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What’s the difference between a medium and large wagon? More in size than price if you use the Mazda 6 and Holden Commodore cargo-haulers as examples.

While the new, German-sourced Commodore stretches nearly 19cm beyond the Japanese 6, their respective RS and Touring variants are split by just $900.

The gap closed after the Holden Commodore RS Sportwagon was priced $3000 below the SV6 Sportwagon it replaces – reflecting Holden’s recognition of a broader competitive base.

Before we get stuck into our detailed analysis to find out which family-sized wagon is best, we should point out that our testing process employed two Mazda 6 models. With a Mazda 6 Touring petrol wagon unavailable, we used a diesel Touring wagon to assess features, cabin presentation and practicality, and a petrol Atenza sedan to test the comparable drivetrain.

EDITOR’S NOTE: It’s also worth highlighting that a major update for the Mazda 6 launches this very week, so this comparison represents an even more interesting prospect for buyers, with sharp deals now sure to be had on the current Mazda 6 in runout sales.


PRICE AND EQUIPMENT

The $39,490 Holden Commodore RS Sportwagon is a mid-spec model, sandwiched by a $35,890 base LT also powering the front wheels with a 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo (or $3K-higher turbo-diesel) and a range-topping $49,190 RS-V with a V6 and all-wheel drive.

Mazda’s $38,590 Mazda 6 Touring is the second-most affordable of four wagons offered, ranging between $33,790 and $49,540.

While you get more metal for your money with the Commodore, you get more comfort/convenience features with the Mazda 6.

And, while the RS sits on 18-inch alloy wheels compared with the 6’s 17s, it otherwise misses out on LED foglights, digital radio, integrated navigation and paddle-shift levers. It also features cloth (sports) seats versus the Mazda’s leather upholstery, offers electric adjustment for the driver’s seat only whereas it’s for both front seats in its rival, and the Commodore’s ‘Premium’ seven-speaker audio system pales against an 11-speaker, 231-watt Bose stereo.

It’s not a clear-cut victory for the Japanese wagon, however, because Holden’s rebadged and retuned Opel Insignia leads on the technology front with lane-keep assist and lane-departure warning systems, semi-automatic parking system, and a hands-free tailgate operation.

You’d have to stump up from $46,690 for the range-topping Atenza wagon to gain lane-keep assist and lane-departure warning, though that also adds radar cruise control – a feature the Commodore also offers, from Calais-V level.

Mazda’s autonomous emergency braking system differentiates from Holden’s AEB by working in reverse as well as forwards, and there’s a fatigue monitor. Both models share blind-spot monitoring, forward-collision warning, and rear cross-traffic alert.

It’s a bit of a tit-for-tat scenario for pricing/features, but the Mazda 6 Touring arguably edges it.


PRACTICALITY

The new Commodore wagon may be slightly longer than the old (VF) wagon, but the large car’s boot space continues to shrink. It’s down by about 11 per cent when measuring up to the roof.

More important, however, is how the Commodore now stacks up against rivals. And measuring up to the back of the rear seats, the RS does make its size advantage count with a 560-litre boot capacity surpassing the Mazda 6 Touring by 54 litres.

The Commodore more easily accommodated a set of luggage we brought along for real-world testing, with the Mazda requiring the removal of the cargo-blind bar to fit our variously sized suitcases and bags.

There’s a more visible space difference with the 60-40 split-fold rear seats flattened. While the boot widths (and loading-lip heights) are virtually identical, the Commodore has a good few centimetres of extra space left with the same luggage pushed up to the front seats.

The Holden’s tailgate can also be opened by aiming a kick under the rear bumper, whereas the Mazda’s isn’t even electrically operated.

Mazda’s boot, however, trumps the Commodore’s for clever practical touches. Not only are there rear-seat release levers, side storage trays, flip-out hooks (with a 3kg limit) and a 12V socket, but the Mazda 6 also adds a net partition that prevents any boot contents from falling into the cabin (under sharp braking, for example).

The Commodore offers a cargo barrier accessory for $990, and as standard features integrated bag hooks and netted storage on one side. Both provide tie-downs and a temporary spare wheel under the boot floor.

Flipping the rear seats back into an upright position is slightly less hassle in the Holden. Unlike the Mazda, the position of the seatbelts means they don’t have to be pulled out before clicking the seatbacks into place.

Top: Holden Commodore, bottom: Mazda 6


INTERIORS

The Commodore benefits from Opel’s efforts to close the interior-presentation gap to Volkswagen, with the smartly designed fascia linking with other contemporary, Opel-sourced models such as the Astra small car. Rebadged Chevrolets, such as the Equinox SUV, are less convincing in this respect.

Ergonomics are mostly sound, too, with a nicely shaped steering wheel, a dash that’s oriented towards the driver, and a terrifically natural, low-set driving position with well-judged bolstering and comfort.

The 7.0-inch infotainment touchscreen integrates neatly into the dash, though seems a bit undersized for a large car and is prone to glare. (The 8.0-inch version found in higher-spec Commodores also suffers from this latter issue, though at least looks more suitably sized while also offering a better menu layout.)

The chrome surrounds of the instrument dials jar slightly with the cabin’s otherwise modern look, though the central graphic display at least points to contemporary driver-aid features. There’s also an all-important digital speedo.

General Motors’s brands still have more to do if they are to match the perception of quality benchmark set by Volkswagen. The Commodore’s percentage of cheaper-feeling plastics is higher than ideal.

And while fit and finish are generally good, our test car’s instrument panel surround was slightly loose (as it was in a VXR we tested) and the centre console’s cupholder lid was broken.

Mazda succeeds in creating a slightly more premium look and feel for the Mazda 6 despite this generation heading into its twilight years, having been released in late 2012.

The Mazda 6’s cabin has an even greater sense of robust construction, while there are also more softer touchpoints.

Switchgear tactility is a case of stalemate, but the Mazda adds a touch of extra sophistication with its MZD Connect system that combines a highly intuitive and classy-looking rotary controller with a colourful and graphically excellent touchscreen display.

And it includes a navigation function that’s a notable omission on the RS – along with the paddle-shifters standard on the Mazda 6 Touring.

Unlike the Mazda, however, the Commodore comes standard with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto – mirroring key smartphone functions on the display, including Apple or Google Maps.

Top: Holden Commodore, bottom: Mazda 6

The 6’s instrument panel’s basic graphic display sitting to the right of the analogue speedo/tacho is also missing a digital speedo. (A head-up display is available only on higher grades for both models.)

It’s a game of two cabin halves, though, because if the Mazda 6 wins the front-cabin battle, the Holden Commodore takes honours convincingly in the back-seat fight.

The Insignia-turned-Commodore may have lost 8.6cm of space between the front and rear axles compared with the locally made VF, yet the back seat remains a haven of spaciousness and comfort.

Whereas even six-foot adults enjoy generous leg room in the Holden, a splayed-knees approach is required by such-sized passengers in the noticeably tighter Mazda (which in wagon form is unusually shorter in length and wheelbase than its sedan twin).

Top: Holden Commodore, bottom: Mazda 6

The Commodore offers a fraction more head room, too (with the same point counting if you compare it with the Commodore sedan). The Holden has lost some shoulder width in the transition to the new generation, so sitting three adults across the back is ambitious regardless of model here.

Seat comfort itself is good in both cars, though the Commodore’s rear cabin cements its position as the most inviting in which to spend long journeys, with scalloped cushioning that creates a sense of sitting in the outer rear seats, whereas the pews feel a touch flatter in the Mazda. The 6’s leather upholstery also feels more slippery. Forward vision is a narrow win for the Mazda.

Both models provide vents, map pockets, outer ISOFIX child-seat anchor points, and an armrest with two cupholders. Only the Commodore includes USB ports (two) and map lights.


DRIVING

A comparison between the Commodore RS and Mazda 6 Touring petrol drivetrains here will remain valid, even after the Mazda’s update later this year. The Touring is set to continue with its choice of 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol or 2.2-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel engines, with only the GT and Atenza trim grades receiving the new 2.5-litre four-cylinder turbo-petrol option.

The turbo is an enticing prospect considering it will match the Mazda 6 diesel’s strong torque (420Nm) while being more willing to rev.

The Touring’s unassisted, high-compression 2.5-litre must cast an envious eye considering it’s endowed with a relatively low 250Nm (at 3250rpm). While that’s not terrible in the context of a sedan tipping the scales on the right side of 1.5 tonnes (1487kg), mid-range oomph is certainly not the engine’s forte.

Yet for what it lacks in torque, it makes up in spirit. Mazda’s four-pot likes to be revved, encouraging the use of the paddle-shifters – especially when there’s a likeable soundtrack to accompany acceleration.

The daily drive is also aided by a quick-witted six-speed auto that does its best to keep the engine on its toes. The driver can also opt for a Sport mode to lift revs higher and sharpen throttle response, though while it works well on winding roads, it diminishes the drivetrain’s slickness in regular driving.

Official fuel consumption of 6.6 litres per 100km is highly commendable for a car of this size, and there’s a bonus of regular unleaded as the recommended fuel. Our average fuel readout suggested that may be tricky to maintain, owing to the engine’s need to be worked.

The Commodore RS’s 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder prefers to slurp premium unleaded, and at a higher rate (7.9L/100km).

A pricier trip to the bowser, however, is offset by more effortless driveability (superior, too, to the V6 found in the RS-V Sportwagon). There’s a mid-range of note thanks to 350Nm primed between 3000 and 4000rpm, while peak power of 191kW – a healthy 53kW up on the Mazda 6 – chimes in at 5500rpm. The Holden’s four-cylinder just sounds a bit uninspiring at higher revs.

The Commodore, too, is equipped with an automatic transmission capable of smooth and decisive shifts, even if selection of the right ratio shouldn’t be difficult when there are nine to choose from. The RS’s lack of paddles, however, means pseudo-manual changes are via the tipshift lever only.

There is a touch of turbo lag, though it’s more noticeable in driving of a spirited rather than relaxed nature.

For drivers who enjoy the former, the Holden Commodore and Mazda 6 join the Ford Mondeo in a small group of family-sized front-drive wagons capable of entertaining keen drivers.

The new Commodore may be unlikely to convince or convert rear-drive devotees, yet for those willing to go on a journey of discovery, they will find familiar traits in the accurate and communicative steering, strong grip, balanced handling, and terrific body control.

Torque steer exists when corner exits are treated with hard acceleration, though the tugging sensation is mild not wild, and the steering is otherwise free of other blemishes such as kickbacks or rack rattles. The RS just needs to be in Sport mode to give the steering some meatiness for faster driving.

Mazda’s mid-sizer continues a partiality towards drivers’ roads it’s demonstrated since it replaced the 626 in 2002.

The current model’s steering isn’t quite as sharp as in the Mazda 6’s two previous iterations, but it’s precise, and the spot-on weighting makes the lack of variable settings irrelevant. It can’t quite match the cultured feel of the Commodore’s steering, though, especially as it’s susceptible to rack rattle through corners.

Both models are nicely poised through weight transitions such as S-bends, while there’s an uncanny similarity to the way their suspensions mix disciplined damping with supple springing – achieving fluid progress on country roads and a comfortable ride around town. Strong, progressive brakes are another shared asset.

Grip levels are harder to compare, as for dynamic testing we swapped our Touring diesel wagon on 17-inch wheels for an Atenza petrol sedan that wears 19s.

What we know from experience, and our time with both Mazdas, is that Australian bitumen continues to highlight the brand’s long-running issues with prominent tyre roar. It’s less noticeable on the Touring’s 17s, which also absorb bumps more readily than the thinner-sidewalled 19s. More NVH improvements are promised for the Mazda 6 update.

In the meantime, it’s the Holden that delivers the better refinement, with a slightly quieter engine and noticeably less intrusion from the tyres.

It will also tow up to 1800kg (braked) compared with the 6’s 1500kg.


OWNERSHIP

Ordinarily, both the Holden Commodore and Mazda 6 are offered with a three-year warranty – the former limited to 100,000km, the latter unlimited. At the time of writing, Holden was offering seven years of factory warranty and roadside assistance for Commodores purchased before the end of April 2018. It’s possible the deal will be extended, though even if not, it may be worth trying to negotiate an extended warranty.

Holden’s roadside assistance program is otherwise free for the first year, with another two years added if services are carried out at the brand’s dealerships. Mazda asks $90 per year for breakdown help, or $98.50 to include extras covering taxis, rental vehicles, recovery vehicle, and accommodation where necessary.

Capped-price servicing programs exist for both models. Mazda’s pricing is mapped out annually to five years (or 50,000km), with Holden’s schedule going a further two years (or to 84,000km). Comparing schedules, the Commodore is nearly $300 cheaper to service – $1435 versus $1734 – while also staging check-ups closer to Australian motorists’ annual mileage (15,000km).


VERDICT

The third-generation Mazda 6 wagon could be accused of prioritising form over function, having abandoned the longer length and wheelbase of the US-focused sedan to satisfy Europe’s desire for stylish ‘estates’.

Yet the boot can still swallow more stuff than the company’s mid-sized SUV, the CX-5 – something the Commodore can’t claim when compared with its SUV stablemate, the Equinox. There are also convenient boot features the Holden can’t match, such as the release levers, 12V socket, and net partition.

It also leads on nice-to-have features, such as leather seats, factory navigation, paddle-shifters, and a Bose audio system.

The RS doesn’t seem quite like the perfect Commodore specification, and the next-wagon-up is the V6 all-wheel-drive RS-V that costs almost $50,000 ($49,190).

You can’t blame Holden for wanting a mid-spec model that sits below $40,000, however.

And that makes this a lot of car for the money before considering a standard-equipment list that can hardly be described as sparse – and counters the Mazda with more technology (including smartphone mirroring that compensates for the lack of built-in nav’).

The Commodore’s boot-space advantage isn’t decisive, but it’s still an advantage, while the Holden edges the Mazda 6 for ride and handling – no mean feat against what, in the medium-car segment, has been the perennial dynamic benchmark.

Add in the roomier cabin, better refinement and the RS’s punchier engine, and the RS is a package that even the updated Mazda 6 due later this year may struggle to beat in any rematch.

It’s a clear victory for the larger wagon, even if it’s not a sizeable one.


EDITOR’S NOTE: A major update to the Mazda 6 launches this week, with revised styling, new tech, a luxury-focused cabin update, improved ride comfort and  insulation, and a 2.5-litre turbocharged petrol engine in top-shelf models. You can bet we’re planning some more Commodore v Mazda 6 comparisons…

In the meantime, you should have some easy luck getting a good deal on runout examples of the pre-update 6, and the Commodore can likewise be had right now for a good bit less than retail. Happy hunting.

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