What are you driving?
This is the updated Mazda6, which we drove earlier this year at its initial launch, but only with the 2.5-litre petrol engine (which isn't coming here) and the 2.0 petrol (which is, but which is still something of a minority interest). This, then, is our first chance to drive the updated diesel version, which persists with the tried-and-tested 2.2-litre 'SkyActiv' four-cylinder engine. Originally created for the first-generation CX-5 in 2012, the SkyActiv engine was designed to be have very low internal friction and very low cylinder compression (by diesel standards, at any rate) all in search of greater efficiency. At first, it came in 150hp and 175hp flavours, and while the 150hp version carries over, here we're testing the range-topping, updated, 184hp variant. To that has been bolted a six-speed automatic gearbox.
On the outside there's a new grille, with lattice-style centre, which has a more '3D' effect than before, similar to that of the latest CX-5 SUV. There are also new, slimmer, headlights, which now, optionally, can be active LED units.
Name its best bits
There's a lot of good stuff here, so let's break it down. First off, the 6 is genuinely excellent to drive. Whereas previous generations of 6 vied with the Ford Mondeo for the best-in-class trophy when it came to handling and driving dynamics, now it's no competition at all - the Mazda wins. The steering is a touch light in its weighting, but ideal in its speed across the lock and its overall feel and feedback. I'd be lying if I said that it's as good as the steering in Mazda's evergreen MX-5 sports car, but there's a clear familial link.
The same goes for the way the 6 responds to that steering. The nose points, effortlessly, into any given corner, and you can balance and trim your line with the throttle. Again, it's not a sports car, but again you can tell that Mazda's engineers have worked on sports cars. A bit like when you make an awesome curry at home and everything else you cook for a week afterwards tastes slightly of that curry. The ride quality is also exceptionally well-judged - firm enough to keep the 6 from flopping over in corners, but soft enough that big bumps on rural roads and small patter-y bumps on urban roads don't intrude. In short: it's a really lovely car to drive.
It's also a lovely car just to sit in. Mazda has steadily upgraded and improved the 6's interior since it was launched and, for this generation, the dashboard's architecture has been further slimmed down and pared back, making it seem both lighter and more substantial at the same time. A nice touch is the way the face-level air vents spread out into the door cards, and they also have a very pleasing titanium-ish finish.
The new digital instrument pack is a little limited - only the big central dial, the speedo, is actually digitally rendered and it doesn't do very much other than display the trip computer readout, but it's attractive all the same. Quality levels are just brilliant. As one fellow car enthusiast put it to me during my week with the 6, when the apocalypse comes, all that'll be left will be the cockroaches and Mazdas. He has a point, as the way this 6 is put together is seriously impressive. This Platinum Plus version might be costly, but it justifies that price tag by genuinely competing with the German saloon car hierarchy in terms of fit and finish. The gorgeous fillets of silky-smooth Japanese 'Sen' wood on the doors are a nice touch, but you do feel that more could be made of them - they look a little lost. The leather is great, though. Dark brown Nappa leather on the seats, and a nice soft-grain leather on the dash. It's all very classy.
Finally, there's the engine. As with almost all diesels, there's a little bit of noise on a cold start, but once some heat builds in the system, it's refined and very smooth. With 184hp on tap, and 445Nm of torque, there's really no point at which it ever feels slow, or less than fully equipped in the thrust department, but I do feel that there's not a huge amount of point in spending the extra to upgrade from the 150hp version. That, too, feels as if it has plenty of poke, and the 184hp engine doesn't feel as if it has sufficient extra to justify the price. Economy is, at long last, impressive as well. Early versions of this engine, especially in the CX-5, could be surprisingly, and annoyingly, thirsty. This one was much, much better, easily climbing up to the 50mpg level on average, and you sense it could do even better if Mazda were to add some extra gears to its automatic gearbox.
Anything that bugs you?
Not much, really. That auto box should really have eight speeds to be competitive, but at least it shifts smoothly. There's a little bit too much tyre roar at motorway speeds. The infotainment system looks rather clunky and almost monochrome, but at least now you can bypass it by connecting an Apple or Android phone. This Platinum Plus version is also very expensive, at €45,000, which is a bit much. Oh, and it's a shame that there's no fastback version. Personally, I'd go for the extremely handsome estate, but a fastback would make a nice half-way house between this saloon and the estate.
And why have you given it this rating?
Look, I know that we're all obsessed with SUVs and crossovers now, and that conventional saloons such as this are passé. I know, but I'm still going to fight against it, to rage against the dying of the saloon light. The 6 is a reminder of just what a good vehicle a well-finished 'conventional' saloon can be - delightful to drive, roomy and practical enough for a family, and more frugal and cheaper to run than an equivalent SUV. Please, please don't ignore it in favour of its more fashionable cousins.
What do the rest of the team think?
I got out of the Mazda6 just as impressed as Neil was, pretty much agreeing with what he's said above, to the letter. One thing extra though, the Mazda6 has the most perfectly proportioned steering wheel rim in a 'normal' production car right now, feeling substantial without isolating your hands from the messages coming through the steering system. I wish BMW would take note...
Shane O'Donoghue - Editor