We drive the third-generation Mazda6 to find out if it's still one of the world's best medium cars.
It wasn't so long ago that the arrival of a new-generation medium car would have struggled to stir any interest, but the segment has enjoyed a heyday period since the first Mazda6 of 2002.
A decade on, we find ourselves on the north-west outskirts of Paris for the third instalment of the mid-sized Mazda, with the temperature of anticipation warmed by the company's claim that the new 6 is its most technologically advanced model yet.
It makes the new 6 the second Mazda to be built from the ground up with the company’s range of fuel-efficiency-focused measures – such as body, chassis and drivetrains – that sit under its so-called Skyactiv umbrella.
One Skyactiv technology making its debut in the Mazda6 is a kinetic energy recovery system called i-Eloop.
It involves a black, square tube-like capacitor that stores electricity generated under deceleration and braking, and saves battery life and engine power by using it to power various electrical components, such as air conditioning and audio.
Mazda says it saves about 10 per cent in fuel use and works in tandem with the iStop engine stop-start system, with both contributing to much improved consumption for the Mazda6 – giving it Toyota Camry Hybrid-beating figures in diesel format.
Mazda Australia has opted for the higher-power version of the Mazda6’s twin-turbo 2.2-litre diesel, which doesn’t have the sub-4.0L/100km of the lower-power unit but should still undercut the petrol-electric’s 5.2L/100km for the Australian fuel test cycle.
The alternative engine is a new 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol, which with 141kW has 12kW more power than the diesel but has a torque count that is inferior by some margin – 256Nm v 420Nm.
In the Mazda CX-5, the 2.2-litre turbo diesel is a vastly better performer in almost every measure than the 2.0-litre petrol offering, but it’s not such a clear choice in the Mazda6.
The Mazda6 2.5 brings ample performance and refinement to the class, with the refined four-cylinder revving out sweetly with a purposeful note. Shifts from the six-speed automatic are smooth, and drivers also have the option – and it’s the best one for corners - of manually changing ratios via paddleshift levers.
The new organ-style accelerator pedal also incorporates a noticeable kickdown détente, which when engaged brings comfortable overtaking performance.
Both the petrol auto and diesel manual we tested accelerate from 0-100km/h in the same time of 7.8 seconds, according to Mazda. The diesel auto that will come to Australia takes 8.4sec.
There’s a greater mid-range surge of torque from the turbo diesel, as expected, which pulls well from low revs and makes passing other cars more effortless.
Mazda says it has focused some of the development on making the new Mazda6 quieter than before.
On the 19-inch wheels that were fitted to both variants we tested, however, road noise was an issue, and especially intrusive whenever the surface changed from smooth to coarse.
We’ll have to wait to try the Mazda6 on the 17-inch and 18-inch wheels that will also be available in Australia to see if they will improve matters.
If Mazda’s engineers were aiming to generate plenty of grip from the 19s, they’ve at least succeeded there.
The signs from the launch drive, however, are that the Mazda6 has lost some of the dynamic magic of its predecessors.
The new 6 handles well, don’t get us wrong, and it will still be one of the best-driving medium cars on the market in 2013.
It’s just that in the context of generations one and two that set the segment benchmark, there’s slightly less disciplined body control, with noticeable lean through corners and steering that, while praiseworthy for its weighting and smoothness, lacks the crisp directness and initial response we’ve come to love on the outgoing Mazda6.
The springs and dampers are set up slightly stiffer on the wagon, and it feels slightly firmer than the sedan that also rode on 19s and also a touch busier on rough roads and less absorbent over sharper bumps.
In both models the suspension became slightly floaty over the French drive route’s most undulating roads, further adding to the overall impression that Mazda has aimed to dial back the 6’s sportiness in favour of extra comfort.
There’s also no mistaking this is a big car. The Mazda6 has grown again and now exceeds 4.8 metres.
The sedan, you may be surprised to learn, has a longer body than the wagon. That’s essentially because the four-door is focused on the US market whereas the wagon’s target is Europe.
And as well as growing in size, the Mazda6 has grown in maturity.
The medium car’s relationship with the CX-5 is visible as well as hidden, with the medium car’s interior based heavily on the SUV’s design.
The 6’s dash architecture is naturally lower, and there are neat, exclusive styling touches for the medium car – such as the coloured faux-metal trim on the dash and character line that runs through an upper section of the door trim.
Soft-touch materials are in important areas where parts of the body interact with the car, such as armrests and upper dash, but aren’t liberally applied.
The HMI – for Human Machine Interface – controller, inspired by BMW’s iDrive system, also carries over from higher-spec versions of the CX-5.
The controller can be operated as both a rotary dial and joystick to make navigating through the colour menu display utterly intuitive. It’s also surrounded by shortcut buttons.
It adds a dash of sophistication, as do the number of new driver assist technologies available that include lane departure and blind spot warning systems, headlights than can peer around corners and switch automatically between high and low beam, and automatic braking functions that can operate from both 15-145km/h and 4-30km/h speed ranges to help avoid collisions if the driver has been distracted.
The sedan has the bigger cabin, making use of its 80mm-longer wheelbase. It creates an additional 30mm of legroom in the rear seat and it’s noticeable when jumping between the two.
There’s still decent knee room in the wagon, and both body styles offer a good amount of space for heads and feet.
The sedan’s 489-litre boot is deep and there’s a longer load length than the wagon when the 60/40 rear seats fold virtually flat via pull levers in the boot.
The wagon’s boot is larger at 522 litres, though, and its seat release levers look smarter and automatically collapse the seatbacks. It also has a wider aperture and the sedan's gooseneck-hinged boot lid isn't ideal.
Our test cars were equipped with compressor tyre inflator kits, though a full-size spare wheel will be made available in Australia.
Mazda Australia isn’t revealing pricing yet for the new Mazda6, but has said there will be no sub-$30,000 ‘stripper’ model. Current pricing starts at $31,450 for a 2.5-litre petrol sedan.
Some question marks remain about noise refinement and ride quality – especially the firmer-tuned wagon – for Australian roads, though there’s otherwise plenty of overwhelming evidence that the Mazda6 will again be at the pointy end of the picks of the medium car class.