Test Drive: 2017 Mazda6 GT

Mazda’s always been a bit of an outlier, a tiny underdog from the land of juggernauts.

For 2017, the most important changes happen beneath the lovely sheet metal.

But what it lacks in size it makes up for with passion, imbuing its modest lineup with some of the same zoom-zoom ethos that earned Miata the title of history’s best-selling sports car. Perhaps the small size of its portfolio lets the automaker concentrate on getting what they do offer right. According to the recently released Consumer Reports, Mazda not only cracked the top 10 of their recommended brands, but joined Porsche and BMW as the only companies to earn a Consumer Reports recommendation on every single vehicle they produce. The Mazda6 also won our most-recent mid-size comparison test.

Yet Mazda’s often missing from the average consumer’s radar. Ask the typical buyer to name a mid-size sedan, and it’s a pretty safe bet that the 2017 Mazda6 won’t be part of the conversation. Only 2,053 drivers chose Mazda’s stylish four-door last year, compared to 15,683 who opted for segment-leading Toyota Camry, 14,424 who picked the Ford Fusion, and 13,857 who bought the Honda Accord.

The Mazda6’s Canadian sales numbers have been on a steady decline, almost since its 2004 introduction, peaking at 11,738 in 2005. To be fair, the entire mid-size sedan segment is currently experiencing a slump, and according to Good Car, Bad Car, Canadian sales fell 11 percent, or 11,000 units last year. That downward spiral is largely due to the explosive growth of compact crossovers, which offer more comfort and room with similar fuel economy.

Not all of them are in free-fall, however. The refreshed Chevrolet Malibu saw a healthy 25 percent increase, and the Altima’s sales rose by 6.3 percent. Automakers have really had to up their game in such a competitive market and this segment features some very good cars.

The Mazda6 has earned shelves of awards since it debuted – for safety, design, quality and driving dynamics. In 2016 alone, it was awarded the IIHS Top Safety Pick, and top family sedan by several premier driving publications, and was just named the New York Daily News DNA winner for best family sedan.

Yet so far this year, Toyota Camry and Honda Accord sales here are six times that of the Mazda6, which languishes near the bottom. Why are mainstream sedan buyers so reluctant to embrace this award-winning vehicle?

It’s certainly one of, if not the most beautiful cars in the segment. Our Mazda6 GT tester came wrapped in a red paint so slick, it looked like candy apple coating. It’s not a new design – the current generation arrived in 2014 – but its clean, flowing lines still look as fresh today. Looks-wise, the Mazda6 can hold its own against premium cars twice the price. But for 2017, the most important changes happen beneath the lovely sheet metal.

Criticized in the past for hard plastics and dated technology, the cabin’s now nicely rendered and particularly eye-catching in our tester’s white leather with black accents. While some of the cabin materials are consistent with a car costing under $30,000, it’s laden with features and safety technology. The infotainment system’s controller is a reasonable facsimile of Audi’s MMI, although the pop-up head-up display seems like an afterthought.

There’s plenty of leg- and headroom up front, and while the rear seats boast standard heating, they’re less accommodating than others in the segment. At this trim level standard are heated steering, navigation, rear-view camera, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, head-up display, 11-speaker Bose Audio System, memory driver’s seat, LED fog lights, signature grille illumination, Traffic Sign recognition, and adaptive front lighting with automatic headlight levelling.

Available as an option only on top-of-the-line GT models, our tester’s Technology package featured the full raft of driver’s safety aids including adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist, plus fuel-conserving “i-Eloop” regenerative braking and active air shutters.

Surprisingly, given its reputation as the driver’s choice among mainstream sedans, the Mazda6 is one of the least powerful in the segment and has only one engine choice: a 2.5L four-cylinder with 184 hp. There’s no turbocharged option and it no longer comes with a V6. By comparison, the V6-equipped Accord and Passat put out 278 hp and 280 respectively. But the Mazda6 is one of the few sedans that not only offer a manual transmission, but have it available across the trim levels.

Compared to others in the segment, the Mazda6 is more stiffly sprung, its front Macpherson struts and multilink rear suspension holding firm through the corners so the car doesn’t lean. And therein lies the rub. Mainstream buyers value comfort, predictability and isolation in a car they don’t have to worry about, and they vastly outnumber the driving enthusiast. Less comforting than a softly rounded wallow, the firm handling transmits the sort of road feel that’s unwelcome to most consumers.

They’re also critical of the Mazda6’s poor noise, vibration and harshness levels. Better insulation and laminated side glass have helped with NVH levels, but it doesn’t dispel the four-cylinder’s rather buzzy engine note, nor the intrusion of road noise into the cabin. Driving enthusiasts are less likely to be concerned if the dynamics are there, but the average mid-size sedan buyer wants comfort and refinement.

But there are still some who value driver engagement and composed handling over a few extra layers of cossetting. For them, the Mazda6’s beauty is more than skin deep. And for 2017, it gains a slick new technology called “G-Vectoring Control”. While the name suggests a torque or brake vectoring system, it’s actually a subtle modulating of engine power in response to steering inputs. Like the race and rally driver technique of lifting off the throttle to rotate around corners, GVC cuts engine torque very slightly while turning to transfer weight to the front wheels – thereby enhancing grip and improving steering response.

The benefits of GVC go beyond driver satisfaction; with fewer abrupt corrections, the car is more comfortable and functions more efficiently.

Efficiency is also improved by the new regenerative braking system called i-Eloop (available only on the GT), which stores recouped brake energy and uses it to power on-board accessories. By reducing parasitical engine drag, i-Eloop lowers fuel consumption – and drain on the battery. Combined with active grille shutters, i-Eloop helps the (six-speed) Mazda6 achieve a 5.9 L/100 km highway rating. Overall, my week of city driving returned 9.1 L/100 km combined.

Admittedly, there were times I found the Mazda6 underpowered, although the four-cylinder and six-speed automatic transmission is a responsive combination, particularly with Sport mode and paddle shifters engaged. Push this car hard into a tight corner, and you’re rewarded with the sort of snappy handling and steering feedback you’d expect from the MX-5.

Easily the prettiest, probably the most fun, the Mazda6 is for that driver who needs the space and practicality of a family sedan, yet craves some driver engagement. Now let’s hope the long-awaited turbo-diesel finds its way under this compelling, yet underappreciated car.

2017 Mazda6 GT
Engine Displacement: 2.5L
Engine Cylinders: I4
Peak Horsepower: 184 hp @ 5,700 rpm
Peak Torque: 185 lb-ft @ 3,250 rpm
Fuel Economy: 9.1/6.7/8.0 L/100 km city/hwy/cmb
Cargo Space: 419 L
2017 Mazda6 GT
Base Price $32,895
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,795
Price as Tested $38,990
Optional Equipment $4,200 – Soul Red Metallic Paint $300; Technology Package (i-ELOOP Regenerative Braking System, Active air shutters, Mazda Radar Cruise Control (MRCC), Smart Brake Support (SBS), Forward Obstruction Warning (FOW), Distance Recognition Support System (DRSS), Lane-keep Assist System (LAS), Lane Departure Warning System (LDWS), High Beam Control System (HBC), SiriusXMTM Satellite Radio) $2,400; Premium Package (Nappa leather upholstery, interior colour coordination, black interior roof lining, premium stitching, detail on steering wheel, overhead console LED spotlight, satin chrome plated power seat switches, satin chrome plated glove box lever, matte-type door sash seal, titanium coloured dash strip and additional trim elements) $1,500
Optional Equipment
10 0
Scoring breakdowns 7.8
9 Styling
6 Powertrain
8 Quality
7 Comfort
8 Practicality
8 Drivability
8 Usability/Ergonomics
8 Fuel Economy
8 Features
8 Value