By Peter Lyon/Photos: Kenji Namba
The car that helped bring Mazda back to the masses in 2002 has been facelifted - and Auto Express is first behind the wheel.
The new Mazda 6 goes on sale this week, and it will fight it out with the Ford Mondeo for top spot in the family car class. Mazda has given the saloon, hatchback and estate range a fresh look, along with two extra gearbox options and revised suspension.
Drivers can expect more luxury and refinement inside, and on paper at least the results promise to be pretty impressive. On the outside, Mazda's designers have left the overall shape as before, incorporating only minor cosmetic changes to the grille, bumpers and rear spoiler, while special 18-inch alloy wheels are also on offer for the first time. However, the real upgrades start to stimulate the senses from the moment you get behind the wheel.
Firstly, the centre console is now finished in stylish black piano wood, while the sand-coloured leather seats are trimmed with dark brown piping. Offering eight-way power adjustment, they provide the same excellent side and lower back support as the originals, and finding the right driving position proves a simple process, thanks to reach and rake-adjustable steering.
Our test car was a five-door hatchback, fitted with an all-new Mazda-produced five-speed auto gearbox. This is an upgrade which the 6 has been crying out for since its launch.
While the 178bhp, 2.3-litre four-cylinder engine remains unchanged, throttle response is vastly improved. With a new computer to control gearshifts, changes are smoother and faster, and are far better suited to the engine's power band, enabling the motor to show its true potential.
We still feel a unit that produces at least 200bhp would better serve the 6, but at least the upgraded sound insulation has helped to make the car much quieter than before.
The updated Mazda is also available with an all-new six-speed manual transmission, which manages to make the most of the four-cylinder motor's power. Customers can specify this gearbox on the 136bhp 2.0-litre diesel variant in the British market, too.
To improve the ride and handling, Mazda tested cars on European roads, and has beefed up body rigidity and modified damper settings as a result. On challenging routes, the Mazda feels more composed than before, yet it continues to provide the same quick and accurate turn-in as on the current car. The steering, which is superbly weighted, will expose only minuscule understeer at the limit.
The ride feels more comfortable, too, damping out potholes and speed bumps with ease. To help improve stopping performance, brake sizes have been increased on models equipped with the new 18-inch wheels, while safety is boosted with side and curtain airbags fitted as standard on all but entry-level examples.
Ultimately, Mazda has achieved in a single facelift what many car makers reserve for replacement models. The improved standards of interior luxury and refinement are matched by the 6's superior road manners. British buyers have much to look forward to when it arrives in the UK in September.
Mazda's 'zoom-zoom' philosophy has gone into overdrive with the new 6. Not only does the car represent a significant step over its predecessor in terms of luxury and refinement, it's also better to drive. Although it may look expensive compared with rivals such as the Volkswagen Passat, flagship editions like the 2.3-litre model we tested are extremely well equipped.
At a Glance
* The previous-generation 6 was great to drive, and a rewarding vehicle to own, but excessive road noise and a spartan cabin let it down. These problems have now been addressed, and the new car offers class-competitive levels of refinement.
* Engine: 2.3-litre 4cyl, 173bhp
* 0-60mph: 9.0 seconds
* Top speed: 133mph
* Price: £21,000 (est)