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2018 Mazda Mazda6 Pros and Cons: Why (Not) This Car?

Mazda6 front quarter view
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Introduction

Something had to change. To survive, Mazda has to either sell more cars or earn more money per car, preferably both. Its traditional focus on creating cars that are especially enjoyable to drive thanks to innovative engineering and skillful tuning wasn't getting it anywhere. But what should it do differently? Should it make its cars larger and roomier, and tune them more for mainstream tastes? Subaru did this, and its sales have surged upwards. For now, at least, Mazda has taken a different tack. It hasn't abandoned its traditional focus, but has added a quest for a semi-premium position based on more upscale styling, more richly appointed interiors, and greater overall refinement.

With the CX-9, CX-5, and Mazda3, a complete redesign supported the new strategy. With the Mazda6, though, the Japanese manufacturer only refreshed the existing car. Is the result good enough to make the Mazda6 a contender against the redesigned-for-2018 Honda Accord, itself more polished and upscale than ever? Might it even challenge premium brands like Lexus? In this review we'll explore the first question. In the next one we'll explore the second.

Mazda6 Reviews: Mazda6 front quarter view

Clean body sides. more Mazda6 photos

Mazda6 Reviews: Mazda6 Signature interior

An unusually well-appointed interior for a car with a price in the mid-30s.

Tested: 2018 Mazda Mazda6

4dr Sedan turbocharged 250hp 2.5L I4 6-speed shiftable automatic FWD

Compared: 2019 Honda Accord

4dr Sedan turbocharged 252hp 2.0L I4 10-speed shiftable automatic FWD

Why the 2018 Mazda Mazda6?

  Compared to the Accord
Materials & workmanship
Materials & workmanship: Much better Better Worse

It has become so common for auto makers to proclaim "improved interior materials" that I don't give such claims much weight. Sure, their car has gotten better, but so have everyone else's, and car buyers' expectations have risen at least as fast. Auto makers might not need to run to keep up, but they'd better walk quickly.

Even against this backdrop, the interior of the 2018 Mazda6 impresses. Already improved for 2016 compared to the 2014 (when the sedan was last fully redesigned), the 2018 upgrades truly take the cabin to another level. This is even the case with the base trim, which has upholstered and stitched surfaces on the instrument panel, doors, and center console. Quite a few sedans priced tens of thousands higher don't have such extensive soft trim.

Then there's the Mazda6 Signature, new for 2018. This new trim level adds bands of synthetic suede and matte wood trim along the doors and instrument panel, plus nappa leather instead of the standard-grade leather of the Grand Touring Reserve--all in relaxing shades of brown.

Honda upgraded the Accord's interior with that car's 2018 redesign, but not to nearly the Mazda's level. Much hard plastic remains, including on the doors and center console. Compared to the leather in the Mazda, the Honda's hides look and feel like vinyl.


Interior styling
Interior styling: Better Better Worse

Although Mazda has tweaked its large sedan every year since the 2014 redesign, the car's sheet metal has remained the same. It's an attractive enough shape, if no longer fresh. More sophisticated front and rear styling for 2018 elevates the car's perceived price to the level of the Signature's MSRP and maintains a family resemblance to other Mazda models, all of which have been fully redesigned more recently.

The latest Honda Accord's exterior styling is both more derivative (of Audi in particular) and more risky (with some questionable details). While the Mazda's exterior looks more elegant, the Honda's appears more bold.

Inside, the Mazda6 has been redone for the second time since 2014, and the new interior makes an excellent case for minimalism when combined with best-in-class materials. The control panel for the audio system has been eliminated. That system is now entirely managed using console-mounted knobs in conjunction with an eight-inch display mounted as close to eye level as possible. This permits the Signature's synthetic suede trim to extend cleanly from door to door. Also note how the interior door handles flow cleanly into a band of chrome trim. A very pleasant and visually relaxing place to spend time.

The Honda Accord's interior styling is about even with the previous Mazda6 iteration. Pretty good, but nothing special.


Mazda6 Reviews: Mazda6 rear quarter view

Clean finish.

Mazda6 Reviews: Mazda6 instrument panel

Better controls than most.

Handling
Handling: About the same Better Worse

Last year handling probably would have topped the reasons to buy a Mazda6. That it no longer does says more about the improved interior than chassis shortcomings. Still, if your goal is the sportiest handling in a mainstream midsize sedan, the Honda Accord Sport could be the way to go. It has firmer tuning and more aggressive responses than both the Mazda6 and other Accords. An Accord EX-L feels soft, tame, and boring in comparison. The Accord Touring, which has adaptive dampers, might have sportier handling than the EX-L and a smoother ride than the Sport, but one wasn't available for a test drive.

With the latest tweaks to the Mazda6, Mazda has sought an outstanding balance between ride and handling to yield a driving experience that feels unusually fluid and natural. The new Mazda6 feels better the harder you drive it (up to limits south of the Accord Sport's). It even felt surprisingly good lapping Road America, where clear communication from the steering and chassis made exploring the car's limits relatively easy. I felt like I know exactly what was going on where the rubber meets the road, and which inputs would yield which results. But where the revised Mazda6 really shines is in typical daily driving, where (to quote a past Mazda ad) the car "just feels right." I appreciated just how well Mazda had tuned this car more each day I drove it. On some roads the ride felt a touch bumpy, but only on some--and this is Michigan.

A note on steering wheels: Mazdas tend to have relatively thin rims with minimal padding, which I personally like for the nuanced communication they provide and the fingertip-control they enable. If you prefer a meatier steering wheel you'll like the Honda's better.


Quietness
Quietness: Better Better Worse

NVH (noise, vibration, and harshness) used to be a Mazda weakness. The Protege5 I owned from 2003 through 2014 was a LOUD, rough car. While it's crudeness was part of its charm, it didn't make for a relaxing drive.

Mazda got serious about making its cars quieter, smoother, and more refined a few years ago. They tweaked the Mazda6 to improve NVH for both 2016 and 2017, and for 2018 have made further improvements that reduce sound levels by over twice as much as the earlier improvements combined. Mazda now claims to have the quietest car in its class. There is noticeably less road noise than in the Honda.


Reliability & durability
Reliability & durability: About the same Better Worse

Okay, maybe I shouldn't have waited until the fifth slot to mention reliability. For many people it will be a higher priority than the attributes discussed above. And from 2014 onwards the Mazda6 has scored very well in our Car Reliability Survey.


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Why Not the 2018 Mazda Mazda6?

  Compared to the Accord
Rear seat room & comfort
Rear seat room & comfort: Much worse Better Worse

The Mazda6 has one clear disadvantage compared to the Honda Accord: a much less roomy (if comfortable) rear seat. There are at least three more inches of knee room in the back seat of the Honda, a dramatic difference.

Mazda redesigned the Mazda6's front seats for 2018, aiming to make them wider and more comfortable. I found them reasonably comfortable, but not exceptional. The side bolsters are on the small side for a car with some sporting pretensions.


Driving position & visibility
Driving position & visibility: Worse Better Worse

People vary in how high they like to sit above the instrument panel. Judging from the sales of crossovers, most people like to sit high. They'll prefer the Accord, which has a shallower, more compact instrument panel and a relatively high seating position. The Honda's windows are also larger, further contributing to outward visibility.

The Mazda's driving position and outward visibility aren't bad, just not in the same league as the Honda's.


Mazda6 Reviews: Mazda6 front view

Tweaks for 2018 give the Mazda6 a more elegant and upscale face. Note new chrome trim and grille.

Mazda6 Reviews: Mazda6 rear seat

Much less rear legroom than some competitors.

Feature availability
Feature availability: Worse Better Worse

While I appreciate that Mazda continues to offer a manual transmission in the Mazda6, it does so only in the lowest trim level, with 17-inch instead of 19-inch wheels, and without the option of its collision avoidance systems. Honda offers a manual transmission in both the 1.5T and 2.0T versions of the Accord Sport.

Given the ample low-end torque of Mazda's 2.5T engine, some people might also wish for the traction of all-wheel-drive. But Mazda doesn't yet offer all-wheel-wheel in its midsize sedan. (You can get AWD in the redesigned-for-2019 Mazda3.) Honda and Toyota also don't yet offer AWD in their midsize sedans, but Ford, Nissan (with the weaker of two engines), and Subaru do.

Some people will also wish for a more up-to-date infotainment system. Mazda's, unlike Honda's, doesn't support an in-car hotspot or a telematics system. It's starting to look and feel dated.

The Accord Sport has its own feature availability issues. In content it falls between the LX and the EX, and so lacks many of the features included on the EX, EX-L, and Touring. If you opt for one of these trim levels, then you don't get the Sport's tighter handling, though it's possible that the Touring's adaptive dampers enable it to come close.


Other features of the 2018 Mazda Mazda6

  Compared to the Accord
Powertrain performance
Powertrain performance: Worse Better Worse

From 2014 through 2017, the Mazda6 got by with an unboosted 184-horsepower, 185 pound-feet-of-torque 2.5-liter four-cylinder. The car was reasonably quick with this engine, as long as you didn't mind revving it. Mazda's responsive six-speed automatic helped. For 2018 that engine continues in the first two trim levels, with cylinder deactivation added (with the automatic transmission) to improve fuel economy and three additional horsepower.

The big news for 2018 (other than the much-upgraded interior and improved NVH) is that the top three trim levels feature the 250-horsepower (227 on 87-octane fuel), 310 pound-feet-of-torque turbocharged 2.5-liter engine first offered in the 2016 CX-9. Tuned for low-end torque more than high-end power, this engine is at its best making acceleration nearly effortless in typical daily driving. Put the pedal to the floor and the engine easily spins the tires at low speeds. But higher up it doesn't feel as willing to rev or as energetic as the 252-horsepower 2.0-liter turbo in the Honda Accord, which also has four additional more closely spaced gear ratios to select from. The Mazda6 Signature is quick, but an Accord Sport 2.0T is quicker.

Beyond performance, the Mazda engine doesn't quite have the sound and feel of a premium powertrain. Of course, few if any four-cylinder engines do, yet they power most of the premium European sedans sold in recent years.


Fuel economy
Fuel economy: Worse Better Worse

The Honda Accord also has a highway fuel economy edge thanks to its smaller engine and ten-speed (vs. six-speed) automatic transmission. Although both cars scored 23 mpg in the EPA's city test, on the highway the Mazda trails by three mpg, 31 vs. 34.

In my suburban driving I coaxed the trip computer average as high as 34 mpg, but averages in the 24-to-26-mpg range were much more common with anything but the lightest right foot. On the highway the trip computer reported averages ranging from 29 mpg to 36 mpg--and wind direction was likely a factor.


Safety & braking
Safety & braking: About the same Better Worse

Mazda's suite of safety tech is standard on all but the lowest trim level, where it's optional with the automatic transmission. Blind spot warning and low-speed automatic braking are standard even on the lowest trim level. Honda's safety package is standard on all Accords, while blind spot warning is standard on the EX and up (and so is not on the Sport).


Audio & nav systems
Audio & nav systems: Better Better Worse

I'm no audiophile, and don't often have much to say about audio systems. But the Bose system in the top three trims of the 2018 Mazda6 deserves praise for sounding cleaner and crisper than even most of the systems optional in premium cars. Mazda claims to have repositioned the tweeters to increase clarity, and the improvement struck me as quite real.

It's been a while since I spent much time with upscale audio in a Honda, but don't recall a system at the Mazda's level.

I should note that while I had no complaints about the responsiveness of the infotainment system in the Mazda6, I've experienced VERY slow responses in the related (perhaps identical) system in the CX-5, which could end up with a "why not to buy" for this. Pay attention to the system's responsiveness during your test drive.

The Honda's more conventional controls--complete with a tuning knob--could be more to your liking. Following the lead of the Germans, Mazda uses knobs mounted on the console, in its case pretty far rearward. I sometimes had to look down to be sure to hit the correct button. Maybe with more familiarity this ceases to be an issue. Beyond this issue and some functions (such as changing the channel) requiring a couple more clicks than ideal, the Mazda's controls work well.


Price or payments
Price or payments: About the same Better Worse

So how much is the Mazda6's turbocharged engine and upgraded interior going to cost you? The top-of-the-line Signature trim lists for $35,645, which is similar to fully optioned competitors. An Accord Touring 2.0T lists for $36,695, but adjust for feature differences and it is priced very close to the Mazda.

If you don't need the suede and wood trim, obstacle detection, and around-view camera system added by the Signature, the Mazda6 Grand Touring Reserve lists for $32,595, handily undercutting the Accord. Unless you need the Honda's roomier rear seat, the Mazda is the better value.

Don't need ventilated leather front seats with a memory function for the driver, heated rear seats, a heated steering wheel, or a head-up display (HUD), either? Then the regular Grand Touring checks in at $30,095, over $1,000 less than an Accord Sport 2.0T.

All of the above trim levels are fitted with the turbo engine. How much is Mazda charging for it? Well, the Mazda6 Touring lists for $26,920, $3,175 less than the Grand Touring, but it also lacks the Bose audio system and nav. Adjust for these, and the turbocharged engine adds about $1,400, which seems quite reasonable.

A final note, on colors: the "soul red crystal" paint on the tested car is a $595 option. The "machine gray" and "snowflake white pearl mica" run $300 and $200, respectively. But the other colors--which include a couple of attractive blues--are no-charge options.


Conclusion

Through continuous improvement the Mazda6 has become a compelling car. It isn't as roomy inside or quite as quick as the Honda Accord, but its interior has a much more upscale look and feel. In Sport trim the Accord is more aggressively tuned, but the Mazda6 strikes a better balance between handling and ride quality. Based on the numbers the Honda is the better car, but the Mazda is somehow more appealing despite its older sheet metal, tighter rear seat, less grippy tires, and not-quite-as-quick acceleration.

When I reviewed the Jaguar XF, I remarked that its small corporate size, marginal NVH, and engaging handling rendered it the Mazda of premium makes. But is Mazda still the Mazda of mainstream makes? The marginal NVH is certainly gone. But in its place we have tasteful styling and upscale interior materials worthy of, well, a Jaguar. And, like a Jaguar, the Mazda6 retains an organic "just right" feel that competitors somehow lack even if they produce better numbers at the test track. To me, the Accord Sport feels planted and precise through turns like an Audi, technically excellent yet somewhat cold and distant. The Mazda has a warmer, more connected feel--like a Jaguar. So, in this direction, the comparison still works: Mazda has become the Jaguar of mainstream makes.

Unfortunately for Mazda, perceptions tend to lag reality. It remains to be seen how soon--if at all--the car-buying public will perceive Mazda as a semi-premium brand, and consequently will be willing to pay more for its vehicles. For now, the Mazda6 is priced about even with the Accord when comparing top-of-the-line cars, and somewhat lower than the Accord otherwise, so you can get a semi-premium car for a mainstream price. Like the sound of that? Then you'll like the Mazda6.

Mazda6 Reviews: Mazda6 Signature engine uncovered

Skyactiv technology--now with a turbo (behind the engine in the photo).

Mazda6 Reviews: Mazda6 trunk

Decent trunk. Rear seat folds to expand it.

See more 2018 Mazda Mazda6 photos

Mazda provided an insured car with a tank of fuel for a week. Darius Lanier of Suburban Honda in Farmington Hills, MI, helpfully provided a couple of Accords for comparison drives. He can be reached at 734-487-8954.

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2018 Mazda Mazda6 pros and cons, according to Michael Karesh: the best reasons for buying (or not buying) the 2018 Mazda Mazda6. Join TrueDelta to post your own impressions.
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