Not all mid-size sedans have to be soul-sucking.
When it comes to mid-size sedans, drivability typically isn't high on an automaker's totem pole of priorities. In this segment factors like affordability, practicality, luxury and safety carry much more weight. That makes sense as the people who buy these cars aren't exactly looking to fly down back roads on the weekend. They just want a safe, affordable and nice(ish) car to get to and from work. But for some, driving matters. And yes, that's the new Mazda slogan.
Can you blame me for ripping off Mazda's marketing department? I spent a week driving the 2016 Mazda6 (provided by the automaker) and in that time learned something: Mid-size sedans don't have to be soul-sucking. It is indeed possible to create an affordable four-door that won't be the catalyst to a mid-life crisis. Simply put: The Mazda6 is a ton of fun to drive. The only engine on offer is a SkyActiv 2.5-liter four-cylinder. Mazda's SkyActiv engines are designed for efficiency, not power. The front-wheel-drive 6 makes only 184 horsepower and 185 lb-ft of torque. The MPG split is 28/40/32, and my mileage was around those checkpoints provided I wasn't hammering the throttle and paddle-shifting like a mad man.
The car tested came with the optional GT Technology package ($2,180), which features radar cruise control, smart brake support and the i-Eloop system. I-Eloop is regenerative braking which cuts down on fuel use by using recaptured energy to power the car's electrical equipment. The Mazda6 returns hybrid-esque gas mileage thanks to its engine, but again, it's the only engine on offer. There are no V6 or turbocharged alternatives. There is what's said to be a slick six-speed manual, but I was in the Grand Touring trim that only offers a six-speed automatic complete with paddle shifters and a sport mode button. With options, my tester checked in at $33,750, but I would have been happier rowing my own gears in the cheaper Mazda6 Touring, which starts at $23,945.
First-world problems aside I did discover the secret to having fun in an automatic 6. Seriously, don't even bother driving this car in regular mode unless you really want to maximize your gas mileage. Whenever I wasn't in Sport mode I was constantly fighting to get a response from the gas pedal, which made passing situations a game of chicken that I unwittingly initiated. The Mazda6 feels neutered when not in sport. But flipping a switch-it's literally a switch-changes all that. The throttle instantly comes to life and the revs are allowed to climb. In most mid-size sedans the difference between the sport and regular driving modes is negligible. But with an engine designed to maximize MPGs like the SkyActiv it makes a world of difference.
The 6 weighs only 3,250 pounds but clocks an abysmal 7.5-second 0-60 mph sprint. But damn is it fun to drive when the road gets windy. You won't eat corners for lunch but I was shocked at how a budget four-door managed to hug the tight and twisty corners of the Bay Area's mountainous Highway 35. (Side note: If you live in the area do yourself a favor and check this road out.) The 19-inch wheels provided plenty of grip and the sport seats and heads-up display mounted above the steering wheel made me feel as if I was in the cockpit of a fighter plane. If sport seats, 19-inch wheels and a pop-up HUD sound underwhelming remember that I'm talking about a car that competes with the Accord and Camry.
The paddle shifters weren't the best through the bends but I found them infinitely useful when it came time to overtake. In manual mode you can push the 6 to redline, a nice nod to sportiness. Yes, the Mazda6 is as fun to drive as it looks. And make no mistake, this thing is a head-turner. During our photoshoot a passerby asked us if we were shooting a new Infiniti. That confusion was caused by Mazda's Kodo design language, which is one of the industry's most beautiful. But the formidable 19-inch wheels, rear diffuser and twin exhaust ensure that the 6 balances beauty with brawn. Yes, it's tough to get tired of looking at the Mazda6. It's much the same on the inside.
The cabin offers ample space and I was able to comfortably sit right behind the driver's seat set to my measurements; I stand 6'1". However, I can't help thinking the trunk suffered to make the cabin roomier. It only packs 14.8 cubic feet of storage space. The leather interior was comfortable and easy on the eyes, but not mind blowing in its luxuriousness. Only the front seats were heated and ventilated seats aren't on offer. Neither is a heated steering wheel. These are small issues but issues nonetheless. The 7-inch touchscreen infotaiment system isn't as advanced as the units found in competing cars, but I found its lack of functions and features endearing. There is no gigantic selection of available apps to ignore or other useless features to get lost in.
You have your media, maps, communication functions, vehicle information applications and settings. Mazda's Commander Switch-that giant wheel in the center console-is easy to learn and makes navigating the system a breeze. I'll admit that I'm nowhere close to the appropriate age for a mid-life crisis. But I can see how cars designed to put practicality and affordability ahead of drivability can contribute to them. Luckily the Mazda6 manages to strike a balance. It's not the most luxurious or quickest mid-size sedan on offer, but it's embarrassingly affordable (it starts at $21,495), gorgeous and a joy to drive. To some people driving does and will always matter. But the reality is that getting older changes things, including what you drive.
However, just because what you need from a car changes with age doesn't mean the enjoyment you get out of driving has to suffer as a result. No, the Mazda6 won't trick you into thinking it's an MX-5. But it will remind you why you love driving if you let it. For a mid-size sedan that starts at $21,000 that's a significant accomplishment.