Road Test: 2009 Mazda 6 i Grand Touring
By Mark Gillies of Car and Driver
No matter how much we liked the old Mazda 6, introduced in 2002 as a 2003 model, it was always at a disadvantage in the mid-size-sedan market because it was a little undersized.
For 2009, Mazda has rectified that matter with the new 6, which is bigger in every dimension. The wheelbase has gone up by 4.5 inches, to 109.8 inches. Overall, the car is 6.9 inches longer and 2.3 inches wider, at 193.7 inches and 72.4 inches, respectively. The maximum interior volume has increased from 96 cubic feet to 102 cubic feet, and the trunk volume is about 10 percent bigger, at 17 cubic feet. From being the minnow of the mid-size pack, the 6 is now one of its whales.
As before, the car is available with four-cylinder or V-6 power, denoted by i and s suffixes. There are four trim levels: base SV (four-cylinder only), Sport, Touring, and Grand Touring. Our test car was a four-cylinder i in Grand Touring trim. The base price is $25,580, but adding a navigation system ($2000) and the uplevel Bose stereo that gets packaged with a sunroof ($1760) inflated the sticker to $29,340 (California emissions equipment added $100). Change the six-speed manual transmission to a five-speed automatic, and the sticker would rise to a pricey $30,340.
Although the new body shell is much bigger, Mazda claims 39-percent-higher bending rigidity and a 17-percent increase in torsional stiffness over the previous car. The front suspension is a control-arm and coil-spring layout, replacing the previous two lower links with a one-piece steel forging for greater steering precision. At the back, there's a multilink setup, which has been revised with higher trailing-arm attachment points for increased anti-lift to keep the body level during hard braking; larger-diameter trailing-arm bushings for better ride quality; and a more upright, outboard location for the rear dampers to improve wheel and body control. Sport and SV models have standard 16-inch wheels and tires, but our Grand Touring had 17-inch aluminum wheels shod with P215/55R Michelin Energy MXV4 S8 all-season rubber.
The previous car's 2.3-liter, inline four-cylinder MZR engine has been replaced by a 2.5-liter version, which has a 1.5mm-larger bore (89mm) and a 6.0mm-longer stroke (100mm). There is variable valve timing on the intake side only. A new cylinder head was designed to improve gas flow. The upshot is more horsepower, up from 156 to 170, delivered at 6000 rpm. Torque is increased from 154 pound-feet to 167. However, California-spec four-cylinders such as that of our test car make 168 hp and 166 lb-ft. (The optional V-6 engine, now mated to a six-speed automatic, also has grown, from 3.0 to 3.7 liters. Power has gone from 212 to 272 horsepower.)
The standard transmission is a close-ratio six-speed manual, but there's an optional five-speed automatic that improves the EPA mileage estimates from 20 mpg city and 29 highway to 21/30. The manual Honda Accord gets 21/31 mpg according to the EPA, while the Nissan Altima is rated at 23/32 mpg. Our C/D combined cycle, the equivalent of the Lead Foot Quotient, worked out to 23 mpg for the 6.
Options and Interior
Grand Touring models have auto on/off xenon headlamps, rain-sensing windshield wipers, an effective blind-spot monitoring system, dual-zone climate control, a power passenger seat, Bluetooth phone connectivity, leather seats, and heated front seats.
The previous model was a very conservative design but drove like a champ. The new 6 is a lot more aggressively styled. Mazda personnel say that the designers were briefed to think that this is "Time to be Japanese," which is a scary concept if your kids are into Hello Kitty and Ninja Warrior. Luckily, those designers looked at classical Japanese design rather than terrible TV shows, so the 6 came out quite nicely. The front fenders have a touch of RX-8 to them, the roofline has a rakish fastback profile, and the lights are very distinctive. Some observers say it looks too much like a Camry, but the 6 is much more coherent and striking.
Inside, the 6 has good-quality materials and simple, elegant shapes. The cool silver gauges have red electroluminescent numerals with blue halos, and the column stalks have the kind of snappy action that Honda used to do so well. The (optional) navigation system is easy to use, and setting up a Bluetooth phone connection is as simple as a plate of pasta con aglio e olio. The button for the keyless starting system is set too low, however, and the blanking plate for the hole in the steering column where the ignition key goes on lesser models is downright cheesy.
Front-seat headroom and legroom are exemplary, but taller rear-seat riders will curse the rakish roofline. They won't mind the legroom, however, which is as good as it gets in this class. We liked the driving position and the feel of the controls: The clutch has a nicely fluid action, and the shifter has short, sporty throws. Even the steering wheel feels as though it was designed by people who enjoy driving.
However, the 6 isn't the sporty machine we remember of yore. Sure, it's pleasing enough to drive, but Mazda has traded some of the zoominess for roominess. Off the mark, front-wheel hop compromised its performance, and it ended up with an 8.2-second time for the 0-to-60-mph sprint, 0.3 second slower than the old car. Compared with manual-equipped competition, that's also 0.3 second off the pace of a Honda Accord, but overall it's roughly average in its class. The car turned the quarter-mile in 16.3 seconds at 87 mph, three 10ths slower than the Accord but a 10th quicker than the old Mazda 6.
On the highway, this Mazda cruises quietly enough at 80 mph. However, it is geared fairly short; in sixth gear at 80 mph, the engine is turning at a touch over 3300 revs. The highway ride is as supple as an Olympic gymnast.
On the skidpad, the 0.84 g of grip was solid and as good as anything in the mid-size pack. However, the 189 feet it took to bring this car to a standstill from 70 mph was worse than any of the braking performances of our last comparison test of mid-sizers, and this was pinned on inconsistent and nonuniform activity from the anti-lock braking system.
Subjectively, the 6 feels good on a back road but not as athletic as you might like. Peel into a corner, and the 6's tires squeal like a pack of preteen girls at a Jonas Brothers concert. As soon as you exert any cornering load, it seems to flop over to the outside front wheel, takes a set, and then is nicely balanced, with a cornering attitude that is easily adjustable with the throttle. Should the front end run wide, a lift off the gas pedal causes the nose to tuck in. The steering is well weighted and linear but a little light — a bit too Camry-ish if you ask us.
The new 6 is certainly a fine car, one that ticks all the right boxes for this class. It's big enough, looks distinctive, has a well-appointed interior, rides down the highway nicely, is quick enough, and can be bought with all the gizmos buyers seem to favor these days. In Grand Touring guise, however, it is pricey, and we recommend opting for the i Touring, which stickers nicely for $22,375 with a manual transmission.
Our only regret with the Mazda 6 is that in becoming more mainstream, it is less appealing to the enthusiast driver. However, Mazda likely won't care about that loss of enthusiast edge if the 6 brings increased sales and steals buyers away from the Toyota Camry and the Honda Accord, the perennial bestsellers in this class.