Thanks to the presence of Miata (MX-5) and RX-8 in its lineup, Mazda has a richly deserved reputation for building engaging driver’s cars. And while those are purpose-built sports cars, the fact of the matter is Mazda builds all its cars to return an exceptionally visceral experience when driven vigorously.
The company’s “large” sedan, the Mazda6, is actually a mid-sizer in terms of the overall marketplace, even though it is the biggest Mazda four-door on offer. Positioned as it is to slug it out in the mid-size arena with the likes of Camry, Accord, Sonata and Malibu, you have to be of a certain mindset to even know the Mazda6 exists.
Most people shopping in that category place spaciousness and ride comfort ahead of sportiness and good looks. The Mazda6, more in possession of those latter attributes than the former, sadly languishes as an also ran in the contest to post huge sales numbers. However, for someone looking for a good clean used mid-sized Japanese sedan to drive more like a BMW than a Buick, look no farther; the Mazda6 is the car you’re searching for. (OK, and Nissan’s Altima.)
Replacing the considerably less aggressive Mazda 626, there have been two generations of the Mazda6 offered since the car was launched in 2003.
Mazda6: 2003 – 2008
One look at the spec sheet for the 2003 Mazda6 will tell you the company was out to build a driver’s car. Kitted up with a double wishbone suspension system, athletically firm shocks, an extremely rigid body structure, and five-speed manual transmission for both engine offerings, Mazda’s engineers built the car to attack curves with minimal body roll and maximum adhesion to the pavement.
On the engine front, Mazdas have always been a bit underpowered in comparison to the competition, which is ironic because its cars handle so well. With the advent of the Mazda6, steps were taken to erase the deficit. But unfortunately they didn’t go quite far enough. The base 2.3-liter inline four fitted to the 2003 Mazda6 produced 160 horsepower and 152 ft-lbs of torque. The 3.0-liter V6 developed 219 horsepower and 202 ft-lbs of torque. The other sporty front-wheel drive car in this segment, the aforementioned Nissan Altima, outdistanced the Mazda in terms of both horsepower and torque.
It should also be noted, the V6 weighed more than the four, so the V6 powered car felt a little heavier on its feet in comparison to the four because there was more weight in its nose. That said, regardless of the engine, both cars were a lot of fun to drive. As we stated earlier, a five-speed manual transmission could be had with either engine choice. Mazda also offered a five-speed automatic with both.
In terms of comfort and convenience gear, the 2003 Mazda6 was quite competitive with its peers in the segment. Offered in two states of trim, “i” and “s’, the primary differentiator between the two was engine. Cars with the four-cylinder engine were designated “i”, while V6 powered cars were designated “s”.
The primary feature-set included; remote power door locks, power mirrors, a one-touch power window for the driver, cruise control, a remote trunk release, speed-proportional power steering, a tilt and telescopic steering wheel, audio and cruise controls on the steering wheel, air conditioning, leather trim on the shift knob and steering wheel, and six speakers fed by an AM/FM in-dash single CD player CD-changer controller head unit. An eight-way power adjustable driver’s seat was standard on the “s”, while the “i” made do with a manually adjustable driver’s seat. Optional features included foglights, a tail spoiler and a power sunroof.
The hatchback and wagon versions of the Mazda6 were offered in the U.S. for 2004. The wagon was offered in the “s” configuration only, which means it ran the 3.0-liter V6. Just as with the sedan, the wagon could be had with either a five-speed manual, or a five-speed automatic transmission. The hatchback could be had with either engine, just like the sedan. Remarkably, the hatchback also looked like a sedan, it was only when the rear hatch was open could passersby tell they were looking at a Mazda6 hatchback.
For 2005, a six-speed automatic transmission replaced the five-speed with the V6 engine. The trim levels were also divided into Sport and Grand Touring for both designations. Grand Touring models, as you’d expect, were a bit more luxurious in their outfitting, offering leather interiors, heat for the front seats, and automatic climate control systems with the V6 engine.
While Grand Touring “i” models also offered many of these features, items like seat heat were reserved for the driver. Also, instead of a six-speed automatic transmission, the Grand Touring ‘i” trim package came with a four-speed automatic transmission, rather than the five-speed it used in 2004. In fact, that was the only way you could get an automatic transmission with the four-cylinder engine in the sedan. If you opted for the “i” or the “i” Sport you got a five-speed manual transmission. The hatchback was offered in Sport designations only.
For 2006, the four-speed automatic was dropped in favor of the five-speed, the V6 dropped five horsepower to 215 because the emissions system was reworked, and ABS and traction control were made standard equipment on all models. Satellite radio made its debut as an option on all models except “i” and a new designation was introduced into the basic Mazda6 lineup; Grand Sport, for both “i” and “s” trims.
The “i” Grand Sport was an automatic only offering while the “s” Grand Sport offered a choice of a six-speed automatic or a five-speed manual. Essentially, the Grand Sport models blended the luxury offerings of the Grand Touring models with the more sporting oriented gear from the Sport models, creating something of a hybrid, if you will, for buyers who wanted the best of both worlds. It also introduced a fair amount of confusion as the ordering process for the Mazda got more complicated with the addition of the new designations.
The best news for driving enthusiasts for 2006 was the advent of the Mazdaspeed6. With its 270-horsepower, turbocharged inline four-cylinder engine, this all-wheel driven wonder instantly became the performance bargain of the decade amongst imported mid-sized four-door sedans.
Primarily a year of reshuffling, the burgeoning Mazda6 lineup was becoming quite crowded by 2007. That year, the lineup consisted of i Sport, i Sport Value Edition, i Touring, i Grand Touring, s Sport Value Edition, s Touring, s Grand Touring, and Mazdaspeed6.
The breakdown went something like this; Sport models came with 16-inch wheels, a tilt/telescoping steering wheel, air-conditioning, a CD stereo, steering-wheel-mounted audio controls, cruise control, keyless entry and full power accessories. The Sport Value Edition added 17-inch alloys, a power driver’s seat and a six-disc CD changer. Upgrading to the Touring got you a moonroof, leather seating, heated front seats and heated mirrors. The top-of-the-line Grand Touring blended xenon HID headlamps, foglamps, a rear spoiler, a premium Bose audio system, automatic climate control, an auto-dimming rearview mirror and HomeLink to the mix. A navigation system was optional for Grand Touring models and Satellite radio was optional across the board.
The “s” models were essentially the same, with the addition of the V6 engine. The wagon remained an “s” proposition only, but with the same trims as the sedan and hatchback.
For 2007, horsepower ratings on both engines were revised in keeping with the SAE recalibrating the way it determined them. The 2.3-liter four was revised to 154 horsepower and the 3.0-liter V6 was revised to 212, though actual power output did not change.
For 2008, the last year of production for the first generation Mazda6, the wagon was dropped, Touring and Grand Touring models lost their manual transmission options, a larger wheel and tire set was specified for Sport models and a Bose audio system was specified as standard equipment for Touring cars. Mazdaspeed6 was discontinued.
Mazda6: 2009 to Current (2011)
When Mazda redid the Mazda6 for 2009, the company tried to overcome the previous car’s shortcomings while maintaining its fun-to-drive aspect and simultaneously introducing dynamic styling to the recipe. By all accounts it succeeded. The 2009 Mazda6 was spacious where the previous car was a bit cramped. It had more power, and by adopting styling cues from Mazda’s halo RX-8 sports car, the Mazda6 became one of, if not the, most distinctive looking mid-size sedan on the market.
Longer and wider, the 2009 Mazda6, unlike its predecessor, was developed specifically for the North American market. That means it’s interior volume and trunk volume increased significantly. It also meant more weight, and commensurately, more ponies under the hood to compensate.
A displacement increase from 3.0-liters to 3.7-liters for the V6 endowed it with 272 horsepower and 269 ft-lbs of torque. The four was bumped from 2.3-liters to 2.5 liters, for an output of 170-horsepower and 167 ft-lbs of torque. A six-speed manual transmission came standard with the four-cylinder engine, while a six-speed automatic was the standard transmission offering with the V6. A five-speed automatic was an option for all four-cylinder models, except the entry level Mazda6 i SV, which was a manual transmission only proposition.
Mazda6: 2009- Current Trim Levels
The car was again offered in a bewildering array of trim levels; i SV, i Sport, i Touring, i Grand Touring, s Sport, s Touring, and s Grand Touring. As with the previous generation car, models with the “i” prefix got the four-cylinder engine, while “s” models got the V6.
The entry level model was the i SV (Special Value), and was equipped as follows; 16-inch steel wheels, manually adjustable driver’s seat, power accessories, six-speaker CD stereo system with steering-wheel-mounted audio controls, A/C and a tilt/telescoping steering column.
Opting for i Sport garnered cruise control, an auxiliary input jack for audio devices, and keyless entry. With the i Touring mode, you got 17-inch alloy wheels, foglights, a trip computer, a power driver’s seat, keyless ignition/entry, electroluminescent gauges, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob.
The i Grand Touring model brought xenon headlights, heated leather seats with a memory driver’s seat, Bluetooth, dual-zone automatic climate control, auto-dimming mirrors, and an audible blind-spot monitoring system. The s Sport model used all of the above, plus 17-inch alloy wheels and dual exhaust tips. The s Touring and s Grand Touring models ran 18-inch alloy wheels.
Mazda also offered a Convenience Package for Touring models, enabling most of the Grand Touring's standard luxuries to be added. Mazda’s Moonroof and Bose Package got buyers a sunroof and an upgraded audio system on Touring and Grand Touring models. Navigation was available only on Grand Touring models. Remote start, an in-dash six-disc CD changer and a satellite radio tuner were also on the options list.
The Grand Touring model’s Technology Package featured automatic xenon headlights, keyless ignition/entry, auto-dimming mirrors, satellite radio, Bluetooth and audio display, driver’s seat memory settings and a power passenger seat. Voice-activated navigation was available too, but only for Grand Touring models. Stand-alone options included a rear spoiler, a chrome fuel filler door, and remote ignition.
Minor detail changes for 2010, included a new i Touring plus model, which fitted a sunroof, electroluminescent gauges, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, and a blind-spot monitoring system to the four-cylinder Touring model. The s Touring Plus was, of course, the same package of kit—but with the V6 engine.
Mazda6: Current Model (2011)
For 2011, an effort was made to simplify the model mix. The base SV trim package was jettisoned, as were manual transmissions. A light cosmetic makeover garnered a restyle for the headlights and the foglights.
Whether you go first or second generation Mazda6, you’ll be getting something few other manufacturers offer in a mid-size family-oriented sedan—a true driver’s car. Fun to drive, nicely equipped and remarkably reliable, any model of the Mazda6 (but especially the Mazdaspeed6) will provide a great deal of enjoyment.
There have been some recalls for Mazda’s sedan over the years. To find out which ones may have an effect on a car you’re considering, run an Internet search for “Mazda6 recalls”, incorporating the model year(s) of your interest.
You’d also do yourself a good service to subject any used car you’re considering to a thorough pre-purchase inspection by a trusted professional mechanic, experienced with Mazda’s cars.