2018 Mazda Mazda6 Signature Review: Nosing Into the Premium Sedan Ranks
Mazda’s midsized family sedan benefits from a new turbocharged engine and a class-leading interior.
Welcome to Critic's Notebook, a quick and off-the-cuff car review consisting of impressions, jottings, and marginalia regarding whatever The Drive writers happen to be driving. Today's edition: the 2018 Mazda Mazda6 Signature.
The 2018 Mazda Mazda6 Signature, By the Numbers:
Base Price (Price as Tested): $35,640 ($36,140)
Powertrain: 2.5-liter turbocharged inline-four, 227/250 horsepower (87/93 octane), 310 pound-feet of torque; six-speed automatic; front-wheel-drive
EPA Fuel Economy: 23 mpg city / 31 mpg highway
0-60 MPH: 6.4 seconds (Car and Driver testing)
Skidpad road-holding: 0.81 g (C/D)
Quick Take: Mazda's fancy top-level trim spreads to the carmaker's midsize family sedan.
One Big Question: Is it better to buy a really fancy regular car, or an entry-level luxury car?
Since it first showed up back in the early Aughts, the stylish, entertaining Mazda6 has always ranked among the stronger contenders in America's midsize family sedan class. But while it's always been a nice car, it's never been nice in the Bentley, Benz, and Bimmer sense of an elegant exterior and a plush interior. Until now, at least. For the 2018 model year, the high-rolling Signature trim first seen on the CX-9 crossover has migrated down to the Mazda6, bringing with it a dash of class in the form of external brightwork and cabin luxury. It also brought the Mazda four-door's price to ne'er-before-seen heights, however: Right smack around $36,000, depending on how you pick from the (relatively few) options.
That aligns almost perfectly with the starting prices of the Audi A4 and BMW 3 Series—sedans that come boasting legendary luxury name plates, not to mention German build quality and sharp-edged near-sport sedan handling. But those cars come with the barest of fancy features at that price; don't look for high-quality leather upholstery, premium wood, or beefed-up powerplants. (Indeed, both of those actually come with detuned turbo fours at that price point.) The Mazda, on the other hand, comes with everything short of a chef's washbasin for that money.
Mazda Mazda6 Signature: The Pros
- The Signature trim's biggest draw, in either 6 or CX-9 form, is what it brings to the car's cabin: specifically, sweet, sweet, fancy materials. Automakers love to bandy about the adjective premium—I once considered playing a drinking game at a Hyundai launch where I'd take a sip every time the carmaker's reps said it, only to realize I be falling-down drunk by the time the presentation was over—but this Mazda actually lives up to the word. From the Nappa leather coating the seats to the plush dashboard trim covered in ultrasuede to the unexpected real wood trim (it's called Sen wood, and your Nick Offerman types will tell you it's been similar to ash and very big in Japan), everything you see and touch in the cabin feels...well, premium.
- The turbo-four has been tuned to deliver torque above all else—310 pound-feet of it, starting at just 2,000 rpm. While the horsepower figure varies depending on what octane gasoline you pour into the tank, all those torques are far less picky about what's to drink; they'll show up at the party regardless. As a result, the Signature squirts around with an almost diesel-like energy during regular operations, zipping past slower traffic and onto freeway merges with ease.
- When it arrived in 2012, the current-generation Mazda6's elegant style immediately set it a notch above the vast majority of four-doors in terms of visual appeal. The Signature trim only adds to that, bringing with it a sharp metallic grille that looks like the world's fanciest chain-link fence. It's a small touch, but it does wonders to class up the car's face.
- Like every Mazda, the little details designed to ease the driver's life have been baked in from the start. The six-speed automatic may lack some gears next to its competitors, but as a result, it rarely suffers from the kickdown lag many automatics do. The G-Vectoring Control system that imperceptibly dials back engine torque every time the steering wheel moves to smooth out turns works so well, you'll never realize what you're missing until you drive another car on the same roads. And that steering wheel—leather-wrapped here, of course—fits in your hands like a driver's dream, with perfect handholds at nine and three.
Mazda Mazda6 Signature: The Cons
- Remember zoom-zoom? Yeah, the team developing the Mazda6 Signature didn't. Okay, that's a tad harsh; after all, it still rides on the same chassis as every 6, which means it has good inherent balance, but the Signature trim is clearly tuned more for highway comfort than B-road dissection. It falls flat during combat ops in a way you might not expect from a Mazda; the engine feels wanting at full throttle, and the handling is softer than a sibling of the Miata should bring to the party.
- For all the embellishment the top trim tacks onto the interior, it's still the same interior found in any other Mazda6. The old maxim about lipstick and pigs is a bit too harsh to use here; it's still a well-executed interior, with Mazda's stalwart click-wheel-and-touchscreen "Commander Control" infotainment system and a tweaked climate control layout that now sits tastefully tucked away beneath a long strip of leather trim. But functionally speaking, the only real change is the addition of a seven-inch LCD display displaying several gauges in the center of the dash.
- The fresh new turbo four can't be paired with Mazda's six-speed manual, unlike the 187-hp naturally-aspirated engine in the base Sport model. Some people won't care. I do.
Mazda Mazda6 Signature: Value
Held up against the aforementioned entry-level German luxury cars, the Mazda6 Signature does indeed look pretty sweet. But expand the field a bit to include, say, competitors from other luxury automakers, and the 6's value proposition dips a bit. For $36,000 and change, you can hop into a reasonably-well equipped Acura TLX, or a very nicely-outfitted Buick Regal Sportback. Again, as with Bimmer and Audi, choosing one of those means you won't be scoring the crème de la crème of their respective lineups...but the Buick and Acura nameplates boast a bit more prestige than Mazda's baseborn badge. (And unlike the A4 and 3 Series, both are big enough to fit four full-sized humans in comfort.)
If this 6 offered MX-5-esque performance to go along with its other attributes, it'd be hard to argue with the value case here...but its lackadaisical driving dynamics (again, for a Mazda) relegate it down a few slots amongst $35K-ish cars. If you want fun with your gussied-up midsized sedan, you're better off looking at a Honda Accord 2.0T Touring—or, dare I say it, a Toyota Camry XSE.
The Bottom Line:
It's not hard to see the appeal in adding fancier trim lines to any model line. (Just ask the Big Three, who've been kept afloat in part thanks to America's love for fancier and fancier pickup trucks.) Not only does it help elevate the perception of the vehicle by adding the sort of luxury features traditionally found only in hoity-toity cars—say, Jan, that Mazda has Nappa leather, just like my jerkoff boss's A8!—but it can also help juice profits, wooing people into spending money on fluff that's cheap to add in comparison to the cost of developing the car. The Signature trim has certainly helped boost the CX-9's reputation; when it arrived alongside the new crossover and its clean styling in 2016, it wowed a lot of attendant reviewers, myself included. But the Signature crossover sells for almost $10,000 more than the sedan, and you can see where the money went; the rosewood trim is far nicer than this car's Sen wood, and the auburn leather brings a level of elegance the 6 can't match. The CX-9 Signature seems like a worthy bargain compared to a luxury competitor; the Mazda6 Signature seems more like it's trapped between two worlds, at home in neither.
Mazda, no doubt, will sell its share of Signature Sixers. But at the end of the day, it seems more likely to be a halo for the model, drawing in potential customers who then wind up driving off in something like a Grand Touring Reserve trim instead, which offers most of the nice features and all the inherent Mazda6 goodness for several grand less. And those buyers will, in all honesty, have made the smarter choice.