for the gorgeous sheet metal that introduced us to the automaker’s KODO design language in 2012. The same basic lines later proliferated throughout the company’s model lineup to create some of the most visually appealing cars and SUVs on the market today. But it all started with the 6, which, in my mind, is not just the best-looking midsize sedan you can buy, but the best-looking car on the market. Bar none. Period. Full stop. The Mazda 6 is my personal version of automotive design perfection. So why doesn’t anyone buy it?
I jumped in the latest Mazda 6 to find out.
For starters, our tester was not the forthcoming, turbocharged, 2018 Mazda 6 previewed at the 2017 Los Angeles Auto Show. Instead, we took the wheel of a 2017.5 model—yes, point five—that will act as this generation’s mid-cycle swan song. That decimalized model-year notation brought with it some additional standard kit for Sport and Touring models, but nothing new for our top-spec Grand Touring tester. All Mazda 6s, regardless of trim, are powered by one engine: a 2.5-liter Skyactiv-G DOHC inline-4 with variable valve timing, good for 184 horsepower and 185 lb-ft of torque.
For a brand that claims “Driving Matters,” those disappointing figures make the Mazda 6 a middling performer versus its peers; slightly more horsepower or torque than base engines found in the 2018 Nissan Altima (2.5), Ford Fusion (2.5), Chevrolet Malibu (1.5T), Hyundai Sonata (2.4), Kia Optima (2.4), Subaru Legacy (2.5), and Volkswagen Passat (2.0T), but less than the segment leading, 203 hp, 2.5-liter 2018 Toyota Camry and 192 hp, turbocharged, 1.5-liter 2018 Honda Accord. Still, there’s an important point to keep in mind here: every single vehicle mentioned above offers a more powerful, upgraded engine option, whether it be a turbo four-pot or naturally aspirated six—that is, except the Mazda 6.
The new 2018 model will fix the 6's engine-output deficit with the 2.5-liter turbocharged inline-4 from the CX-9, but that car hasn't quite arrived yet. Instead, we must make do with the current, naturally aspirated 2.5-liter engine—a decent performer with smooth power delivery that’s faintly unpleasant to the ear at idle and mid-trot. Our Grand Touring tester can only be had with a six-speed automatic, but lesser trims are available with a damn-near-perfect six-speed manual if you’re into that sort of thing. Fuel economy is rated at 35 miles per gallon highway and 26 city for an Environmental Protection Agency combined rating of 29 mpg when paired with the six-speed auto.
Our tester was additionally optioned with the Grand Touring Premium Package, which included the fuel-saving i-ELOOP mild-hybrid system. It bumped the official EPA city fuel-economy rating by 1 mpg to 27 and combined rating to 30 mpg. According to the EPA, every other midsize sedan offers a model with better fuel economy except the 2018 Ford Fusion and 2018 Subaru Legacy, leaving the Mazda at a distinct disadvantage in courting more frugally minded buyers. During my week with the 6, which included two 80-mile highway trips and a few city- and country-road jaunts, real-world fuel economy rang in at 28 mpg. Everything else about the Mazda 6 follows the same formula as its engine performance and fuel economy.
Its suspension, while more than capable of handling the twisties thanks to its now-standard G-Vectoring Control, lacked comfort where most midsize-sedan buyers will spend most of their time—the highway. Its steering was deadly accurate, but a touch heavy. Its Nappa leather-trimmed seats were gorgeous and decently supportive, but not comfortable on longer trips. And its infotainment system, while easy to use via the command knob placed between the front seats, put up roadblocks to functions that should have been accessible while driving. That last bit—Mazda’s infotainment system—bordered on idiocy.
During a nighttime drive from Detroit to my home, one of the LEDs that provides ambient light to the cabin glowed with the strength of a thousand suns. I searched frantically for a physical interior-light knob that might have controlled it, but then realized it must have been an option buried deep within Mazda's infotainment system. After I dug through the menus, I eventually found the ambient light setting, only to be thwarted by a greyed-out option signifying its unavailability while I was in motion. The result? I had to pull over on the side of the road and come to a complete stop, all to dim an interior light. How nuts is that? The Mazda 6 offers nothing truly unique to set it apart from the pack.
There’s no available all-wheel drive, no diesel (which Mazda promised for years), and no manual transmission available on top-trim models. It doesn’t have the roomiest back seat, the biggest trunk, or even Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. Aside from being pretty, it doesn’t do a single thing better than any of its peers. Nothing. The Mazda 6’s sheet metal signs checks the rest of the car just can’t cash. Those still tinkering with the idea of purchasing a Mazda 6 will need to shell out at least $21,945 plus an $890 destination fee to take one home—but that’s the price for those adept at changing gear on their own. The six-speed automatic will set you back another $1,050 on the Sport trim.
Our Grand Touring tester, equipped with the slushbox as standard, started at $30,695, but that’s before the Grand Touring Premium Package bumped it up another $2,500 to $33,195. Other options, such as its marvelous Soul Red Metallic paint, carpet cargo mat, rear bumper guard, and doorsill trim plates, tacked on a further $625. Combined with a non-negotiable $890 destination fee, our tested example's window sticker showed $34,710 before taxes and other fees. Considering the level of equipment, that price makes this particular Mazda 6 the second most expensive midsize sedan you can buy, just behind the 2018 Toyota Camry. Other competitors range between a couple hundred to a few thousand dollars less.
If there’s any saving grace here for the Mazda 6, it’s this: if you walk into a Mazda dealer and show any kind of interest in a 6, you’re highly unlikely to pay sticker. As of this writing, Mazda will give you a choice of $2,500 customer cash or 0% financing for up to 60 months and $500 cash on new ’17 and ’17.5 Mazda 6 models—making it the most incentivized Mazda in the lineup. Those discounts apply before you get down to haggling—and trust me, there’s haggling to be done. In the end, I actually liked the Mazda 6—or at least the idea of it—but I knew how to answer the Customs officer’s question if I was being honest with myself. “I wouldn’t buy a Mazda 6,” I earnestly replied. “At least, not this one, not yet.”