Thank you, Mazda, for building a car for people who like to drive. That car is the 2016 Mazda6 i Touring, and not only is it nice to look at and fun to drive, but the option sheet isn't filled with non-standard must-haves that will drive the price past a reasonable level. It comes with everything but the floormats for about $25,000. Simply put, this is something nice that the Regular Guy can actually afford. Think of it as a modern-day Oldsmobile F-85 (if your memory stretches that far back): clean, capable, comfortable, economical – but with much better handling and awesome fuel economy.
This is the sort of car America needs more of. Why? Because it feels "America-size" without being too big. Because it has some power without killing fuel economy. Remember the days before people bought SUVs and pickup trucks as family cars? The Mazda6, with its cavernous trunk, is an electro-mechanical argument that the family sedan could, in fact, regain its dominance among the vehicles Americans buy.
Then again, the Mazda6's dazzling good looks could be enough on their own.
Mazda calls its design language Kodo, or "soul of motion." If that sounds like a gimmick, it is. So often, such marketing-driven campaigns result in cars that looks like a seventh-grade sci-fi nerd with an overactive imagination broke into the executive suite and greenlighted a production run of wheeled space invasion probes. We've gotten nothing of the sort from Mazda. Their design team managed to turn its ideas of movement lines into a look that's smooth enough to make Frank Sinatra snap his fingers rhythmically from his six-foot-deep hole in the California desert. Oooh, yeah. That's smooth. Snap. Snap. Snap.
Beneath its attractive skin, the Mazda6 has a rock-steady suspension that, true to the car's touring moniker, is comfortable on the open road and stable when the driver needs the car to move quickly or hold a tight curve at speed. At the upper reaches of socially and legally acceptable highway speeds, the Mazda6 was steadfast, even on New York City's unmade-bed roads, which periodically require fast directional changes to avoid things like the odd couch, and people who decide that the highway is a good place to stop and look up directions on their phones.
The silky 6-speed manual transmission shifts quickly and without complaint, and the clutch pedal is pliant. Where usually a manual transmission would be curse-worthy in rush hour traffic, here it was only a minor annoyance, and after a while, became something to do other than contemplate the horde of other bored drivers staring from across the broken roadway. But there's still an automatic on offer, for those of you who aren't into shifting at all and would rather be alone with your thoughts when traffic congeals.
I've heard people complain that the Mazda6, unlike others in its class, isn't available with a V-6. That's a valid argument, but what they should really be asking for is a turbo version. A heavier V-6 mill might upset this car's already well-balanced handling dynamics by making it nose-heavy. Besides, Mazda's direct-injection 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine is actually very agreeable in its own right. Sure, it ONLY has 185 horsepower, and that doesn't come until 5700 rpm. But it also has 185 pound feet of torque that turns on at 3200 rpm, so the driver doesn't have to drive all "Fast and Furious"-style to get peak pulling power. Maybe I have low expectations, but I found it more than adequate.
There were a few little things not to like, and one of them was the car's electric parking brake. I understand that a lot of manufacturers are going that route, but we the people are people, not machines. We like tactile things, even if it means building a ratchet-action lever that secretly connects to an electronic actuator. But not really, because you can feel the electric parking brake applying, slowly, like one of those unnecessarily slow-moving dipping mechanisms from a James Bond/Austin Powers movie. It's a little creepy.
I also wasn't a huge fan of the collision avoidance feature, which sounded an alarm every time something came within about 10 feet of the back of the car. Whoever designed that feature clearly never put cities in mind (particularly not New York), where daylight between moving cars is an uncommon luxury. After a while, the system's beeping becomes like the nagging voice of that annoying passenger who never feels safe when you're driving. You either tune it out or kill it. Either way, it ceases to be a consideration.
There have also been a few reports that complain about Mazda's use of cheap, plasticky interior materials. I didn't find that to be the case. There were some plastic bits, but the layout of the dash controls and door panels was simple and elegant and the seats had an almost Recaro-like snugness and had a delicious leather smell. And Mazda has the only infotainment system I've tangled with to date with knobs and controls placed where I think they should be (we're talking about my intuition here, which may be off from everyone else's). The main control knob is in a natural location – where your right hand rests. Same with the volume control for the stereo. The simple, easy to use controls meant that more focus could be placed on driving and less upon messing with electronic gadgets. Bravo, Mazda, bravo.
There is, thankfully, a spare tire. I would thank Mazda for that, too, but I feel the same way about spare tire inclusion as Chris Rock does about people taking care of their children. Every car and truck is supposed to have a spare tire, people!
If you're looking for a roomy sedan, the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and maybe the Ford Fusion may be on your list of potential candidates. But you'd be doing yourself a grave disservice not to check out the Mazda6, too. It may not get the highest numbers for reliability, resale, and all the other things that practical people love to see in a new vehicle, but it's got great safety ratings and appears to have been built by people who understand that buying a car is not at all like buying a washing machine.
By the numbers: 2015 Mazda6 I Touring
MSRP: $25,265 (includes $820 destination charge)
Power and drive wheels: 2.5-liter, 185-hp four-cylinder engine, front-wheel drive
Transmission: 6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic transmission
EPA fuel economy (mpg): 25/37 city/highway
In showrooms: Now