Mazda's alchemic 6 best-in-class
On the hunt for a big family car? Look no further than the Mazda 6 - it is nothing short of brilliant, writes William Scholes
IF you happen to be in the market for a big, comfy family car, but can't see yourself behind the wheel of an SUV or crossover, fear not, for these days there is an uncommonly good crop from which to pick.
There's always the posh Germans, of course, but unless you want a larger engine or six-cylinders under your bonnet, there's really no need to visit the BMW/Audi/Mercedes-Benz forecourts, so talented are the offerings from the more 'mainstream' manufacturers.
There is Volkswagen's new Passat, for example, which looks so densely precision-engineered that it could be carved from a single piece of lead.
The Vauxhall Insignia is an awful lot of car for the money which, provided you choose the right engine and trim combination, need not also be awful.
Skoda Superb, Hyundai i40, the list goes on... Ford even has a new Mondeo, for people who like that sort of thing.
Best of the bunch for me, however, is the Mazda 6.
Sleek and swoopily styled, it is an uncommonly fine looking car, perhaps the most eye-catching in its class.
But it really stands out because its beauty is not merely skin-deep.
Under the skin, the 6 is one of those rare cars blessed with a heavy sprinkling of engineering fairy dust.
There's alchemy at work here: from the way the stubby lever of the six-speed gearbox, with the carefully considered weight and precision of a rifle bolt, slides through its gate, to the smooth interaction of the pedals and steering, it just feels right.
The engine plays a starring role. You can order your 6 as a saloon or, as tested, an estate Tourer, with a choice of petrol or diesel engines. Do yourself a favour, though, and pick the diesel, which is the best four-cylinder unit you can buy.
Volvo's latest Drive-E units and - of course - BMW's 2.0-litre diesels are also excellent, but Mazda's 2.2-litre SkyActiv engine is a real peach.
Available with either 148bhp or 173bhp, it's frugal and drives more like a petrol engine, with a linear power and torque delivery and a stronger appetite for revs than most diesels.
Best of all, it is manipulated by a throttle pedal which is properly responsive throughout its long travel, rather than the blunter, more on-off switches usually found on most other 'normal', non-sports cars. It's fast, too, and feels quicker on the move than its on-paper rivals.
Keen drivers will appreciate this sort of thing. They will also like the way the 6 handles, which is to say that it steers more precisely and grips far tenaciously than a front-wheel-drive car of this size has a right to.
There's decent feedback through the steering wheel rim, too, and none of the numbing insulation from the road surface and its conversation with the tyres more usually found in big family cars.
Taken together, all this means the Mazda 6 not only really flies but is also really satisfying to drive. There's a lightness, a deftness of touch, in the way it moves down the road that really sets the 6 apart and which mean it deserves to be mentioned as a driver's car in the same breath as something like a BMW 3 Series - it's that good.
That's all well and good for the driver, who will be really enjoying themselves from their low-slung driving position behind a spot-on steering wheel, but what of their passengers?
The 6 is an obviously large car, so it is no surprise that there is plenty of room for lanky legs and it will shrug off three-across-the-back-seat child carrying duties. Where the saloon's coupe-like roofline nibbles the headroom of taller back-benchers, passengers in the Tourer estate face no such trouble.
Its boot is above average, too, swelling from 522 litres to 1,648 litres when the back seats are flipped down. It's a big, flat sided space, too, and features Mazda's clever load cover which moves with the tailgate and can be stowed under the boot floor when not needed.
Mazda has given the 6 a facelift this year. From the outside, it is firmly in the blink-and-you-miss-it category, as with the updated Audi Q3 featured in these pages recently. And why tinker when the original couture looks so good?
Inside, however, the changes are more obvious. The 6 now gets a larger and easier to read multimedia screen, paired to an improved control system - Mazda calls this its 'multimedia commander', a term which could almost have been borrowed from a digital newsroom - and a DAB radio and apps to monitor your social media networks, should you feel the need to do such a thing from your car...
All models are decently equipped and the facelift has also brought a wider range of safety kit - LED headlamps are available, for example, as is a head-up display - and an electronic handbrake has arrived, liberating more storage space between the front seats.
As you will have gathered, I'm finding it hard to pick holes in the 6. Road noise can be a little obtrusive on certain surfaces - that's you, M1 - but that's about your lot.
Mazda's current crop of cars are among the best you can buy, and the 6 is no exception.
If I were one of those people I mentioned at the start of this piece who was in the market for a big, family car, I would not hesitate to put my money into a Mazda 6. I can think of no higher recommendation.