Thursday, February 7, 2013
New Mazda6 sedan to Bukit Tinggi and back
The new Mazda6 is such a seductively smooth machine that it could encourage a tattooed thug to sing along with Sade: “No need to ask, he’s a smooth operator… Smooth Operatoor.” And when that bare-knuckle bouncer opens up his tonsils while driving home in the pre-dawn light after a satisfyingly bloody night taking care of the club, there’ll be little to drown out his horribly missed notes and chainsaw-like tones.
For this car purrs as sweetly as the torch singer himself, at noise levels that would make a luxury brand proud. Turns out Mazda didn’t need the ill-fated Xedos/Eunos ‘premium’ line-up in the ‘90s to match up to the likes of Lexus in terms of refinement. The latest Mazda6 takes care of that.
At the risk of offending quite a few devotees of Malaysia’s present crop of quasi-luxurious large cars, allow me to pause and shout a “Hallelujah, it’s about bloody time!” at this point. Big D-segment cars have always offered comfort, interior space and decent style factor, but they’ve never before delivered these must-have class values with so much decorum.
The Mazda6 is the equivalent of a Neil Patrick Harris happily discussing the joys of fidelity and the meaning of life with the director in between takes, and doing so in the soothing tones of a seasoned newsreader, with not a hint of a cuss or stale cigarette smoke on his breath. It really is that couth.
It is the Mazda6’s fine drive that really makes its presence known when you drive one for the first time. But it’s the distinctive look of this fine-cut moving sculpture that creates the first impression. Instead of the chunkiness expected of a large D-segment car, this one offers visual finesse.
And when you see the car in natural light, there is no mistaking it for that of any other make. It’s proudly Japanese; very distinctively Mazda. Taking heavy cues from the recent CX-5 SUV while not straying too far away from the stunning Takeri concept, the Mazda6 is a wild, yet attractive compilation of complex curves and prominent lines that exudes class and demands presence. There are hints of the Sonata at the back, though that is more of a compliment for the Hyundai rather than a styling complaint.
The overall look won’t be to all tastes, but those present at the press drive gave it their full approval – and even the single dissenter had to applaud Mazda for going into emotive design territory where the likes of Camry and Accord currently fear to tread.
Inside, the Mazda6 looks and feels almost identical to the CX-5. Much of the switchgears are carried over and the overall shape and structure of the dashboard is a dead ringer to the SUV’s. That’s not such a bad thing quality-wise, though silently you’d wish for a more adventurous cabin to match the bold exterior. It’s packed full of kit (complete equipment list below) and the space available in the lavish cabin is par for the course in this vehicle class.
The CX-5 connection is not only skin deep, as the majority of the running gear is shared between the two models. The base 2.0 litre engine is identical to the one fitted in the SUV, as is the 6-speed automatic SkyActiv-Drive transmission. Power is rated at 151 bhp at 6,000 rpm, with peak torque of 200 Nm generated at a heady 4,000 rpm.
Moving up to the range-topping 2.5 litre variant gives you class leading 183 bhp and 250 Nm of torque at 5,700 rpm and 3,250 rpm respectively. That’s all mightily impressive, especially when you consider that Mazda engineers have had to effectively detune the engines to suit our fuel quality.
That said, the difference in engine outputs between Malaysia-borne cars and the equivalent European models are minimal. The 2.0 litre engine in fact gains 3 bhp over its European-spec cousin, though losing 10 Nm in the process. The larger and more advanced 2.5 litre SkyActiv-G engine sees a more significant drop in outputs, as compared to the quoted 190 bhp and 256 Nm of torque enjoyed elsewhere.
The relatively high rpm of the engines’ power peak gives real insight into the drivability of the Mazda6. Moving off from a standstill, the 6 appears to suffer from low-rev lethargy; much like the CX-5. It sure feels like it could use more low-end torque, and that applies to both engine variants. The 2.5 litre engine doesn’t feel particularly any stronger than the smaller motor. Not at low revs at least.
But, the ‘feel’ here is just an illusion to your senses. The Mazda6, in either guise, offers more than respectable performance. When called upon, that is.
You see, the SkyActiv-Drive gearbox is heavily tuned to promote fuel efficiency over performance. With long gears and pre-programmed fuel-friendly shift pattern, the drivetrain is designed to offer just enough accelerative force to get you going as efficiently as possible. Nothing more and nothing less. That’s why both the 2.0 and 2.5 litre variants feel more or less identical when driven sedately.
At a cruise, the gearbox would hug the top gear as soon as it can and would continue doing so for as long as it’s physically possible. It would so hesitantly drop a gear or two to accelerate smoothly yet positively, again adding to the illusion that it’s underpowered.
When questioned, a top Mazda brass directly involved in the 6’s powertrain development admitted as much, that he himself would have preferred a more reactive and shorter gears to enhance the perceived performance. Yet, Mazda’s company-wide uncompromising pursuit of efficiency dictated otherwise.
It’s only when you ask more from the engine through your heavy right foot that the gearbox opens up to unleash all the available power. Here, there’s no hiding the fact that the larger engine is in fact significantly more powerful. Mid-range thrust is commendable on both engines, though again it’s the 2.5 litre that stands out more, eeking out more of a smile on your face.
Out goes the ‘underpowered’ illusion, replaced by a solid awe of speed. That the Mazda6 will out accelerate all of its Japanese and Korean rivals is a no-brainer, given its class-leading outputs and lower weight (more on this later). The way it does so, however, is mighty impressive.
This is a car capable of smooth and effortless overtaking performance, yet one that also possesses a cone of silence. While the Mazda engineers have managed to extract more power and torque while keeping to its economical approach, the new car’s refinement is simply astounding.
The SkyActiv-G engines never utters anything more than the most endearing and cultured snarl, even under full throttle tests. And even the 2.5 litre variant with its rubber-band 225/45 R19 tyres offer no more than a hushed, near-silent drive while comfort levels are kept wonderfully elevated. High speed cruisers would love this car, eating highway miles without eating into their physical energy.
Fuel consumption continues to be Mazda’s forte. The CX-5 might have performed well in my earlier tests, and is by far and away the most economical SUV in its class, but my anecdotal road-test evidence suggests the new Mazda6 will do even better. Cruising at mean traffic speeds on the open road can result in consumption falling to a small car-like 13 km per litre. And that’s on a barely run in car with less than 1,000 km on the clock.
Mazda claims class-leading 17.4 and 15.6 km per litre fuel consumption figures for the 2.0 and 2.5 litre models respectively, measured in the Japanese-standard JC08 Mode Test Cycle – currently the best figure of all comparable Japanese sedans.
You can thank Mazda’s raft of SkyActiv technology, encompassing the engine, transmission, chassis and body ancillaries for the headlining figures. Designed from the ground up with absolute efficiency in mind, the Mazda6 is said to be up to 30% lighter than a conventional vehicle of the same capability and size. 30%. That’s a saving of over 400 kg!
Aside from effective acceleration, stopping and fuel use, the Mazda6’s dynamic ability is the main contributor of its additional substance, with big dividends in terms of steering precision and ride quality. There’s a distinct solidity and sophistication about the outer borders of the performance envelope of the 6’s chassis that is rare for a large Japanese car.
The Mazda somehow combines compliant long-travel suspension with tenacious grip levels. The steering wheel exhibits sharper turn-in quality than its flex-ier rivals, and delivers a greater sensation of front-tyre traction. The Mazda6’s cornering ability is inevitably defined by understeer, which is only to be expected in a big front-driven car.
The big surprise is the cornering speed this supple-suspended car can achieve before the push threatens to nudge the nose wide, and the manner in which the finely calibrated traction control system (standard across the range) jumps into action to keep the car on track. With a squeal of protest from the front tyres, the Mazda6 simply carries on railing round the bend.
Turn the traction control off, and the results will be a slower drive off the corner as the pilot needs to ease the throttle to quell the understeer. The lift produces sudden weight transfer, yet the 6’s tied-down rear end acts like a storm anchor to steady the ship, and keeps the driver’s heart rate below the redline.
Representing a lustrum of progress over the previous Mazda6, the new car makes the packaging of six airbags and a bevy of active and passive safety systems across the range. Other notable standard equipment includes leather seats, multimedia system with Bluetooth connectivity, Tribos surface protective system (paint, alloys, glass, interior upholstery), powered front seats, push start button, auto headlights and wipers, cruise control, dual-zone climate control, and Mazda i-stop (automatic engine start/stop function said to improve fuel economy by 5%).
The range-topping 2.5 litre model adds auto-levelling bi-xenon lights with DRL, 19-inch wheels over the standard 17s, steering wheel mounted paddle shifters, sunroof, integrated TomTom satellite navigation, 11-speaker Bose premium sound system, keyless entry, and the clever i-ELOOP regenerative braking system.
Not listed on the official spec sheet but present and tested on the 2.5 litre models are the comprehensive i-ACTIVSENSE active safety features. Among others, this includes the Smart City Brake Support, which brakes the car automatically to prevent or limit the damage of low-speed impacts between 4 and 30 km/h.
As reported earlier, estimated prices have been officially released by Bermaz, pegging the 2.0 litre SkyActiv model at RM159,440.20 and the 2.5 litre SkyActiv sedan and Touring (not present at the press event) at RM187,659.30 and RM191,763.30 respectively (all prices on the road, with insurance).
The final pricing will determine the Mazda6’s impact on the Malaysian market, but we’ve been tipped to expect no real surprises at the car’s official debut in March. The new model is a far better car than the model it replaces, and first impressions suggest that it has what it takes to redefine the value that has made Japanese large sedans so popular in this country.
This complete and competent big car could not have come at a better time for Mazda and Bermaz. But with so much of a car company’s position being the result of perceived thinking, don’t just take my word for it. Experience it for yourself and post your comments here.
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