Tuesday, March 5, 2013

First Drive Review: 2014 Mazda 6 Grand Touring

If you read Red's last post, you already know there is one big problem with the new Mazda 6; its lack of a more powerful engine than its base 184 hp 2.5 liter Skyactiv-G four cylinder.  And really, that's about the worst thing you'll read in this review.  Mazda appears to have moved past their habit of creating more problems by fixing others, and has fixed everything about the 6 except for that one, glaring issue.
Don't get me wrong, the 2.5 Skyactiv is a fantastic base engine.  It's relatively smooth and quiet, and makes good torque for a four; 34 lb/ft of torque better than the flat four in Subaru, Toyota, and Scion's FT-FR-GT-BRZ-II-S-86.  And, unlike that car, Mazda has resisted the urge to boost the throttle input on stepoff, which would give the driver a false sense of power that isn't there.  In fact, the throttle itself is clearly a place Mazda put forth a lot of effort, taking a few pages from VW's book and improving upon the design.  Like a VW, the pedal is floor mounted. Also like a VW, there is a detent at the end of the pedal's travel.  Most people who buy a new 6 will probably never know that they have only experienced 90% of the engine's power.  For those of us who care about such things, however, Mazda's new throttle system is pretty cool.  Stomp all the way down on the pedal and the the 6's voice changes.  The intake snarl turns from an upset house cat, to a furious wolverine whose young are threatened.  Toggling back and forth between 100% and 90% makes the sound difference very evident.
Helping make the best use out of the average power is the six speed Skyactiv Drive automatic transmission.  It's not a dual clutch or anything fancy, it's a slushbox with some tricks up its sleeve.  Most automatics slip the torque converter about 50% of the time for smooth operation.  The Skyactiv drive locks up about 80% of the time.  It actually feels like a dual clutch gearbox, without the bucking.  Shifts are smooth and accurate, and the shift paddles respond quickly and efficiently.  When coming to a stop, the transmission shifts into neutral to further save gas, and has the added bonus of cutting down vibration.  Let your foot off the brake and it goes right back into gear.  The typical midsize buyer will never notice.
Mazda has succeeded in making a car that will appeal to both enthusiasts and non enthusiasts alike.  When driving around town, the 6 is remarkably quiet and smooth, with little to no indication that this is a car that likes to play.  The suspension is taut but not overly so.  The rest of the Japanese auto makers could learn a thing or two about ride-handling balance from Mazda here.  There's a sort of Germanic planted feeling mixed with an athletic Japanese lightness to the way it pours itself down the road.  It responds to changes in direction as if its muscles are tensed and ready to go, though steering feel is a bit lacking.  Mazda's Electro-Hydraulic Power Assisted Steering (EHPAS) is one of the best electric systems in the business, but it still can't quite match the feel of a sorted fully hydraulic unit.  Still though, it responds with enough urgency to make up for it, and the steering wheel's diameter is sportingly small.
As I said before, the 2.5 Skyactiv is a good engine.  The Mazda 6 deserves a great engine, however.  The chassis is solid and sporty, the steering is sharp, the responses deliberate.  In my humble opinion, a V6 would not improve this car, nor would a turbocharged four cylinder.  What it really needs, is an engine with a little more grit and soul; something a bit higher strung.  With Honda giving the Civic Si a bigger engine and lower redline, the market is sadly devoid of high revving, naturally aspirated engines.  Such an engine would elevate the 6 from greatness to best-ness.  With a more aggressive cylinder head and valvetrain, it's not unreasonable to expect 220 hp and an 8000 rpm redline, without the added complexity of a turbo, or the added weight of a V6.  That is the kind of engine the 6 deserves.  Unfortunately, What Mazda has done, is put running shoes on a gazelle.  The engine is just at odds with what is otherwise a perfect midsize sedan.
Still though, I'd rather deal with a lack of power, than a host of other foibles.  For that, I applaud Mazda.  Unlike Suzuki, Mitsubishi, and, to a lesser extent, Subaru, who all seem to be struggling with a changing market, Mazda is not sacrificing their identity to stay relevant.  Rather, they are defining and refining it.  As an enthusiast, I look forward to seeing Mazda mature and settle into their niche.  Stay tuned.

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