Minor changes keep the Mazda 6 feeling fresh

Four door saloon sales continue to dwindle but the 6 is still the best of them

Mazda 6
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Year: 2018
Fuel: Petrol

Wandering into the car park of Birmingham airport is not normally an event designed to feed the soul, but in this instance it wasn't too bad. The lineup of Mazda 6 saloons and estates made sure that things looked a little brighter than usual for a grimy multi-storey, thanks in no small part to the optional Soul Red Crystal paint which covered most of coachwork.

Parked just next to the phalanx of Mazdas was a Maserati Ghibli, and while I can't quite say that the Italian exotic was overshadowed by the family saloon from Hiroshima, the visual gap between the two was perhaps an uncomfortably narrow one from Modena's perspective.

That has long since been the calling card of the Mazda 6, though - a car which always seems to mildly surpass your expectations. It is, by its nature, an entirely (in some cases excessively) conventional four-door family car, but it’s one that looks and drives a little sharper than, strictly speaking, it needs to.

The current generation of 6 was launched in 2013, which makes it hardly old at all, and yet this is the third time in its life that it has been updated. As with the previous efforts, this is a minor nip and tuck, which nonetheless has some profound impacts on the car as a whole. It’s tempting to suggest that Mazda’s policy of constant small updates is a cunning plan to keep fresh a model in which, with falling saloon sales and rising SUV sales, the company doesn’t want to make heavy investments in for an all-new model, but perhaps that’s the cynic in me.


Subtle changes

The visual changes are the most obvious ones, of course, subtle though they are. If you’re familiar with the 6, you might spot that the grille is new, and more closely visually linked to that of the CX-5 SUV, while the lights are also new, and the foglights have left the lower bumper for a new home within them, their place lower down taken by an aerodynamic scoop that more efficiently channels air over and around the front wheels.

There are similar minor changes at the back, but you'll notice a bigger difference inside, where Mazda has slimmed down the dashboard (visually at any rate) by extending the fascia out into the door panels, fitting shallower air vents, and updating the materials used. At the apex of the price list, you'll find models that use Japanese Sen Wood trim, have a half-digital instrument panel, Nappa leather, heated and ventilated seats and more - all of which adds up to a cabin that cleaves closer to Audi than Ford.

New features

There are new seats too (a little more comfortable, but still short of truly sumptuous) and a new heads-up display that projects onto the windscreen, instead of an annoying small plastic monocle. Space is generally good, although tall passengers in the rear will find that their knees brush the front seatbacks. The boot, at 480-litres for the saloon and 552-litres for the very handsome estate model, is adequate rather than exceptional.

Niggles? The central infotainment display, in spite of being bigger at 8.0-inches across, still uses Mazda’s aged menu and graphic layout, and it’s well behind the curve when it comes to software. Likewise the new surround-view camera system has a display that looks distinctly lo-fi, compared to the HD outputs of some rivals.

Engines are carried over from the outgoing 6, so the 2.2-litre diesel unit is essentially unchanged. The 150hp version, the most popular 6 model, is entirely the same, aside from the fact that it has been re-tested for the new WLTP economy and emissions standard, which sees its Co2 emissions rise slightly to 117g/km. The higher power version sees a slight increase in grunt, from 175hp to 184hp, with Co2 of 124g/km.

Petrol back in the mix

Let’s park diesel for a moment, though, shall we? After all, as a fuel for passenger cars it’s falling in popularity (if not yet quite irrelevant - far from it, in fact) and petrol is coming back into favour. Clearly, there’s a penalty in terms of running costs. The new 6’s 2.0-litre SkyActiv-G petrol engine retains the same 145hp and 165hp power ratings, and has Co2 ratings of 141g/km, which means it’ll cost you €390 to tax for a year, instead of the €200 of the diesel.

It’s also very, very different to drive. Mazda has, unlike most of its competition, shunned downsizing and turbocharging its engines, so what you have here is a very 1980s driving experience - a big, four-door saloon with a naturally-aspirated 2.0-litre engine. It’s rather nice, as it goes.

You do have to work it hard if you want to get a crack on - response is quite muted below 3,000rpm - but once you’ve got it on the boil (and the gorgeously-weighted six-speed manual gearbox is a boon in this sense) it feels suitably rapid and responsive, and a lot more refined than it felt when we tested it last year in the CX-5 SUV (Mazda has fitted a lot of extra sound-deadening to the 6, so refinement overall is on the up). Cease the hooning, and slow down a bit, and you can record some quite decent economy figures - Mazda says you’ll get 45mpg (6.2-litres per 100km) and we saw slightly less than 40mpg on s spirited country-roads drive. So, moving from diesel to petrol won’t carry too hefty a penalty, and it’s lovely to have an engine that’s aurally interesting again.

There’s better, though. There’s a new (well, new-is; it’s been available in US market Mazdas for a while now) 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine. It has 194hp, comes only with a six-speed automatic gearbox, and has cylinder deactivation tech so that it can shut down half of its cylinders under light accelerator pressures. It’s also surprisingly economical - on one gentle motorway run, we beat beat Mazda’s claimed 42mpg figure for the engine, and saw 45mpg. It would probably do better still if Mazda joined the rest of the world and fitted an eight-speed auto. Sadly, it’s an engine not currently coming to Ireland, but the UK market gets it so there’s hope that it might put in an appearance here.

Handling prowess

Thankfully, whichever engine you choose, the handling remains intact. Mazda has actually made more changes here than you might expect (the bodyshell is slightly stiffer, the steering arms re-located, the front dampers given a larger diameter) but the result feels very familiar. The same sweet, slick feeling to the steering, the same sense of precision, the same sensation of liquidity and flow between corners. It’s a really lovely car to drive, and only trips up if you hammer hard into a corner and jerk the wheel suddenly towards an apex - then you’ll get understeer and sudden steering weight, but keep your inputs smoother and the 6 has thoroughbred responses.

It’s worth noting that the 6 often skews to the pricier end of its class, and the new base price of €31,945 is around €2,000 more than that for a basic Skoda Superb, but then the Mazda is generally very well equipped, so there’s some compensation. We’re not sure of final specs yet, but Mazda Ireland has told us that items such as the radar cruise control, the heads-up display, sat-nav, adaptive LED headlights, and blind spot monitoring are all standard across the range. Others, such as the intelligent speed limiter (which reads road signs), and a 360-degree parking camera “are available on higher spec grades.”

You won’t care, of course. Like everyone else you’ve already decided to get an SUV and the CX-5 is sitting just across the showroom floor. Make no mistake, though. The 6 may belong to a segment of the market that’s fading out, but it is one of he best-looking, best-driving cars around. Ignore it, and miss out.

The lowdown: Mazda 6 Tourer 2.0i 165hp Sport Nav +

Price: From €31,945. Power: 165hp. Torque: 213Nm. 0-100kmh: 9.4sec. Top speed: 214km/h. Claimed economy: 43.5mpg (6.5 litres/100km). CO2 emissions: 148g/km. Motor tax: €390. Verdict: Deserted the family saloon market for an SUV? The 6 might be good enough to tempt you back. Our rating: 4/5

Neil Briscoe

Neil Briscoe

Neil Briscoe, a contributor to The Irish Times, specialises in motoring