This is the third time since its 2014 launch that the current Mazda6 has been updated, but this latest round of tweaks keeps it at the top of the family saloon and estate class.
In the Metal:
The Mazda6 is a very familiar sight, not just because it's been on sale for five years now, but also because Mazda keeps giving it minor updates to keep it fresh, this being the third round of such alterations. That means that we've driven the 6 more frequently than most of its rivals, because there's always some new small thing to try out. That familiarity has not, it must be said, bred any contempt.
A casual glance at the outside by someone who possesses no branded Mazda anorak in their wardrobe won't reveal much, but there is a new grille (with a more '3D' effect, and mostly lifted from the CX-5 SUV), new chrome highlights, new lights, no separate front fog lights (they're now part of the main headlight unit and their place in the restyled bumper has been taken by little air scoops that improve the 6's aerodynamic performance) and, at the rear, wider-spaced exhaust pipes (to give the car a little more 'stance') and very lightly tweaked lamps. The overall effect is that the Mazda6 looks exactly as it did before, but perhaps a gnat's wing-beat more handsome. Which is to say very handsome - there was a Maserati Ghibli parked next to our 6 when we collected it, and the Mazda suffered not a visual jot in the comparison.
The cabin has seen changes that are slightly more significant, if still very subtle overall. The dash is now slimmer and wider, having been stretched out into the door panels, and there are shallower air vents with a nice gunmetal-style finish. The central touchscreen has been updated to an eight-inch unit, and you can optionally have a partially-digital instrument panel, which isn't half so clever as Volkswagen's Active Info Display, but which is nevertheless very smart indeed. There's also a new head-up display, which now projects directly onto the windscreen, instead of onto a cheap-looking little plastic flap, and which can display just about everything you need, from speed, to speed limit, to satnav direction, blind spot monitor and more - depending on what spec you've chosen.
There are also new seats (which are definitely comfier than before), and the option of both Nappa leather (soft, like butter from the microwave) and Japanese Sen wood trim, which feels silky to the touch and which really lifts the ambience of the cabin. There's also, again depending on spec, a new silvery button on the centre console that activates a Sport mode.
Mazda has also updated its optional red paintwork, turning the previous Soul Red Metallic into Soul Crystal Red Metallic, which has a deeper, shinier finish and which looks great. It's a pricey option, but one that has surprised Mazda with its take-up - as many as 30 per cent of buyers apparently tick the Soul box.
Given that the 6 was already the best car in its class to drive, you might imagine that Mazda's engineers might have taken the week off and let the styling department take care of this round of updates. But no, there have actually been some significant changes. The steering knuckles have been lowered a bit, while the steering rack itself is now mounted more rigidly to the subframe, the front dampers have been increased in diameter and there are new sound-deadening and anti-vibration panels.
The result feels comfortingly familiar - the 6 still has that lovely, liquid feel as you flow from corner to corner. It's not a dramatically 'pointy' car in the manner of, say, an Alfa Romeo Giulia, and indeed if you try to hustle it too hard it starts to understeer and the steering weights up oddly, but as long as you keep things smooth and consistent, the Mazda responds with glee. The steering weight is lovely, the feel is direct and proportional and if the ride is on the firm side then the damping is sufficiently good that you feel the bumps are there, rather than being upset by them. There's refinement to burn too, thanks to those new sound-damping panels, so the Mazda6 is a quiet cruiser on the motorway.
Engines are largely carried over, although the most powerful 2.2-litre diesel now comes with 184hp instead of 175hp. Diesel models go on sale a touch later than petrol ones, which gives us a chance to try out Mazda's unchanged 2.0-litre 165hp engine. While almost all of its rivals have gone down the smaller, turbocharged route for their petrol options, Mazda has stuck doggedly with its naturally-aspirated 2.0-litre, saying that the engine's high compression ratio and low mechanical friction mean that it can find the same economy and emissions gains. There seems to be some truth in that. While the 2.0-litre's 148g/km CO2 figure is on the high side for the class (although €390 a year to tax a 2.0-litre engine still sounds cheap to anyone whose memory stretches back beyond 2008), but its real-world economy is actually surprisingly good.
Mazda says that the 6 will use 6.5 litres per 100km on the combined cycle (the car has been measured on the tougher WLTP system, as must all vehicle be from September 1st) and rather pleasingly we managed to beat that. In fact, in gentle driving we managed to tickle the 2.0-litre engine to below the 6.2 litres/100km mark, which would suggest that on a longer journey you might even see 5.6 litres/100km (that's 50mpg) if you try really hard.
Mazda's work on refinement has paid off too - this same engine, when we tried it in the CX-5 SUV, felt strangled and sounded a bit wheezy and noisy. Here in the 6, it's much more refined and pleasant, but you do have to work it hard. With no turbo, it's light on torque and all of that (just 213Nm) is delivered up high in the rev range. In one sense, it felt kind of refreshing not only to be able to rev an engine beyond 4,000rpm, but to actually need to, and it sounds pleasingly crisp when you do so. The need to rev the engine to find the performance also means that you need to work the six-speed manual gearbox rather briskly, which is absolutely no hardship as, in the Mazda tradition, it shifts with delightful accuracy and weight.
Will a majority of buyers still prefer diesel? Probably so, and the 150hp 2.2-litre diesel engine is a belter, and one against which a single accusation of improbity has not been made, but if you fancy abandoning the black pump, then this 2.0-litre petrol is a very pleasant alternative.
What you get for your Money:
A base price of €31,945 (Mazda hasn't given us the entire pricing structure yet) means that the 6 looks slightly pricey in its segment, relative to the likes of the Skoda Superb and some others. It's worth remembering that Mazdas tend to be a little more expensive, model-for-model, than most of the opposition, but slightly better equipped as standard by way of compensation. Mazda Ireland has said that items such as radar cruise control, the head-up display, satellite navigation, adaptive LED headlights and blind spot monitoring all will be standard. The road-sign recognition system and a 360-degree parking camera are available on higher spec grades.
For as long as Mazda wants to keep updating the 6, we'll be happy to keep driving it - the changes made this time around may not be hugely significant, but they do keep Mazda's mid-size family wagon feeling fresh, and it retains its best-to-drive crown for this class of car, even capable of putting in an upset if compared to more expensive German premium rivals, in fact. The 2.0-litre petrol engine returns decent economy and feels refreshing after an endless parade of samey-samey diesels, and the updated interior has excellent quality levels. Buyers may be deserting this class in favour of more fashionable SUVs, but they're missing out - as an all-rounder, the updated Mazda6 is pretty hard to beat.