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The Mazda 6 is a clear second in Australia’s diminishing mid-sized car class, slotting behind the locally-made (for now) fleet-favoured Toyota Camry.
As such, the third-generation of the Mazda nameplate that helped shake the dust from the brand’s badge cache when it launched in 2002 beats out nemeses such as the Ford Mondeo, Hyundai i40, Subaru Liberty and Volkswagen Passat.
Moreover, it’s worthy. It may not be the cheapest car in the class, but when it launched in 2012, we were impressed by its ability to balance dynamism and practicality, blended with a pseudo-premium edge.
We’ll be honest — not much has changed, either with the car or the mid-sized class in general, in the interim. But with this car now nearing two years of age, it seemed an opportune time to give it another run and see if the lustre remains.
Here we test the range flagship: Atenza specification, diesel engine and wagon body-style.
At $51,360 plus on-road costs, it’s priced in line with a base BMW 3 Series. Of course, it’s a bigger car with more features, but the tag shows Mazda’s upmarket positioning of a car that can be had for $33,460 in entry-level sedan guise.
First things first, what do you get for your money?
Under the bonnet is a common-rail and direct-injected 2.2-litre turbo-diesel engine with a beefy 129kW at 4500rpm and 420Nm at 2000rpm. It comes matched to a standard six-speed automatic transmission
There’s no getting away from its configuration — hit the starter button (or use the idle-stop stop/start system that comes as part of Mazda’s i-ELOOP capacitor-based energy recuperation system) and there is the characteristic though muted rattle (it’s actually no noisier than the high-compression petrol version at startup), though once rolling it gets a deeper growl going.
Mazda pitches this version as its sporting option, since it no longer has an MPS equivalent to call its own. For comparison, the $2850 cheaper 2.5-litre SkyActiv petrol offering produces 138kW but only 250Nm of torque - a long way off the diesel.
As such, the diesel is a much more laconic cruiser, happy to lope along at highway speeds at low revs. It’s low-down torque also makes it snappier in the mid-range, and while it lacks the immediacy of the petrol it’s notably more muscular once it picks up.
In a semi-premium vehicle, the diesel is arguably worth the outlay, purely because it is not only more frugal, but significantly punchier as well. That said, if you’re on a budget the petrol is certainly sharp enough. Keep in mind the diesel is between $20 and $60 pricier to service than the petrol.
The six-speed paddleshift-equipped, torque-converter auto shifts with decisiveness and in a snappy fashion. Always eager to change up rapidly to keep revs muted and fuel use down, it nevertheless kicks down without hesitation when needed, and rarely holds the wrong ratio.
Mazda claims this engine can use as little as 5.4 litres per 100 kilometres on the combined cycle, equating to a theoretical range in excess of 1100km from its 62-litre fuel tank. Our mixed loop returned closer to 6.5L/100km — still impressive, and about 20 per cent better than the petrol.
For those wanting to tow a box trailer or a small boat, the diesel can permissibly haul 1600kilograms braked (750kg unbraked), compared to 1500kg/550kg for the petrol.
Dynamically, the Mazda 6 remains among the sharpest tools in the segment. All versions offer a combination of ride and handling that tows the fine line between being engaging and comfortable without favouring either, and thereby compromising the other. Make sense?
At 4800mm long and 1840mm wide, this generation 6 is the biggest to date, and as such it feels perhaps less nimble than the 2002 original, in much the same way as the current Mazda 3 does compared with its 2003 predecessor. But it’s still excellent.
One thing you immediately notice is the slightly blunted turn-in on the diesel. It weighs 70kg more than the equivalent petrol at 1593kg, most of this over the front axle. Naturally, the extra punch counteracts this in a straight line.
The Atenza’s 19-inch alloy wheels (on 225/45/19 rubber) also fail to smooth out road corrugations as well as the Sport and Touring’s 17s. But it still rides exceedingly well for a car on such low-profile rubber. Such is the price to be paid for style.
Importantly, even on 19s the largest Mazda passenger car (non-SUV) is a fairly quiet cruiser - and that's no small compliment, as NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) has not always been a Mazda strength.
The chassis remains well-balanced, with the car feeling stiff in the body and agile in corners. The electro-mechanical steering is linear, though it feels strangely heavy at lower speeds until you move it about 10 degrees from centre.
Tackle a nice sequence of bends, though, particularly higher-speed sweepers, the the car’s inherent balance and steering calibration means you’ll have a whale of a time. Especially compared with the average compact SUV that people are likely to cross-shop.
Perhaps the closest rival from a dynamic perspective is the $41,140 Skoda Octavia RS 135 TDI (the equipment levels are naturally lower on the Skoda).
Inside, Mazda’s semi-premium ambitions become obvious. The Atenza is not lacking standard equipment, but even more obvious is the higher-end design touches and overall feeling of quality and tactility above the mainstream — one notable exception notwithstanding.
Standard features that differentiate the Atenza are largely cosmetic — the 19-inch wheels — and safety oriented. Unique additions that in some cases are options on other variants are radar-guided cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, forward obstruction warning, auto high-beam lighting, rear cross-traffic alert and low-speed autonomous brakes (Smart Brake Support).
For what it’s worth, the obstruction warning is a little invasive, but the radar-guided cruise worked well, even if its pickup — its ability to return the car to a faster speed once the obstacle ahead had cleared — was a little slow on the uptake.
Other features, shared with the GT and in some cases lower grades, include heated and powered (beautifully soft) leather seats, a sunroof, roof rails, LED daytime running lights, bi-xenon headlights, keyless start, an 11-speaker audio system touchscreen and Bluetooth/USB streaming, satellite navigation (commendably standard on all variants) and climate control.
The cabin itself has a premium feel and presentation, evidenced by the Audi-like rotary dial on the transmission tunnel than controls the multimedia system. The trio of ventilation dials feel solid in the hand, and the tasteful gloss-back cabin trims are subtly done.
We also know we’re regularly called-out for what some perceive as an obsession with soft-touch dash plastics, but on a car like this they really do improve the ambience. That said, the screen looks a trifle aftermarket and the Tom Tom sat-nav system is a little clunky to operate.
We also found the leather seats somewhat lacking in under-thigh support, and despite the wagon boasting a shorter wheelbase than the sedan there is plenty of space in both seat rows. Rear seat passenger may have to duck slightly getting in — that low roof adds sex appeal but takes away headroom — but legroom is ample, reflecting the car’s larger dimensions and stronger US-orientation.
Mazda claims cargo space of 506 litres with the rear seat up or 1593L with a space-saver spare and the 60:40 second row folded into their flattest position.
This compares to 506/1672L for the Hyundai i40 wagon, 1005/2163L for the cavernous Ford Mondeo, 490/1690 for the Subaru Liberty, 603/1731L for the Volkswagen Passat, 588/1718L for the aforementioned Skoda Octavia and 895/2000L for the larger, Australian-made Holden Commodore Sportwagon.
Fact is, the Mazda 6 is not the most practical choice around, but then again it looks a hell of a lot sharper than a Mondeo too… your call, there. You get a standard retracting cargo cover and a 12V outlet in the boot, at least.
Finally, from a cost-of-ownership perspective, Mazda has made leaps and bounds in recent times, applying a retroactive lifetime capped-price service plan to all current-generation Mazda 6 cars (and its whole range). Services conducted every 12 months of 10,000km (whatever comes first) will cost between $316 and $383 over the life-cycle. These figures are about on par with the 1.7 CRDi i40, as diesels are always pricier to maintain.
So then, it seems the Mazda 6 remains a top pick. It still handles with the vigour of something European (an Octavia RS, for instance!) its cabin presentation — the sub-par screen notwithstanding — is strong and its styling makes it arguably the nicest driveway proposition.
However, as a practical family hauler, it also offers less space than some rivals. The question is, what do you value more? If you want the car that drives best and look sharpest, the Mazda is your bet.
Finally, don’t be afraid to look at the $10,000 cheaper Mazda 6 Touring diesel or, if you’re very budget-conscious, the $36,250 Sport petrol with optional Safety package that adds touches such as blind-spot monitoring, low-speed auto braking and rear cross-traffic alert.