Payne: Think sedans are sunk? Try a snazzy Mazda 6

Posted by Talbot Payne on July 5, 2018

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Here’s the thing about extinction — it concentrates the mind. America has gone ute crazy and sedans are in a fight for their life. It’s survival of the fittest. Evolve or die.

And so we are getting the best sedans I’ve ever seen.

I was ZOOM ZOOM ZOOMing the new Mazda 6 all over Metro Detroit this June and I think I’m in love. It’s the same feeling I had when I got out of the 2018 Honda Accordlast fall. A Rolex watch with a Timex price tag.

Like Honda, Mazda has a lot of mileage under its belt on race tracks and its quick handling is no surprise. What surprises are the luxury amenities.

Fast and luxurious, the Mazda improves on the one gripe I had about the Honda: great bod, but put a bag over its face, please. Not the Mazda. This beauty turns heads from head to tail. My Audi-owning friend Dicran lingered over the elegant, chrome-jeweled front end, the grille smiling seductively.

That is a good looking car!

Yes it is. Better looking than many luxury models. Automakers are taking a hard look at sedan viability in the Age of Ute, but the 6 begs the question: Do we need so many luxury brands?

Regular readers know I’ve been writing about the shrinking gap between mainstream and luxury ’til my fingers turned blue, but you could always count on the premium boys flexing more power.

Take the Mazda CX-5, for example. It’s a heckuva compact ute, right there with a BMW X3 in handling and accessories. But put your foot on the gas and … oh. Just 187 normally aspirated gerbils compared to the Bimmer’s 248 galloping, turbocharged horses — and the sound! Oh, my. Like Maria Sharapova hitting a forehand — HUUGGGH! — you can hear the effort. A silky turbo and the BMW badge will get help you cough up the extra 10 grand for the German.

But now here comes my $36,140 Mazda 6 with a 250-horsepower (on premium gas, 227 on regular) 2.5-liter turbo that goes toe-to-toe with, say, a comparably equipped $56,000, 252-horse Audi A6 out of a stoplight.

Zot! The Mazda 6 hit 60 mph in 6.4 seconds — just shy of the Audi’s 6.1.

Mazda is a stickler for detail and they zeroed in on their noise issues for the sixth-gen 6. Padded panels, recrafted-pillars, the works. Like Noah preparing for the storm, they plugged every leak in the cabin to make it more livable.

The result is a quiet, buttery smooth drivetrain under the cane. But no how matter how many pillows Mazda has stuffed in the cracks, the real story here is the new-for-2018, 2.5-liter turbo-4.

The same powerplant found in the lovely CX-9, three-row ute, the new engine puts out a whopping, best-in-class, 310 pound feet of torque with 63 more horses than the old 2.5-liter, normally-aspirated mill. The new engine is programmed (this is the electronic transmission era) for nearly the same 60 mph run, but then it runs away from the competition where you really want it — in 30-50 and 50-70 acceleration. True to its ZOOM ZOOM roots, the turbo-4 still makes a satisfying thrum at hard throttle — not unlike a turbo-4 Golf GTI, one of my favorite 4-bangers.

The old powerplant is still offered in the 6 as a base-engine $22,845 bargain. But the real bargain here is in the loaded, upper-trim models.

And I do mean loaded. My Signature tester undercuts the Audi A6 price by $20,000 despite boasting a two-tone leather interior, wrapped console, seat memory, head-up display, tablet screen, auto high-beams, and so on. Dicran and went back and forth between an Audi A6 and Mazda 6 interior to see the fine differences.

That’s no accident. Mazda benchmarks its interior to the Audi right down to the remote rotary infotainment controller and piano-key dash buttons. The Audi fits more chrome and wood decoration, but the Mazda gains points with more storage space compared to the Audi’s over-engineered console.

Where the Mazda really wows (did I mention it’s just $36,000) is in the premium details. Allow me to point out three:

1. Blind-spot information system. This is my list of must-have digital innovations. I’ve come to depend on a glance at mirror-based blind-spot system rather than twisting my neck into a pretzel every time I want to change lanes. It’s a technology that, like adaptive cruise control (another must), has rapidly migrated into mainstream cars from luxury.

The Mazda takes it up a notch. Adapting a graphic-based blind-spot system innovated by premium automakers like Tesla, the 6 keeps a digital image of your car in the instrument panel — right in front of you — at all times. Is there a vehicle in your quarter panel? The graphic displays “wavy lines” off your starboard stern so you know another car is there. Cars to your right and left? Twin waves off each quarter.

2. Head-up display. In another steal from cars costing thousands more, the Mazda nixes last generation’s el cheapo, dash-mounted head-up display for a state-of-the-art, windshield-projected system. The configuration includes useful info like mph, speed limit and navigation instructions.

Speaking of nav, the Mazda’s ethic of keeping info in front of the driver extends to the high-mounted infotainment screen — which displays the name of the road you are approaching. On dark nights when street signs are hard to read — or placed on black backgrounds (looking at you, Bloomfield Township) — you won’t miss a turn thanks to Mazda engineers.

3. Air vents. Yes, air vents. Most ventilation system require two controls — one for air direction, the other to close it off. The Mazda 6 cleverly combines them into one, making vent operation a cinch.

It’s details like these that give you confidence that the whole vehicle was endlessly fussed over. Which gets you luxury for $36,000. Speaking of details, Mrs. Payne says the only reason not to buy the peppy, roomy, sexy 6 over the CX-5 ute is all-wheel drive.

And if the CX-5 eventually gets the 6’s 250-horse engine, it’ll be one more challenge sedans will have to overcome. In the meantime, Mazda’s 6 is a 10.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

2018 Mazda 6

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, five-passenger sedan

Price: $22,840 Sport base ($36,140 Signature as tested)

Powerplant: 2.5-liter inline-4 cylinder; 2.5-liter, turbocharged inline-4 cylinder

Power: 187 horsepower, 186 pound-feet torque (non-turbo 2.5-liter), 250 horsepower (93 octane fuel, 227 with 87 octane), 310 pound-feet torque (turbo-4)

Transmission: 6-speed manual (base Sport model only), 6-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.4 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed: 149 mph (mnftr.)

Weight: 3,560 pounds as tested

Fuel economy: EPA fuel economy: 26 city/35 highway/29 combined (non-turbo 2.5-liter); 23 city/31 highway/26 combined (turbo-4)

Report card

Highs: Easy on the eyes; tech-tastic interior features

Lows: AWD please?

Overall: 4 stars

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