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The Mazda 6 is a Ford Mondeo rival with rakish styling and lightweight, low-emissions tech

The Mazda 6 has long been considered a worthy but uninspiring mid-sized saloon or estate – but no longer, because the latest generation of the Mazda is now good enough to rank among the best.

This is because the 6 has taken a leap forward in terms of technology, efficiency, dynamics and design. Mazda has achieved this stride forward through the full implementation of its oft-mentioned SkyActiv technology, which has dramatically transformed the appeal of its flagship.

Previous Mazda 6s were confined to also-ran status. Not anymore

The full meaning of SkyActiv will be explored in more detail throughout this test, but the short summary is that this ground-breaking approach to car-building means that Mazda’s days of being an also-ran in the segment are, for the time being, a thing of the past.

The company says the 6 is larger, lighter and much more economical, endowed with the kind of performance figures and low emissions that make waves on a fleet manager’s spreadsheet. A good deal of technology migrates from the Mazda CX-5 we tested last year, but there is fresh innovation, too. The third generation 6 has been given two facelifts during its lifecycle thus far. The first one for the 2016 Mazda 6 models consisted of changes to the Sport Nav trim, which included LED headlights and foglights and a new radiator grille. Inside the whole range benefit from updated fascia, new console, infotainment system and the addition of an electronic parking brake. The changes for the 2017 Mazda 6 model was again done to keep pace with the evolving mid-sized saloon segment. The headlines include an improvement in the equipment levels and the addition of active safety systems. 

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What we have here, then, is a seriously credible car available in saloon and estate form, with a variety of appealing petrol and diesel engines.

However, as ever, the 6 will need every advantage going as it locks horns with heavyweights such as the Ford Mondeo and Volkswagen Passat in a bid to attract buyers.

 

DESIGN & STYLING

Mada 6 rear

Previewing a mass-production car with a concept as rakishly potent as the 2011’s Takeri show car will always be troublesome, and despite a certain resemblance, the Mazda 6 does not capture the imagination.

In the real world, Mazda’s ‘Kodo’ design language congeals into a fussy concoction of ‘signature wings’, and as both the saloon and estate are among the largest in the class, there’s an awful lot of canvas upon which the visual effect can dwell.

Fold the rear seats down and there's plenty of space on offer

The 6 sits on a platform that is an amended version of the scalable SkyActiv architecture that made its debut in the Mazda CX-5. As a result, the 6 has the same MacPherson strut front, multi-link rear suspension arrangement.

The SkyActiv treatment also does much to ensure that the 6’s size does not equate to bulk. Weight-saving measures – including an increase in the use of high-tensile steel – mean the latest model is lighter than many of its rivals.

Mazda's engine and transmission line-up is where the SkyActiv tech really pays off. The four-cylinder, 2.0-litre petrol and 2.2-litre diesel engines share the same basic structure and 14:1 compression ratio – a high figure for a petrol motor and a remarkably low one for a diesel.

The twin-turbocharged 2.2-litre diesel is offered in 148bhp and 173bhp forms. Depending on whether you opt for the six-speed manual gearbox or six-speed auto, the CO2 emissions (aided by a new stop-start system) can be as low as 108g/km.

For petrol buyers, the 2.0-litre engine is available with 143bhp or 163bhp. Again, emissions and economy are highly competitive for the class.

INTERIOR

Mazda 6 interior

Sitting in the Mazda 6, it seems a shame that little of the imaginative but unseen engineering work is reflected in the cabin.

The interior architecture is carried over almost wholesale from the Mazda CX-5, and squashing it into a slimmer saloon interior has not helped lift its rather dingy appearance. If anything, the dashboard’s lumpy discord and undistinguished fascia materials are even more conspicuous in a segment moving steadily upmarket.

It took four attempts to program the sat-nav via voice control for the nearest hospital. Not a good system for your hour of need

We have few issues with its functionality, though. From easily legible dials to the chunky click of the heater controls, the Mazda 6 feels like a car built to resist uncaring high-mile punishment.

The only exception is the multimedia system, which, thanks to a dull screen and clunky menus, is tiresome to interact with and persists with needlessly replicated touchscreen options.

The substantial wheelbase means there’s an abundance of rear legroom. It’s not class-leading (the Skoda Superb sees to that), but it’s within touching distance.

In the saloon there’s a similarly impressive 483-litre boot, which can be extended by dropping the rear seats. That rises to 506 litres in the Tourer model, or a substantial 1632 litres with the rear seats folded down.

There are four trim levels to choose from regardless of whether you choose the saloon or the estate. Opt for the entry-level SE trim and you'll find 17in alloy wheels, hill-start assist, electric windows and cruise control. Inside there is a 7.0in touchscreen infotainment system with DAB and smartphone capability, air conditioning, and a leather wrapped steering wheel and gearknob. Upgrade to SE Nav and as you would expect there is the inclusion of sat nav and three-year worth of map updates.

SE-L Nav adds a touch more luxury to the big Mazda 6, with dual-zone climate control, all round parking sensors and an auto-dimming rear view mirror all part of the package, while the range-topping Sport Nav models include adaptive LED headlights, 19in alloy wheels and a reversing camera. Inside buyers will get a leather upholstery, electrically adjustable and heated front seats, a head-up display, and a Bose sound system.

The result is a car with the fundamental bases covered – it’s a usable, spacious and unstressed environment, but not one that competes with the presentation or quality of rivals such as the Volkswagen Passat, or even affordable alternatives newcomers like the Hyundai i40.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Mazda 6 side profile

Whether you drive the petrol or the diesel, the Mazda 6 settles into an idle so muted that you’d be forgiven for wondering which engine is under the bonnet. The diesel is unusually refined, while the petrol purrs with a barely distinguishable thrum.

Moving off in one of the diesels you’ll note that it shirks the usual low-rev tardiness associated with oil-burners, too. In both states of tune, the engine responds to a push on the right pedal with pleasing linearity.

Throttle response is excellent, with little of the low-rev tardiness that characterises turbodiesel engines

The petrols are reasonable, if not as outstanding as the diesels. The lower-powered unit borders on sluggish, and does not suit the pseudo-sporting characteristics of the 6 as well as the rest of the engine range.

The higher-powered petrol delivers decent pace, but gets especially vocal as revs climb. All but low-mileage drivers would do well to consider paying the premium for a diesel and reaping the economy and performance benefits.

Mazda's SkyActiv diesel engine revs willingly to more than 5500rpm too, giving rangey performance in each gear. Work the engine hard and the 6 eventually starts to overlay its performance with dieselly tones, but they are a sacrifice we’re willing to accept because of the nature of the delivery.

But it’s in-gear flexibility that counts for more here, and it’s pretty acceptable in this respect, too - although lengthy gearing means you might want to approach brisk acceleration in a lower gear than usual.

Fortunately, Mazda's six-speed manual gearbox is light and positive, allowing for swift changes, while the six-speed auto does a decent (if slightly less involving or pleasing) job of changing gears. The control pedals have well-matched weighting and predictable responses, making the 6 an easy car in which to pootle around.

RIDE & HANDLING

Mazda 6 cornering

As soon as you swing open the Mazda 6’s door, you wonder if this car will be on to something good when it comes to ride and handling. The door moves with ease, suggesting that it’s light, which makes you wonder if dynamics will benefit accordingly.

Indeed they do. Light cars can exhibit a lack of refinement – including some Japanese cars, due to a prevalence of lower-speed, well surfaced roads there – but the 6 is no great culprit. In all forms it feels only mildly less cocooned and isolated than a Volkswagen Volkswagen Passat or a Ford Mondeo, for example.

The new 6 is a pleasing and engaging steer with a sharp-turn in that's unusual for the class

We suspect the choice of cabin materials is as much to blame as actual noise levels, and the petrol-equipped cars are quieter than even the refined diesels.

The ride is acceptable in all models and across all types of road. Our test cars ran on 19-inch wheels with 45-section tyres and those prioritising ride comfort might prefer a car on smaller wheels. During our tests there was some grumble over poorer surfaces, but that improved with speed and was never crashy.

The 6 is nimble for a car of its size, though, regardless of whether you opt for the estate or saloon. The electrically assisted steering spins with medium weight, good response and accuracy and a decent approximation of feel, while body movements are contained with aplomb.

So, Mazda's 6 is as composed as a Ford Mondeo, but with a fleet-footedness that the sturdier Ford can’t equal.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Mazda 6

Mazda is realistic, and is more intent on attracting a small but willing crowd of buyers for the 6 than launching itself into a pitched battle for market domination. As such, the 6 is priced to sit between mass-market rivals and more premium brands such as BMW and Audi.

Buyers should take the time to do their homework carefully, because although list prices appear relatively high, there is a large amount of standard kit fitted even to the base models. This has particular appeal for kit-conscious fleet buyers, because the list price can be offset against the 6’s relatively low CO2 emissions.

Low CO2 emissions and high residuals make the 6 a shrewd purchase for the financially minded

Mazda has focused its efforts on ensuring good residual values across the range, although predictions suggest residuals will meet the class norm.

Running costs should be another highlight. Throughout our tests both the petrol and diesel engines returned impressive figures in both the saloon and Tourer variants, aided by the i-Eloop regenerative braking system that helps power auxiliary systems and achieves fuel savings of up to 10 per cent.

In our most extensive tests with the higher-powered diesel saloon we recorded 56.5mpg on our touring route – remarkable for a car this large, with this performance. Our average return of 44.1mpg may sound fairly ordinary, but plenty of rival diesel saloons still struggle to beat 40mpg over the same measure.

 

VERDICT

Mazda 6 rear quarter

Credibility and respectability abound. The 6’s driving experience is among the class best, with a sense of engagement and involvement rare in family cars. It delivers impressive space and economy, too.

But there are elements to the Mazda’s interior that are disappointingly ordinary, to the extent that some of the perceived budget brands give it a run. Which seems a big shame, given its otherwise broad wide appeal.

The Mazda 6 is now closer than ever to upsetting the established class leaders

Nevertheless, the 6 is oh-so-close to the class lead; its economy and driving manners had us wondering whether it ought to finish even higher up the order than it does. For keener drivers, unequivocally it will.

Entry-level diesels offer a compelling blend of performance and power that is hard to criticise. However, if you are tempted by the 173bhp diesel, we would strongly recommend it. The petrols are decent, but no more – we’d recommend sampling turbocharged rivals before committing.

 

Mazda 6 (2013-2023) First drives