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California road-trip review: 6 days and 656 miles with a 2017.5 Mazda6 Grand Touring

From Los Angeles to Angeles National Forest, my fiancé and I learn what Mazda’s midsize sedan is like to live with, road trip, and hoon. 

The weather forecast for New York’s JFK airport was ominous to say the least. Heavy snow, high winds, the usual of what we’d come to expect from a particularly brutal March; the fourth Nor’easter in three weeks was due to hit just as Jet Blue Flight #23 was scheduled to depart. But after a thorough de-icing and some help from the vacation gods the Airbus A321 bounced its way up through the storm-ridden sky, my fiancé and I repeating lines of surprise that we had actually made it out without cancellation. Soon after, nearby LaGuardia would cancel all flights, and thousands of others in the area would be called off just the same. Plane aimed westward, even the unusually cool and rainy California outlook couldn’t put us down as we headed away from Winter Storm Toby.

The trip that had just begun was a long time in the making, and in many ways felt somewhat like a consolation prize. In the winter of 2016-2017 my then-girlfriend and I were planning a getaway to the sunny expanse of California, an adventure sidelined by the ill-timed surgical repairing of my lower spine. A year later we found ourselves desperate to escape the cold, our hearts and souls still set on the SoCal coast. Tickets and hotels booked, ground transportation was the final piece to the puzzle. With another year’s worth of writing under my belt, the extra time afforded me the chance to jump into my first press car. Hoon-In-Chief Jeff Glucker stepped in and bridged the gap between myself and Mazda, lining up a 2017.5 Mazda6 Grand Touring loaner to serve as the chariot for our much-awaited Californian extravaganza.

After reading nonstop favorable reviews, I held high expectations from the Mazda6 we would have in regards to its ability to dance the line of fun and practical. Not only would living with one for a week allow me to examine the highly-revered car up-close-and-personal, but it would put to the test and allow me the chance to re-examine my own aversion to the front-wheel-drive, automatic-transmission sedan.

Our vacation would see us driving the car hundreds of miles, from ocean to mountains and everywhere in-between, using the Mazda6 as our home base out of which to operate for the duration of our trip. After six days, 656 miles, and innumerable Californian experiences, the verdict was in. How did the Mazda6 fare? Is there an enthusiast’s car hidden beneath the generic drive layout? Did Mazda’s midsizer live up to the hype? You’ll have to read on to find out.

Though the Golden State’s forecast highs barely crested the mid-60s (for which locals were sure to tell us was “too bad, you just missed the warm weather!”) it still felt like a serious escape from the dreary, blizzard-ridden corridor of New York and Connecticut in which my fiancé and I both work and live. Our plan for the long-postponed vacation was to fly into Los Angeles, drive south to San Diego to spend a few days exploring the bottom of the state, then drive back to LA for a long weekend before returning to what would hopefully be a much less snowy Northeast.

Before we go any further, and in the sake of providing an honest and transparent review, I must admit my preexisting love for Mazda. Admittedly, much of this is due to the Miata, but the brand’s (soon-to-be-defunct) “Driving Matters” motto is echoed in how the cars actually feel like they are designed, engineered, and built by people who do actually care about and take pride in what has the brand’s logo on it. This in mind, I put it out of mind and evaluated the Mazda6 as if it were any other car, regularly thinking on my predisposition against the front-drive sedan as a platform. So while my affection for the company that builds the Mazda6 was already there, my love for this specific car was not.

Upon arrival at LAX we retrieved a 2017.5 Mazda6 Grand Touring, and after loading up our luggage situated ourselves and got familiar with the car in which we’d be spending nearly a week. The first thing you notice is the exterior design, obviously. And not just notice it, but stare at it. No other four-door in this price range is as evocative and gorgeous, at least in my eyes. Mazda’s stunning Soul Red paint certainly helps, and I even found myself repeatedly looking back at it wherever we left it parked.

On the interior front, our immediate impression was that the material quality and general layout of the interior were both pleasantly astounding; if the badge wasn’t there, the Mazda6’s interior, thanks I’m sure in part to the Grand Touring trim’s accoutrements, could easily pass for that of a car ten-thousand dollars more expensive. I’m a harsh critic on seat comfort (thanks, aforementioned herniated disc) and the 6’s were certainly among the best I’ve experienced recently; they have more than enough cushion, bolster and adjustability to withstand a long, boring commute and a hard dash carving canyons alike.

The visibility is good, too, and there’s ample space for phones, wallets, and water bottles (and/or coffees). I didn’t test the back seat but there appears to be enough room for normal size adults. The trunk even managed to swallowing our backpacks and carry-ons with room to spare. The biggest sole indicator of the car not being of full-luxury merits (aside from the engine, which we’ll discuss later) is the somewhat hollow sound of the trunk being closed. It was proving to be quite good so far, and we hadn’t even hit the road yet

We made an immediate break for the PCH, grabbed food in Huntington Beach then pointed to the promise of relaxation awaiting us San Diego. At cruising speed on the highway the Mazda6 shines. It’s nearly luxury-car quiet and easy to make good time with, even as your eyes wander from picking out cars you don’t see in New England to being perpetually wowed by the sweeping shoreline of the Californian coast. The ride quality is fantastically compliant, and you can drive with the sunroof down at any speed and not have annoying buffeting. A couple hours later we arrived in SD comfortable and much more relaxed than we do in comparable-length drives in my WRX.

Our time in San Diego was supremely enjoyable, but this deep into such a harsh winter any time spent in temperatures above fifty-degrees Fahrenheit feels like teleporting to a tropical paradise. That the sun was shining bright and that it warmed up enough to grab some time by the pool was excellently timed Seasonal Affect Disorder therapy, and a hike in La Jolla to the coast of Torrey Pines was icing on the proverbial cake. From navigating the twisty interchanges of the Coronado Island and San Diego mixes to tight traffic and parking in downtown San Diego to some high-speed cruising to get back in time for dinner, the Mazda6 did everything we asked of it, making for ease in getting around and also providing enough entertainment to make entrance and exit reasonably fun.

The drive north to LA was a bit more strenuous as we were on a time-crunch factoring in ample time to soak up some sun before heading to the Griffith Observatory. Again we were surprised by the versatility of the Mazda6, from flying down the HOV lane in an attempt to beat the inevitable gridlock to jumping from traffic light to traffic light in a race to get tickets for the last show of the night at the Samuel Oschin Planetarium. Good seats, good visibility, good all-around. Good brakes too, as I found out when traffic on the freeways would repeatedly go from seventy-miles-per-hour to a near-or-complete stop with little-to-no warning. As a whole, we were enjoying the car and didn’t have much to complain about in general.

But that’s not to say the Mazda6 is without quibbles. Though the steering’s feel and back are generally good, the on-center overly-sensitive dead spot means the car wanders a bit in its lane on the highway and takes a little finesse in tight maneuvers. Also, the engine start/stop button is in a less-than-ergonomic place that you almost have to reach around and behind the steering wheel to push. Another bit on the ergonomic front is that there’s substantially more room between the driver seat and the left armrest on the door than there is to the right’s center armrest. Then there’s Mazda Connect, which is totally passable in a vacuum, but is relatively slow to respond and has a far from the most intuitive layout.

Worst though is that the car beeps at everything. Even with as many nannies turned off as possible (or at least as I could find), it beeps at you when you put your turn signal on, when you back up, when you change lanes, when you take your seatbelt off in a parking garage (and then stays on until you stop or do put your seatbelt back on), and so on. Obviously that’s just Mazda looking out for its “fans” (as they now call owners), but the frequency to which it beeps, especially in Los Angeles traffic, is excessive. After three days I was eventually resigned to laughing every time it warned me of something I already knew was happening. Beeping aside though, my complaints were all pretty minor… except for the lack of power.

So now we must address the elephant in the room: power, or, rather, the lack thereof. With the outgoing 184 horsepower naturally-aspirated 2.5L Skyactiv engine pulling around 3,300 pounds, it’s consistently apparent that the Mazda6 is slow. In the lower rev range of the upper gears you have to dig deep into the pedal to get anything from the inline-four, but luckily the six-speed thinks reasonably well on its own and paddle shifters can quickly remedy any of the computer’s’ brain farts. It can’t, however, overcome the utter lack of forward thrust. The gas pedal is soft in a way that makes it mandatory to toggle the Sport mode button when driving the car in any way that’s not casual cruising. In most cases the engine is “fine,” but as an enthusiast, I absolutely wanted more from it.

The upside of the Skactiv engine is gas mileage, as we saw an indicated ~35 MPG prior to driving the canyons and a managed a finalized 31.9 MPG at the end of our time with the car. Speaking of canyons, it’s at higher altitude where the its need for more oomph becomes painfully pronounced, even requiring the downshifts to first gear to pull out of the tightest hairpins with gusto. For 2018 the turbocharged Skyactiv 2.5T engine becomes available on the Mazda6 and it will be a welcome addition, hopefully remedying the issue of the chassis’ capabilities far outweighing those of the current powerplant.

Power discussion aside, we spent much of our last day up in the Angeles Forest are, where we found the 6 to be a willing and capable partner for our medium-well styel pace. The chassis is the Mazda6’s strongest athletic attribute, but the quick-ish steering rack and decent back to your fingertips make it fun to chuck into a corner even when the engine lets you down. And though the suspension is a bit floaty, it’s taut enough to hold the car through the turns in a way that doesn’t horribly reveal its front-drive nature. Though the Mazda6 isn’t the dynamic superpower the Miata is, it’s pretty damn good for a midsize front-drive sedan. My one big gripe is that the on-center dead spot makes it a bit more difficult to get perfectly comfortable going quick than would be ideal, since every time you cross back past zero degrees of wheel angle there’s momentary lack of insight as to what the front tires are doing. It’s supremely easy to get comfortable with the car in everyday life, but it makes for a bit more of a learning curve when hooning. Still, with the amount of canyon carving that is realistically going to be done by owners, it’s a relatively small issue. As-is, it’s an excellent car with a willing and playful chassis, and with the extra power from Skyactiv G it very well may transform into a genuine sports sedan.

The best way to buy the Mazda6 is in Grand Touring Spec ($30,195) but skipping the GT Premium Package this car was equipped with. Sure, the interior brightwork and LED grille trim look nice but will they probably won’t provide $2,500 worth of driving and ownership, and a nudge under $35k is a lot to swallow for a car with 184 hp. The Mazda6 does everything a Camry or Accord does just as well, holding strong as a genuinely great road-tripper but vying for its existence by being a few notches closer to a sports sedan rather than the basic people hauler. But where it really lures you in is with its small-company feel and uniqueness that the big-volume movers can’t match. Once the Skyactiv 2.5T is under the hood, the Mazda6 could very well be a force to be reckoned with, and very well could steal some of the spotlight away from its competitors.

At the end of nearly a week and 656 miles with a 2017.5 Soul Red Mazda6 Grand Touring, we returned the car, hopped onto a plane, and meshed back into our normal lives. But now, every time I see a Mazda6, I’ll look at it differently; this is a great car, one that does everything the “generic sedans” do but with a spring in its step and an energy and lightness the others couldn’t dream of matching. And though I don’t see myself buying a front-wheel-drive sedan anytime soon, this was about as good as I can imagine it being.

There’s a lot of feelings that come from a much-anticipated vacation, and further more from my first experience with a press car. I’m lucky for that vacation, and that first experience, to have been with the Mazda6. The Mazda6 is so good and so natural in its being that it makes me wish I loved cars less. It’s a car that makes me want to buy one, love it for all it is, and never think of manual transmissions or rear-wheel-drive sporty offerings ever again. That’s not happening any time soon, but as far as daily-focused sedans go, the Mazda6 is about as good as it gets. And yes, that’s my unbiased opinion.

[Disclaimer: Mazda provided the vehicle and a tank of gas for the purpose of this review.]

All images copyright Ross Ballot/Redusernab 2018.

  • MattC

    Excellent review. I do think that Soul red is astoundingly beautiful in person and the perfect compliment to the exterior design. I haven’t had a chance to test drive one but am anxious to try one as a commuter car.

  • rovingardener

    Bought a 2017.5 Sport with auto. I really don’t like buying new but, I got something I will be happy to have for the next ten years. I’ve never had a better car, so far and even with only 1600 miles I’m getting 26 mpg in almost exclusively city driving. Yeah, its not as fast as many things I’ve had but, it’s enjoyable, comfortable and quiet without feeling isolating. And the Soul Crystal Red or whatever it’s called is fantastic.

    • MattC

      How are the seats? That has become the primary issue with my current car. I am only 5’8″ and in generally good shape but my back is wrecked. My current Honda Insight’s seats absolutely hurt me for anything longer than 40 minutes

      • rovingardener

        The longest drive I’ve done so far is about 2 hours and I was fine. There is a lumbar support but it really doesn’t seem necessary. The contour of the seatback suits me well.

        • Spin

          I’ve had mine 3 weeks, and I am prone to back issues as well. Haven’t had any yet, but my longest drive has only been an hour.

  • crank_case

    Had a manual turbodiesel (because yurop) one as a loaner while the 2 was being serviced.

    In summary

    – nice steering/chassis
    – nice enough gearbox but not as nice as the 2 and not in MX5 league (probably because diesels need a heavier duty clutch)
    – So much car, so little useful interior space. Seems to have gone down that half hearted coupe route that a lot of saloons have now, so not a lot of space for rear passsengers without actually being, y’know a coupe.

    Overall: meh out of whatever.

  • Zentropy

    Great review! I share your perspective on cars (preferring manuals and RWD), but think that Mazda is doing many things right for the driving enthusiast. If they could somehow translate the MX-5 experience to a mid-sized sedan (or better yet, wagon), then I’d be fully on board.

  • “The visibility is good, too…”

    I’ve related this story before, but that was the opposite experience for my wife and I when we compared a 2015 Mazda6 Touring with a 2015 Accord. I was eager to read this review and was somewhat surprised by this statement.

    Our experience was certainly influenced by the fact that she is 4′ 10″ tall. She adjusted the seat the best she could but never felt like she could see out well. At 6′ 1″, I didn’t have that issue but understood how she would. The cowl and the base of the greenhouse is relatively high and the roof is relatively low and it feels not quite claustrophobic but definitely cozy.

    Getting in the Accord (base Hybrid, essentially an EX), even before my wife drove it, was a night and day difference. Low cowl, high roof, expansive visibility. As soon as she drove it she was sold, and so was I. It gave up quite a bit on aesthetics (although not unattractive) but not as much on driving dynamics.

    I wanted the Mazda and wanted her to like it, but it just wasn’t as good of a fit for us as the Accord.

    • Harry Callahan

      I cross shopped the 2015 M6 Touring and 2015Accord Sport. I found the Accord seat much less comfortable for my fat ass. That year Accord didn’t have split folding rear seats…and that was a deal breaker…I carry long hockey sticks…and need to carry a passenger in the rear.

      –It is amazing how a single thing, like a split folding rear seat, can make or break a deal…

      • None of them had the folding seats? That’s really odd. I assumed ours didn’t fold because it’s a hybrid and the battery is in the way.

        • Harry Callahan

          2015 Accords had a folding rear seat, but not split….so if it was down, there was no seating available. I need to carry hockey sticks AND a passenger in the back.

          • That makes a more sense, but still pretty odd.

            • Harry Callahan

              Indeed!…it cost them my business!

  • Harry Callahan

    I own a 2015 Mazda6 in Touring trim, with manual transmission. The car is largely similar to this tester, but mine has the older dashboard and a cable actuated parking brake. I have put on almost 70k miles on it.

    Yes, the chassis is much better sorted than the contemporary Altima/Camry/Malibu/Fusion/Accord/Sonata competitors. In my view however, it is more firm, and is thus less compatible with American tastes. You will note Mazda6 sales are in steep decline–the market share in its segment is awful. I am fairly certain the firm ride is big deal for many buyers. Mazda’s addition of the turbo engine is about 2 years late. The addition of the premium “Signature” trim for 2019 is likely DOA–Nobody is going to pay near Lexus money for the Mazda emblem,

    I find entry/egress to front seats is more difficult than it should be. I am 5’11, and heavy, like many American men, and it has taken me awhile to learn to drop my fat ass in the car in a way that doesn’t cause premature sliding wear on the upholstery seams…and that doesn’t twist my back….and doesn’t bang me head on the roof. It is an awkward procedure. This, by far, is my biggest gripe with the car.

    I have been getting very reliable 33mpg average economy. Reliability has been flawless. Tires lasted to 48k miles, brakes to 65,000. I too like the seat comfort. I find wind noise generated around the door seals and outside rear view mirrors noticeable, a bit more noisy than the competitors.

    Would I buy the car again? Not sure. I don’t like the entry/egress thing much at all, and the new Accord is available with a turbo 2.0 and manual…which sounds pretty darn good….but since my son is going to private college in the Fall…a new car is NOT on my horizon….

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