Road Test: 2009 Mazda6 s Grand Touring
By Douglas Kott of Road & Track
Talk about your semantic disorientation. I thought Mazda had changed its slogan when I pulled the press kit CD out of its sleeve upside-down and read the label: "Mazda9, Wooz-Wooz." Correctly oriented, the "6" and "Zoom-Zoom" appeared, and a teetering world was stabilized. But it got all of us around the R&T offices to thinking: Had Mazda applied enough sporting quotient to its new sveltely styled midsize sedan? Did it deftly walk that tightrope of responsive performance and comfort, avoiding the crocodile pit of mediocrity below? It truly is a matter of perspective.
Well, we think the latest 6 arrives with its sporting heritage intact, in a powerful, impending-earthquake sort of way...lots of energy below a deceptively calm surface. Take the new MZI V-6, for instance, displacing a full 3.7 liters and generating 272 bhp and a peak 269 lb.-ft. of torque at 4250 rpm. Shared with the CX-9 crossover and paired with a 6-speed automatic, this 60-degree aluminum-block engine finally pulls this front-drive Mazda alongside its admittedly speedy competition — a 0-60 romp of 6.2 seconds and a quarter-mile effort of 14.7 sec. puts it within a tenth or two of top-range Accords and Maximas. And that last number noses out the previous-gen Mazdaspeed6 with its 274-bhp turbocharged inline-4...a car whose brief 2-model-year existence suggested that it might have been too exotic for this segment. Kobe beef among the meatloaf-and-potatoes crowd, perhaps?
And where the Mazdaspeed6's appearance had all the subtlety of parachute pants and a mullet, the new 6 appeals on the strengths of a shape that exhibits a powerful design language, yet doesn't shout for attention with an enormous grille resembling a fish mouth, turbofan intake or stylized medieval shield. Credit designer Youichi Sato, whose previous work includes both second- and third-generation RX-7s, who led his team away from cab-forward thinking to a design with more classic overall proportions. The new 6 has a compact, chrome-trimmed greenhouse set off by a prominent shoulder line and dramatic fender forms we've seen before in the RX-8. Look at how pronounced the front flares are; there's enough horizontal surface there to set your drink on while you're waxing the car. Headlights are simple almond-shape slivers inset with more technical elements (xenon lights are standard on Grand Touring models) and the taillight outlines are repeated in the stainless-steel exhaust tips (for V-6-equipped cars) set flush into the rear valance...an extremely slick and Lexus LS-ish touch.
"The clean, good looks of the exterior carry over to the interior, which has elegantly designed instruments and classy trim on the console and shifter," offered up Editor-in-Chief Matt DeLorenzo. A sporty hooded binnacle houses the dials, cleanly executed with sequential backlighting that, on start-up, grows in intensity to a deep red, and is then edge-lit with blue. The nav/infotainment touch screen is high and within easy reach, and much appreciated are dedicated climate controls beneath that don't require a bit of interaction with the screen. And finishes are classy and upscale; the dash and center console trim has a unique pattern that looks like...well, remember high school biology class when you looked at a slide of striated muscle fibers under the microscope? Like that, only less clinical and done in more tranquil shades of black and gray. The dark smoked-bronze acrylic piece for the shifter surround is neat, although it does tend to show scratches. And logos inset in chrome doorsill guards glow a soothing purple-blue.
As you might expect, the 6 is somewhat larger than its former self. At 193.7 in. overall (+6.1 in.), 72.4 in. wide (+2.3) and spanning 109.8 in. between the axles (+4.5), the 6 now has a roomy interior as its strong suit. In the time-honored adjust-the-front-seat-for-one's-self-then-sit-in-the-back test, my knees, straight out, don't touch the front seatbacks, even with a 6-foot-3 frame being larger than the average editor's. Front seats are long-haul comfortable, with smooth lumps of lumbar support in the right places and an upmarket-looking stitch/pleat pattern to its black leather. While most of the surfaces and textures inside the 6 are appealing, Mazda needs to ditch the mouse-fur headliner and step up to a woven-finish material.
With its larger size comes a relatively modest weight gain of about 160 lb., but increased stiffness too, thanks to sills with a larger cross section, wider bases to the B-pillar stampings, use of structural adhesives in some areas and more spot welds. And with its foundation suitably shored up, handling precision is improved. Wring it out on a canyon road, as we did on our photo shoot, and tighter turns will be met with stubborn understeer...largely a function of the no doubt long-wearing Michelin all-season tires. Sized at 235/45ZR-18, there's plenty of section width, but pushed hard they start howling early, and returned a 0.83g skidpad rating that was mildly disappointing. In a duty cycle more in line with family sedan use, the 6 is redeemed: ride quality is toward the firm side of the bell curve, with comfortable, no-float damping; the hydraulically-assisted steering feels well-weighted and accurate; and brakes have little free play and a reassuringly linear relationship between pedal pressure and bite. So in the real world of gentle sweepers, transition roads and out-braking Taekwondo moms in Chevy Tahoes, the 6 is a rewarding drive.
Get aggressive with the throttle and the 6's ace-in-the-hole is revealed — its virtual lack of torque steer, even with stability and traction-control systems defeated entirely. One hopes that the Mazdaspeed3, something of a white-knuckler in a straight line, could profit from what was done here. And the 6-speed automatic shifts decisively and with relative quickness, although we wish the downshifts were rev-matched when you slide the selector to the left, into the sequential gate. (Incidentally, it's bump forward for downshifts, back for upshifts — the way it should be). Left in "D," Mazda's Active Adaptive Shift (AAS) program seems to find the right gear most of the time, and either holds onto gears longer or quickens downshift speeds depending on driver input.
A truly modern car wouldn't be so without having the latest technology and infotainment bells/whistles available, and the 6 doesn't disappoint; our $28,260 s Grand Touring model came equipped with Bluetooth connectivity, voice actuation, keyless pushbutton starting and an optional $2000 nav system. Some questionable technology is included too — such as BMS, or Blind spot Monitoring System, which alerts the driver via a light-up symbol in the outside rearview mirror when a vehicle is lurking behind your C-pillar. If you signal to change lanes in that direction, a warning chime sounds. Good in theory, borderline infuriating in practice — false alarms, brought on by situations like two lanes of left-turn traffic, had some of us looking to personally lobotomize the system's computer brain. You can turn it off each time you start the car via a dash-mounted switch, but that's a hassle in itself.
This irritation notwithstanding, the new 6 raises Mazda's refinement game in the high-volume midsize sedan segment, and a quick poll of our staff indicates that it's an aesthetic home run. But Mazda grounded to short with the all-season tires. How about a summer-tire option with Michelin Pilot Sport PS2s? It'd go a long way toward attaining full Zoom status.