The cops drive past just as we turn onto a particularly tricky canyon road. "He didn't even look," our passenger says, adjusting the tension on his seatbelt. Why would he? To most people this is the same as a Toyota Camry or Honda Accord. Fortunately our new 2009 Mazda 6 i Grand Touring isn't as confused as the local law enforcement about its true purpose in life.
We thunk the gearshift lever into the manual gates and the 2.5-liter inline-4 springs to life. Our newest long-term test car rockets headlong toward the top of the mountain.
For the next 12 months and 20,000 miles our new midsize family sedan will see plenty of these canyon jaunts, but will the new Mazda 6 be able to handle the daily duties of a kid-carting, grocery-hauling appliance without losing its secret soul of sporting performance?
Mazda's banking on it.
Why We Bought It
It's very much about soul at Mazda. Take the MX-5 Miata, for example. Though it smacks of femininity to the casual observer, Mazda has never taken drastic steps to change opinions. People who "get it" are able to enjoy the fruits of Mazda's years of engineering labor and relish the responsive dynamics of a real sports car — in fact, there are more Miatas on racetracks around the world than any other car nameplate, more than 1,500 in the U.S. alone. And then there's the RX-8. The damn thing doesn't even use pistons, gets Hummer-esque gas mileage and costs a bundle. But hit the right stretch of road, and, man, those few minutes eclipse all its shortcomings.
And such has been life with the past generations of the Mazda 6. Smallish and rough around the edges, the Mazda 6 has been the enthusiast's choice. As an exercise in compromise, the Mazda 6 skewed toward performance over livability, the sort of thing that wowed on test drives but fell far short of lasting satisfaction in the real world. That lack of real-world practicality kept the Mazda 6 well shy of the sales volume generated by the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. Those who did buy into the Mazda 6's personality were allotted a ticket to a solemn fraternity of gearheads who "get it." But now Mazda wants more people to get it.
So the 2009 Mazda 6 has grown up in both size and temperament. With more size, the Mazda 6 now competes with the Accord and Camry in passenger comfort. And with more size has come more temperament (if by that you mean power), as there's a choice between a 272-horsepower 3.7-liter V6 and a 170-hp 2.5-liter inline-4.
Of course, not everything can be boiled down to an Excel spreadsheet (sorry, Mazda engineers). So the company's designers tackled the world of interiors, where every judgment is subjective, not to mention open to dispute. The previous Mazda 6 interior didn't win any awards in terms of style, materials or execution, so the 2009 Mazda 6 represents a complete makeover in terms of gloss, pattern and texture, not to mention cohesive design and excellence in tactile feel. The result is a class-leading interior with intuitive ease of use.
But it's a thin line between welcoming new sheep to the flock and selling out your core audience. So we were as surprised as anyone to discover that the 2009 Mazda 6 persuasively combines its traditional Mazda driving soul with the midsize sedan practicality that has been the lasting advantage of the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. As we noted in our First Drive of the new Mazda 6, "So with all of its major flaws corrected, the 2009 Mazda 6 now sits squarely in the middle of the midsize family sedan segment. It's no longer the sedan to buy just to be different, although its appealing shape still counts for something in a class dominated by soulless styling." And our judgment was confirmed when the 2009 Mazda 6 prevailed over the Honda Accord and Nissan Altima in a comparison test of midsize sedans.
What We Bought
While it's available with a 272-hp 3.7-liter V6, the Mazda 6 with its 170-hp 2.5-liter inline-4 seemed like a more relevant choice to us. While gas prices soared last spring and summer, vehicles with four-cylinder engines were more popular than those with V6s for the first time in decades. And the continuing popularity of the four-cylinder Honda Accord, Nissan Altima and Toyota Camry proves that people expect practical sedans to deliver an effective compromise of both performance and fuel economy.
So even though this 2009 Mazda 6 weighs 3,519 pounds at the curb, we're interested in what life will be like with the stout Mazda MZR four with its internal balance shafts for smooth running and a new, broader torque curve. This is also a PZEV (partial zero emissions) engine option here in California, so we have an opportunity to demonstrate that the conventional gasoline engine is a practical, cost-effective clean-air alternative, although we have to pay an extra $100 for this 168-hp version as a consequence.
We opted for the five-speed automatic transmission for two reasons: 1) it delivers better fuel economy than the six-speed manual (an EPA-rated 21 mpg city/30 mpg highway); and 2) it's an excellent transmission, delivering quick, smooth shift action plus a manual mode with the push-forward-for-downshift, pull-rearward-for-upshift action that we prefer. That and the automatic is the transmission the majority of Mazda 6 buyers will pick. If Mazda's aiming at the mainstream here, so are we.
Just because we're leaving the bigger engine option unchecked doesn't mean we've completely lost our senses when it comes to driving goodness. Experience has shown that vehicles in our long-term test fleet that have navigation systems get more mileage than those without. So we chose the touchscreen navigation unit for the Mazda 6, which runs $2,000. We also added the moonroof and Bose audio package, which includes Sirius Satellite Radio and a six-disc CD changer, a $1,760 option only available on Touring and Grand Touring models. The Grand Touring trim also includes blind-spot monitoring (BSM), xenon headlights, LED taillights, dual-zone climate control, heated leather seats with memory recall and Bluetooth audio and cell phone connectivity.
Our test car, painted in Sangria Red with a beige interior, carries a sticker price of $30,340.
Beyond the Toaster
Our 12-month, 20,000-mile evaluation of the 2009 Mazda 6 i Grand Touring might have started with a ripping drive that tested the limits of the very noisy P215/55R17 Michelin HXMXS8 tires, but it will end in the driveways of our staff.
The 2009 Mazda 6 has left a comfortable niche to seek greater glory in greater sales volume. Will the enthusiasts among us bemoan the Mazda 6's newfound refinement at the expense of raw personality? Will this dramatic sedan still be too much for those of us who prefer the toasterlike styling, reliability and personality of the Toyota Camry? Has Mazda gone too far? Has it not gone far enough?
Check in on our long-term road test blog.
Current Odometer: 1,274
Best Fuel Economy: 23.1 mpg
Worst Fuel Economy: 20.8 mpg
Average Fuel Economy (over the life of the vehicle): 22.1 mpg
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.