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At the entry point of its range the 2015 Mazda 6 becomes more usable and better value for money, while at its top end there is enough technology packed in to make premium car manufacturers blush.
While the new Mazda 6 looks much the same from the outside, the interior of the medium-sized Japanese sedan and wagon range has been overhauled to become decidedly more upmarket whatever specification level you’re buying.
The entry Sport (at $32,540 plus on-road costs) is where we begin our drive (see full pricing and specifications here), and it’s immediately apparent that except for the standard cloth trim, it doesn’t feel like a base model. There’s a leather-trimmed steering wheel, but no longer a handbrake lever as the update has switched to an electric operated park brake across the range.
Stitched leather (or leather-look material) across the dashboard also flanks the transmission tunnel that has a venetian-blind style of roller over the cupholders leading back towards a sizeable console storage bin.
Dual-zone climate controls finished in Audi-esque knurled silver – and borrowed from the Mazda 3 – are a nice touch, but sitting up high and taking its pride of place is a new 7.0-inch colour touchscreen, the biggest equipment addition.
The same MZD-Connect system in the Mazda 3, 2 and most recently the facelifted CX-5 happens to also be one of the best systems in the business, with easily accessed functions and bright, clear graphics.
You also get to utilise Pandora and Aha internet music streaming functions either through Bluetooth connectivity or via the standard USB port. Also incorporated into the centre screen is standard satellite navigation, which is impressive for the price, and a reverse-view camera, though you’ll need to spend $4720 more on the middle-grade Touring to get rear as well as front parking sensors.
Mazda says 45 per cent of buyers are likely to make the jump to the Touring, which also brings full leather trim, electrically adjustable front seats and 231-watt Bose audio into play, plus the further option of a diesel engine, which we’ll get to shortly.
Both the Sport and Touring ride on 17-inch alloy wheels with decent sidewall width (55-aspect) that has typically contributed to a more comfortable ride than higher grade models.
Mazda claims to have improved the ride comfort of the facelifted 6 by increasing the diameter of the rear damper piston from 25mm to 30mm, while increased sound insulation aims to make it a quieter ride too – road noise is said to be improved by 10 per cent on rough roads and a sizeable 25 per cent on the freeway.
Our drive in the Sport starts on rough country roads, and the Mazda 6 does seem quieter, but still isn’t likely to be the most silken operator in the class. The tyres round off big country road lumps well, and the suspension maintains control, though there does seem to be more body movement than before.
Steering response is soft and light on centre, but becomes weightier as lock is wound on and indeed the electro-mechanical system remains largely direct and enjoyable.
There is plenty of noise from the 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine, which continues to produce a highly competitive 138kW of power at 5700rpm and 250Nm of torque at 3250rpm.
Combined cycle fuel consumption of 6.6 litres per 100 kilometres is excellent, and this engine will take 91RON regular unleaded petrol unlike most turbocharged European rivals that need premium.
The six-speed automatic continues to be the star of the show, pretty much perfect the way it intuitively grabs lower gears to keep the 1450 kilogram sedan on the ball. There is also a Sport mode for the auto now, which keeps the engine revving even harder. But that also means hearing the engine often, and while it makes quite a pleasant noise, you do sense the 2.5-litre is toiling away tirelessly.
We plan to swap into a higher-grade diesel wagon variant, which is kind of the Mazda 6 ‘Euro’ of the range. While the sedan is designed for US tastes and runs a long wheelbase and has an overall length of 4.865 metres, the wagon that adds $1200 to the price of all grades is smaller on both counts with a tip to toe measurement of 4.8m neat.
Behind the tailgate of the wagon is a boot capacity of 506 litres compared with 474L under the lid of the sedan.
However the wagon (that also weighs about 20kg more) has less rear legroom compared with the sedan, even if neither have the sprawling space in the rear that a front-wheel drive car this large should have, trailing the Ford Mondeo and Toyota Camry that set the standard in the class.
Launch logistics means we assess the wagon as a static display then swap into the Mazda 6 Atenza diesel sedan, which looks virtually identical to lesser models inside except for extra leather and a new head-up display (that has disappointingly grainy green graphics).
After hearing the racket of the petrol engine, the $3200 premium the diesel commands over the petrol Touring ($37,280), GT ($42,720) and Atenza ($46,420) seems worthwhile.
The 2.2-litre twin-turbocharged diesel is a wonderfully smooth, punchy and refined operator. You wouldn’t pick this engine just to save fuel, because with a rating of 5.4L/100km and with petrol so cheap at the time of writing it will take a while to win back the extra initial outlay.
The diesel adds 80kg onto the nose of the Mazda 6, though, and teamed with lower-profile (45 aspect) 19-inch wheels standard on both the GT and Atenza, it makes for a less convincing comfort equation.
On country roads the jiggling and shake of the old Mazda 6 on these large wheels seems to be reduced, but a newfound float has emerged that makes the Atenza feel more like a boat in rough seas than the base Sport. Yet on sharp-edged imperfections such as pot holes, the wheels can jar through the front end, indicating that the set-up may be more of a compromise than a fine balance.
The upside to the 19s is that you get better Bridgestone Turanza tyres that make the most of the Mazda 6’s keen chassis. It’s soft and pushy particularly as a diesel, but also fun and balanced.
You don’t need to go straight for the Atenza to get leathery luxury, of course, and you can even bypass the GT that also gets 19s for the Touring that keeps 17s and looks increasingly like the sweet spot of the range (high-five to the majority of buyers).
The Atenza does, however, bring Mazda’s most advanced active safety technology yet.
Full LED headlights that swivel as you turn the steering wheel also include an automatic high-beam function that uses cameras and radars to detect forward and oncoming cars then turns off the LEDs affecting that portion of beam. We’ve seen this before on a Mercedes-Benz C-Class, but never a Japanese medium sedan.
Unlike the C-Class, the Mazda 6 won’t keep itself in a marked lane without requiring the driver to have their hands on the wheel, but it will gently nudge the steering wheel if it detects you’re wandering out of it.
The third new system on 6 Atenza is a driver fatigue detection warning, while adding to the automatic low-speed braking previously standard is a system that will automatically apply the brakes if an object is detected and the driver fails to stop when reversing, which is active at less than 8km/h.
You can get a couple of those features on optional safety packs on lesser models, but not the full suite.
With that sort of advanced technology as standard, a refined and punchy diesel, competitive dynamics, improved refinement and a higher-quality interior, the 6 Atenza almost appears like a packed German sedan for much less. Yet because you get essentially the same cabin at the bottom end of the range, which has greater comfort levels, it’s the popular Touring as a diesel for around $40K that remains the most convincing Mazda 6.