2018 Mazda6 Review: Can This Plush, Pretty Mazda Beat the Long Odds on Family Sedans? 

Even America's best-selling sedans are struggling to attract buyers. For Mazda's underdog, success means keeping up with the mainstream Joneses.

Mazda

Since its debut in 2002, the Mazda6 has been the alternative family sedan, the hot-handling counterpoint to stalwarts like the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. But what happens when you become the alternative to the alternative? These days, virtually any sedan you can name—the Accord, BMW 3 Series, the serial General Motors, Ford, and Fiat Chrysler models now being put to pasture—is being overwhelmed in the marketplace by SUVs. With Mazda struggling to get on consumers’ shopping radar in the best of times, this might appear the worst of times to market the 6.

Mazda

Credit Mazda for not giving up: I still fervently hope that Detroit comes to its senses and realizes it’s critical to stay in the sedan game, and to not entirely cede this still-huge sales segment to its Japanese, Korean and European rivals. Yet if Mazda isn't giving up, it is giving in somewhat to the desires of sedan consumers. Mazda has compromised some of the 6’s pure athleticism, in favor of the plush, premium feel and fuel economy that those buyers tend to prioritize. 

The surgery has been successful: The once-rackety Mazda has suddenly become one of the quietest, most luxurious sedans in its set—especially in higher-priced trims like the Signature model I drove, whose cabin exudes the entry-luxury vibe of a Genesis or Acura. Even an Audi A4 driver might be impressed by the Mazda’s chestnut-colored stitched Nappa leather and ultrasuede trim, or the precise snicks of the Mazda’s knurled-metal controls. Gray-brown Sen wood, a timber used in Japanese drums and furniture, was also in keeping with a Mazda6 Signature that reached $36,400, up just a bit from a base price of $35,645. (A basic Mazda6 Sport, though, starts from just $22,845.)

The happy news is that, underneath the newfound layers of insulation, the Mazda remains a driver’s car through and through. That includes the model’s first turbocharged engine since the Mazdaspeed6 of the mid-2000s. Fill the 6 with 93-octane premium unleaded, and the 2.5-liter Skyactiv engine generates 250 horsepower and a hefty 310 pound-feet of torque that peaks at just 2,000 rpm. (Mazda cites 227 horsepower on 87-octane fuel). That four-cylinder engine can run imperceptibly on two cylinders to save fuel, and indeed the Mazda sipped to the tune of 34 mpg on one highway cruise, topping both its EPA ratings of 31 mpg highway and 23 mpg in the city. But the beefier engine is relegated to the higher trims; Sport and Touring versions soldier on with a naturally aspirated 2.5-liter with 187 horses and 186 pound-feet. And only the Sport model offers an optional six-speed manual transmission.

Mazda

This 2018 Mazda isn’t “all-new,” as the barely changed—but still pretty—exterior suggests. The 6 has been generously reworked all the same, including an interior in which only the steering wheel and a few trim bits have been carried over from the previous version. I assume Mazda isn’t counting its “Commander” infotainment system, which was reasonably slick back in 2012, but whose graphics and somewhat clunky operations are falling behind the curve here in 2018. A new, strongly horizontal instrument panel looks properly traditional, and its softly banked surfaces beckon your touch. 

Like persnickety librarians, Mazda engineers really went after unwanted disturbances, applying more than 70 noise-reduction changes to the latest model. Sound deadening was added to about 20 body panels, the firewall, and doors. Doorsills get their own seals, with acoustic laminate glass for front side windows on uplevel versions. Exterior B-pillars have been reshaped to ease wind noise. Engineers retuned the floorpan, chassis subframes and front struts to keep bad harmonics out of the cabin. And in one compromise that might give a Miata fan pause, Mazda fits most 6s with 19-inch Falken all-season tires originally designed for crossover SUVs; it's a smooth-riding, impeccably quiet tire, but with less ultimate grip than some performance rubber. (Sport models get 17-inch Yokohama all-seasons). A Mazda rep said the company is considering offering an optional high-performance summer tire for the 6.

Mazda

The upshot is a Mazda that doesn’t feel or sound quite like any Mazda I’ve ever driven. Independent testing has confirmed Mazda’s claim that the 6 is even quieter at speed than the plush Honda Accord Touring 2.0, clearly its chief rival in edge-of-luxury family transport. The woolen-wrapped, barely detectable hum of the Mazda’s engine and exhaust note—please, don’t laugh—actually reminded me of a junior Bentley, at least in the 6's lower-range registers.

That discreet engine strategy is intentional, with engineers choosing effortless throttle response and unbroken acceleration over Mazda’s traditional high-revving thrills. The Skyactiv’s “Dynamic Pressure” turbocharger reduces uses a small inlet port to force air into the turbo at low rpms, thereby reducing traditional lag. (Mazda uses the analogy of holding your thumb over a garden hose to increase the pressure.) The engine is no enthusiast special, what with a workman-like redline of barely 6,000 rpm. Yet this turbo four gets the job done in another way: It’s packed with rich, low- and mid-range torque. Combine that with a “mere” six-speed, paddle-shifted transmission — but an excellent six-speed, designed in-house by Mazda—and the Mazda makes power like an old V-6-powered German station wagon. Whether you’re going 30 mph or 60, just squeeze the accelerator and the Mazda surges ahead, with no need for an obtrusive downshift. Shifts themselves are more direct and decisive than most automatics in this sedan breed, whether via the console lever or steering-wheel paddles.

The Honda Accord Touring 2.0 is the quicker car off the line, clocking 0-60 mph in a brisk 5.5 seconds, versus 6.4 seconds for the Mazda—even though the Honda, with 252 horses and 273 pound-feet, gives up 37 pound-feet to the Mazda. Credit the Accord’s efficient 10-speed automatic transmission, and its ability to launch off the line with almost no wheelspin, for the performance edge from a standing start. But don’t discount the Mazda’s own real-world punch; once the 6 is rolling, the meaty torque makes short work of any passing maneuver or merge.

Fortunately, while the Mazda feels less aggressively sporty than before, its traditional strengths are undimmed. That includes the most natural, driver-connected steering in the class, including a progressive weight gain as you bend into corners. That steering rack is now hard-mounted to the body, with no bushings to get in the way of driving feel; crank the Mazda’s wheel on a tight corner or fast sweeper, and this car simply responds. Reworked dampers add rebound springs to keep the body wonderfully flat in corners, obviating the need for chunkier anti-sway bars.

Mazda

The operative word for this facelifted model is “sophistication,” perhaps with a bit less of the old Mazda “Zoom Zoom”—but the result is a more complete sedan. That holistic approach came through on a long drive from New York to the wilds of Connecticut; on wooded backroads, the Mazda proved it hasn’t lost its fun-to-drive chops. Trust me when I say that most owners will never come close to overwhelming those quiet, fuel-efficient tires. (If sheer grip is a top priority, slap on a set of aftermarket Michelin Pilot Sports). 

But once I started dealing with the maelstrom of Manhattan and the bomb craters of Brooklyn, I appreciated the Mazda’s newfound serenity and features, including automated emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, ventilated front seats, and standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Redesigned front seats are wider and more supportive; Mazda says they’re designed to keep occupants’ spines in the proper “S”-shape that people have while standing. But rear legroom, though strong on paper, still doesn’t touch that of the limo-like Accord.

As noted, the new Mazda6 Sport starts from a hair below $23,000, though the newly deluxe mindset can boost the 6 into new price territory. Moving through Touring, Grand Touring, and Grand Touring Reserve Models, one arrives at the Signature, priced from $35,645, or $36,440 with the addition of handsome Soul Red Crystal paint, a cargo mat and door scuff plates. That’s about a $4,000 jump over a loaded 2017 6.

Mazda is on pace to sell about 30,000 6s this year, down about 11 percent, though this new model should goose those numbers heading into 2019. Still, for every American that chooses a Mazda6, 10 people buy an Accord, and 11 people go with a Toyota Camry. With sedans sinking in general—the Camry is off 6.5 percent this year, the Accord a dispiriting 14 percent—the 6 has become the underdog among underdogs. Will new tricks keep Mazda’s dog in the hunt? Let’s hope so, before yet another car company decides, in a bout of short-term delusion, that sedans aren’t worth building at all. 

Lawrence Ulrich, The Drive’s chief auto critic, is an award-winning auto journalist and former chief auto critic for The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Detroit native and Brooklyn gentrifier owns a troubled ’93 Mazda RX-7 R1, but may want to give it a good home. Email him at Lawrence.ulrich@gmail.com