First Drive: 2018 Mazda6

Progress gives, and progress takes, and sometimes taking a step forward also means letting go of touchstones of the past. So it goes with the 2018 Mazda6, the Japanese brand’s mid-size sedan, which moves into the turbocharged future with aplomb, finally giving it the power needed to be taken seriously alongside the multi-drivetrain rivals that populate its segment.

250 horses on premium fuel, matched with 310 lb-ft of torque.

Along the way, however, the refreshed Mazda6 has also backed away from offering a manual transmission with its standard non-turbo engine. It’s a move that will likely raise the hackles of the tiny subset of family four-door buyers who still care about that kind of thing – but after driving the newly turbocharged addition to the family, it’s a trade I’d make any day of the week.

More than just a motor

Although the new turbo mill may be the 2018 Mazda6’s marquee attraction, there’s plenty else about the car that’s been revamped for the current model year. It starts up front, where now-standard LED headlights and new grille are book-ended by a revised rear bumper and available LED taillights. The changes to the sedan’s visual profile – garnished with fresh-look 17-inch or 19-inch rims – are subtle, but do serve to distinguish the new 6 from the design that preceded it.

Inside, Mazda has swapped revised buckets across the board (heated front and rear), and a “Signature” luxury model belies the company’s push to tap into near-premium dollars. It’s a worthwhile effort, and it includes a much-needed revision to the gauge cluster along with a dollop of wood, suede-like coverings for interior panels, and a true head-up display that projects out into the space ahead of the driver rather than asking them to squint down at a pop-up plastic screen.

But about that engine

That being said, it’s the debut of Mazda’s first turbocharged engine outside of its SUV family in more than a decade that remains the most compelling aspect of the redesign. It’s the same 2.5-liter unit found under the hood of the CX-9 SUV, and it boasts similar power numbers: 250 horses on premium fuel, matched with 310 lb-ft of torque (with the latter coming on low-down in the rpm range). If you would rather run 87 octane, the 6 is okay with that too, as long as you don’t mind a 21 pony penalty at peak output.

I was given a full tank of 91 and the keys to a Mazda6 Turbo, and told to explore the two-lane roads that follow the 200 kilometre stretch of water that is Lake Okanagan in British Columbia. It was an excellent opportunity to dip in to the flat torque band promised by the forced-induction setup, as the ups and downs of the valley frequently presented slower traffic in desperate need of passing.

A better fit

Much as in the larger and heavier CX-9, the Mazda6 Turbo’s more muscular personality presents itself as a wave rather than a rush of acceleration. This was particularly true when flooring the accelerator on the occasional stretch of four-wide highway that opened up along the lakeshore, giving the car the chance to pull itself up to super-legal speeds at a healthy, if not neck-snapping rate. It’s well-matched with the subtle chassis upgrades that have been put into place to keep the 6 near the front of the pack when it comes to family cars that can turn a corner.

It’s also exactly the kind of performance that the Mazda6 honestly should have had in its portfolio since day one – but rather than lament the older car’s inability to go sabre-to-sabre in a straight line with the V6 or turbo options presented by the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, or Ford Fusion, I’m happy enough to focus on its renewed relevance for those who tend to purchase the mightiest edition of whatever commuter fits into their budget.

The entry-level Mazda6 retains its non-turbo 2.5-liter four-cylinder, which is rated at 187 horsepower and 186 lb-ft of torque (and features cylinder deactivation). These are solid second-tier numbers that feel better for the brand now that they no longer represent the sole source of locomotion for this particular vehicle.

As noted, the six-speed manual gearbox available for 2017 has been wiped off the menu, however, a victim of its very low take rate. Fortunately, the six-speed automatic that it now shares with the turbocharged motor is a competent replacement.

Timing, timing, timing

The 2018 Mazda6 GS starts at $27,000, but you’ll need to add $6,600 if you want to experience the turbocharged engine in the GS-L (MSRP $33,600). Mazda expects most of its buyers to split their loyalty between the range-topping Signature ($38,800) and the next-step-down GT ($35,000), in keeping with how past customers have tackled the order sheet. It’s not a lofty proposition, particularly when juxtaposed against similarly priced sedans, but it remains to be seen if the car’s power boost will help it fight off the cavalcade of crossovers that consumers are increasingly parking in their driveways.

Turbo power at last 4/20/2018 6:30:00 AM