Good: really good looking, terrific to drive, high quality
Not so good: quite pricey, not economical enough, occasionally odd steering weighting
Seriously good looking and deeply good to drive, the 6 is only held back by a high-ish price and fuel consumption that just doesn't add up.
An expensive Swiss watch has become a deep desire for so many of us. The thought of the expensive weight of all that carefully assembled stainless steel and titanium, our wrists tingling at the very thought of being topped by the logo of Omega, Rolex or Tag Heuer (delete according to taste), it's a status symbol we'd all love to have. But sadly, few of us will ever afford such a timepiece. Shame.
But what if I told you that you could have something just as good, possibly even better, for a lower cost, simply by trading in your timepiece's Swiss postcode for one from Japan? It's well known in high-end watch circles that, proud though the Swiss boys are of their products and movements, they collectively weep with jealously at the carefully crafted work of Seiko. The famed Japanese watch maker can produce wrist-wear of staggering reliability and accuracy, and no small amount of beauty, for a fraction of the cost of a Rolex.
There's something similar going on in the motoring world, too. Many of us desire a slick German sports saloon; we want our driveway to be adorned with the star of Mercedes-Benz, the four rings of Audi or the Munich colours of BMW, but their prices are just out of reach. Well, I've long had the feeling that mainstream big saloons, now that they have to compete with the Germans in dynamic and quality terms, offer pretty much all you could want in a sporty saloon and yet come with significantly smaller price tags. Well, I say significantly smaller but as we shall see below, the Mazda6 plays a dangerously high-stakes game of price setting...
Most of the Mazda6 rivals come with 1.6- or 2.0-litre diesel engines with outputs of around 115- to 120hp, Band A emissions and a price tag circling the €29,000 mark. The Mazda, by contrast, has a price tag of €30,795 (for this diesel Executive SE model), has a 2.2-litre engine with a muscular 150hp and 380Nm of torque and yet still hits that Band A emissions target, with 104g/km costing you just €190 a year to tax. The price is clearly a bit more beefy than that demanded by, for instance, the entry-level Volkswagen Passat, but then you do get a bigger engine and more equipment.
Let's talk about the CO2 figure - how has Mazda managed to trim the emissions of such a big engine? Carefully, is the short answer. Its SkyActiv programme, which debuted on the very impressive CX-5 SUV, isn't one big whizz-bang fuel saving system but rather, like BMW's EfficientDynamics, a series of incremental improvements in every area. A little less friction here. A saving of a kilogram there. A touch less wind resistance somewhere else. It all adds up and the final sum of these parts is that low emissions figure and a commensurately low fuel consumption of, claims Mazda, better than 65mpg on average. Part of that efficiency comes from a combination of i-Stop that kills the engine when you're waiting at the lights and a new system called i-ELOOP, which uses a capacitor (it reacts faster than a conventional battery, but won't hold a charge for very long) that can power the electrical systems for up to a minute, independent of the engine and recharges in just seconds from leftover braking energy. Clever stuff and the re-start time of the i-Stop is impressively fast.
Even so, I doubt you'll be able to match that fuel figure in real world driving. I'm not sure why, but Mazda's 2.2 - for all its technological impressiveness, just never lives up to its fuel billing. Far less than that magic 65mpg figure, I was getting much more like 40mpg, which, while hardly bad, certainly isn't up to the best. Part of the problem, of course, is that it's very hard to resist driving the 6 in a somewhat, ahem, spirited fashion. The last generation of 6 felt solid, planted and even a touch hefty to drive. This new one continues that tradition in part but there's also a new-found litheness, a sense of fluidity and a truly engaging driving experience. The steering is the outright star here, feeling almost Jaguar-like in its combination of weight (except at parking speeds when it can occasionally get oddly heavy) and great levels of feedback. It's a very confidence inspiring car, the 6. I could tell you a tale of driving one at very silly speeds on deserted Portuguese roads some time ago but perhaps it would be best to let the statute of limitations run out first... The ride quality, as long as you don't go for the optional 19-inch wheels, is also exceptionally supple.
It's refined too. There's a rustle of wind noise around the mirrors at 120km/h and a touch of road and tyre noise on coarser surfaces, but the SkyActiv diesel 2.2 is impressively quiet and even manages to sound a little bit entertaining at higher rpm, with a gruff warbling noise rather than the usual bland diesel blare.
The cabin marks a particularly high point for the Mazda6. While it seems very similar to that of the CX-5, the quality of the materials has been kicked up a notch and if it's a touch dark at times, it's also a terrifically comfy and pleasing space in which to spend time, helped in no small part by a well-located driving position and expensive-looking, clear instruments. There's good space in the back too, although the boot is a touch smaller than much of the competition. Family buyers will be pleased to see that Mazda is emphasising the safety levels of the 6, with a host of electronic aids including a city braking system that slams on the anchors if it senses you're going to run up the back of the car in front, a lane keeping warning and a blind spot monitor, as well as radar guided cruise control.
It's also a very good looking car, much more so in the flesh (so to speak) than in photos, where the sweeping lines are more obvious and the muscular stance more noticeable. There's more than a touch of Maserati about it, in fact, and the recent facelift has, in a rare moment for mid-life facelifts, highlighted the 6's good visual points without ruining it. This estate model is, to these eyes, the best looking (and most practical) 6 but it's worth pointing out that, oddly, the saloon version sits on a slightly longer wheelbase so actually has a little more legroom in the back.
The only worry is the price tag. Now, perhaps this is just me doing old-fashioned and reckoning that a big saloon is supposed to start at €25k with the estate clocking in around €1,500 more. That day seems to have passed though and starting prices for these cars have grown rapidly in the last few years and spending above €30k is now de rigueur if you want to get something with decent equipment levels. Clearly, Mazda (and the rest) reckon that they can compete on price terms with bottom-end BMWs and Audis but even with the 6's sharp dynamics that's a seriously tough task. Mazda has as yet no plans to try and match or beat the Koreans in the warranty war; three-year unlimited mileage is your lot.
But just as a Seiko will have true watch aficionados nodding in quiet respect, so, I reckon, this new Mazda6 will have true car fans doing the same. Gorgeous, lithe to drive and solidly built, it remains a strong foil for the newly-introduced Volkswagen Passat and Ford Mondeo.