2018 Mazda 6 Test Drive Review: Boost Makes The Heart Grow Fonder

Test Drive

Can the addition of a turbocharger reinvigorate the Mazda 6?

Ever since the introduction of the third generation Mazda 6 for the 2014 model year, the car has been missing one thing: power. We have praised the Mazda 6 for being one of the most attractive and fun-to-drive mid-size sedans on the market, but it has struggled to compete with more powerful turbocharged and V6-powered models in the segment. For the 2018 model year, Mazda has finally listened to our pleas and has stuck the 2.5-liter turbocharged SkyActiv four-cylinder engine from the three-row CX-9 into its handsome sedan. The addition of a turbocharger completely transforms the Mazda 6 experience mostly for the better, though it hasn't turned out exactly as we'd hoped.

My test car was a 2018 Mazda 6 Signature finished in Snowflake White Pearl Metallic with a Chestnut Brown Nappa leather interior. The Signature trim acts as the most luxurious in the range with a starting price of $34,750. Mazda doesn't really do expensive option packages, so my tester only had a small amount tacked on to the price in the form of a cargo mat ($75), Snowflake White paint ($200), scuff plates ($125), and a delivery fee ($890), bringing the as-tested price up to $36,040.

The base engine is a 2.5-liter four-cylinder SkyActiv producing 187 hp and 186 lb-ft of torque going out to front-wheel-drive. The base Sport trim starts at a reasonable $23,000 and is the only trim level to offer a six-speed manual transmission. The mid-level Touring trim costs $25,700 and adds niceties such as leatherette seats, a power driver's seat, moonroof, heated seats, and radar cruise control. If you can live without the turbocharged power, the Touring trim seems like an excellent value among the 6 range.

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Stepping up to the Grand Touring is the biggest leap in price at $29,200, but it adds the 2.5-liter turbocharged SkyActiv engine, built-in navigation, and 11-speaker Bose audio. The turbocharged engine offers a massive bump in power with 250 hp (or 227 hp on 87-octane gas) and 310 lb-ft of torque going out to the front wheels exclusively through a six-speed automatic. The Grand Touring Reserve adds a driver's display and heated rear seats for $31,700, and the Signature trim comes decked out with a 360-degree camera, front and rear parking sensors, and Nappa leather for $34,700.

The Nappa leather felt extremely pleasant and the 360º camera was a welcome touch. I particularly enjoyed how the bird's eye view showed exactly where the wheels were pointed in real-time, but the resolution could have been better. As much as I loved the ease of parking the car with the 360º camera system, I'd probably save the $3,000 and opt for the still lovely Grand Touring Reserve.

The mid-size sedan segment has always been one of the toughest spaces in the automotive industry, and it has only grown tougher in recent years. The Honda Accord and Toyota Camry are all new for 2018, creating an uphill battle for Mazda. The Kia Optima and Hyundai Sonata also have a lot to offer, and we haven't even begun to mention other competitors such as the Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Fusion, Nissan Altima, Subaru Legacy, and Volkswagen Passat. The Mazda 6 has always stood out as one of the prettiest cars in this segment with its Kodo design language, but in the past, all of these aforementioned competitors have offered more power in the form of a turbocharged-four or a six-cylinder engine.

This 2018 model has the daunting task of proving that the Mazda 6 is now able to tango with more powerful competitors like the 301 hp Camry V6 and 252 hp Honda Accord. The 6's 250 hp figure may not be class-leading, but the massive torque figure is reminiscent of diesel numbers, giving the car the oomph it once lacked. Like a diesel, the turbocharged SkyActiv engine doesn't love to rev, but it does deliver tons of torque low down in the rev range. Even when I mashed the accelerator, the six-speed automatic shifted gears below 5,000 rpm to keep the motor in its peak torque range.

Peak torque is reached at just 2,000 rpm, so the car is able to breeze by slow cars in the right lane without even having to downshift. The six-speed slushbox is just ok, but I found myself wishing for more gears when shifts off the line weren't as smooth as some competitors. At this point, enthusiasts will cry out and ask "Wouldn't the car be better with a manual transmission?" The surprising answer that no one wants to hear is 'no', due to the diesel-like characteristics of the turbocharged mill.

I can already hear the pitchforks being sharpened and the torches being lit as I say this car would not be better if it had a manual transmission, but please allow me to explain. When I drive a manual car, for instance, a Mazda MX-5 Miata, there is no sweeter feeling than approaching redline with a singing engine that belts out a worthy growl. Unfortunately, this turbocharged SkyActiv engine felt most at home when left to its own devices in automatic mode. The power really starts to die off as it exceeds 4,500 rpm on its way to a 6,000 rpm redline. Even when I took control via the steering wheel-mounted paddles, I found that the engine preferred to be shifted below 4,500 rpm. Sport mode does liven up throttle response a bit, but this engine has a secondary problem - it just sounds bad.

I would use the word 'industrial' to describe the engine sound - it simply makes a coarse noise any time you dip into the power. In normal driving, the engine is quiet and fades into the background, but sport mode really causes it to drone inside the cabin. All of this negativity is making it sound like the Mazda 6 isn't fun to drive, which couldn't be further from the truth. In fact, the Mazda 6 is still the ideal mid-size family sedan for driving enthusiasts.

The steering is still the best in the segment and delivers precision both on-center and mid-turn. It isn't quite as joyous as a Miata, but it's easy to sense the family lineage from behind the wheel. Mazda's engineers have also mastered the suspension tuning because the 6 communicates road imperfections to the driver without feeling "bouncy" or " rough." Buyers who are looking for a soft, cloud-like ride should look elsewhere, but those who like their car to communicate without being too stiff will be right at home here.

I would prefer a more rev-happy motor, but the turbocharger has still improved what was already an amazing driving experience. We previously tested a 2017 Mazda 6 and loved how it drove, but simply wished it had more power. The sprint to 60 mph now takes just 6.4 seconds compared to 7.9 seconds in the base car. Unfortunately, the 6 is still bested by competitors such as the V6 Camry and 2.0T Accord, which can hit 60 mph in 5.8 and 5.7 seconds, respectively.

Acceleration off the line in the Mazda 6 isn't filled with as much wheel spin as the V6 Camry XSE that I tested, so I'd say the real-life results would be pretty close - not that too many mid-size sedan drivers drag race at the lights. If pure 0-60 stats are your only buying criteria, you should probably be shopping for a mid-engine sports car instead of a mid-size sedan. Or a Hellcat.

No matter which trim level you choose, the Mazda 6 is still a very comfortable interior to live with. The Mazda Connect infotainment system has always been fairly intuitive to use and finally features Android Auto and Apple CarPlay compatibility. In every Mazda vehicle I have tested, the text message function has experience issues when paired with my Android device. The system would show a text from a random person on my contacts list, and the message would not play over the system.

Android Auto and Apple CarPlay will fix this issue and provide the Mazda 6 with smarter voice commands. The stock voice commands work very well if you happen to know the address of where you are going, but lacks Google connectivity to allow the driver to use natural speech such as "take me to Starbucks." The only issue with the integration is that Mazda doesn't allow either of these systems to be used with the car's touchscreen. Mazda forces you to use its console-mounted controller, which is less intuitive than just pressing the familiar icons on screen.

Aside from the slightly wonky Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration, the car's other features work extremely well with little to no flaws. The head-up display, in particular, is one of the best I've seen at almost any price and lays out information in an intuitive way. The HUD doesn't just show speed, it also reads out road signs and tells you when you approach and exceed a speed limit. It also shows when there is a car in either of your blind spots, so you know before you even turn your head to look in the mirror.

As with the HUD, the ventilated seats were a standout feature. I spoke to a few people from Mazda who told me the seats suck - air, that is. Instead of blowing cold air, the seats in this car "breathe", which provide a delightfully cold experience even in the humid Florida heat. The rest of the climate controls look like they were cloned from Audi, and the whole cabin looks like it could belong to a luxury car thanks to the use of high-quality leather and suede throughout.

Space in the rear seats is plentiful with 38.7 inches of rear legroom which is more than the Toyota Camry but less than the massive Honda Accord. Likewise, the Mazda 6 sports 15 cubic feet of trunk space which is practically the same as the Camry but less than the Accord. Choosing a Mazda won't come down to wanting a mid-size sedan that is absolutely the largest in the segment, but potential 6 buyers may be attracted by the car's restrained yet elegant looks, premium-feel interior, and class-leading driving dynamics.

As long as you don't hop into this car expecting a modern successor to the turbocharged MazdaSpeed 6, you won't be disappointed. The Mazda 6 Signature offers near-luxury levels of refinement and near-sports sedan levels of enjoyment all at a price that mirrors that of its rivals. There are a few chinks in the 6's armor such as a dated transmission and lackluster sound from the engine, but these issues don't do enough to sway me from loving this car. With more gears in the transmission and a better engine note, the Mazda 6 would have received a rating of Must Buy, but as it sits the car still receives a strong rating of Great Buy.

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