As you approach the Mazda Mazda6 i Grand Touring, your walkway is illuminated by the Welcome Lighting on the underside of the rearview mirrors. Don't bother taking the smart key out of your pocket, a mere touch of the door handle will unlock the vehicle. Don't bother futzing with the headlamps or windshield wipers either, it's automatic. Just settle into the heated leather-trimmed seats, press the start button to bring the peppy engine to life, and you're off.
For 2009, the Mazda6 has grown in both size and ambition. When viewed from the front or rear quarter, this midsize car has bulging fenders, a low nose, and a sweeping roofline, which makes it look absolutely sporty. However, when viewed from the side, its slab-sided profile belies its newfound size. No longer can detractors complain about the 6's diminutive size compared with the Toyota Camrys and Nissan Altimas of the midsize sedan segment, because the Mazda6 has grown in nearly every dimension.
On the road
The Mazda6 looked the sports car part, with its 17-inch rims and windswept looks. However, driving the Mazda6 with vigor is a bit like driving a sports car with a remote control, as we learned on a twisty back road east of the San Francisco Bay area.
The soft suspension causes the body to move around quite a bit when turning hard, which reduces the responsiveness of what otherwise feels like a fantastically engineered chassis. Compounding the driver/road disconnect is the trademark large sedan vague steering and superlight clutch pedal, with its questionable engagement point. We also found ourselves sliding all over the wide, poorly bolstered leather seats.
Clearly the big 6 was out of its element on the twisties, but when we reached the highway on our way back to the CNET garage, the Mazda really came into its stride.
The Mazda6's suspension soaked up the bumps and cracks of the washboard that is Interstate 580--a road that rattles even small crossovers--in Oakland, Calif. The ride was smooth and quiet allowing the optional Bose premium audio system to shine. Over long sweeping turns, the Mazda6 didn't exhibit as much body roll as it did earlier and felt absolutely planted for off-ramp blasts.
As we neared the city, we eventually found ourselves in bumper to bumper commuter traffic. Suddenly, we appreciated the light clutch as we inched forward without tiring our left leg out prematurely. The 2.5-liter inline-four cylinder engine has enough low-end torque to creep the sedan along at low speeds with minimal fuss. The blind spot monitoring system assisted us in confidently weaving through traffic when an opening presented itself.
By the time we'd parked the Mazda6 for the night, we'd all but forgotten the sedan's back road blunders and gained an appreciation for its highway manners and excellent cabin quality.
In the cabin
The Mazda6 i Grand Touring only comes with one configuration for the cabin trim: black plastic with black leather seats.
The plastic that makes up the dash is a high-quality soft plastic that's both pleasing to the eye and to the touch. The center console and lower dash are accented by an odd, glossy faux-wood that we couldn't decide whether we liked it.
The center of the dash in our tester was dominated by a 7-inch touch-screen display where the audio sources and DVD-based navigation system are controlled. The screen is bright and big, but the graphics leave much to be desired, particularly when viewing the map. The positioning of the screen aims the display up and away from the driver, annoyingly creating glare in direct sunlight. The display can be tilted, but only further upward, thus increasing the glare.
Although the system supports voice controls, we stuck to using the touch screen for the bulk of our input because Mazda's finicky voice recognition software requires very specific commands to perform actions. Including onscreen prompts telling us what the system wanted to hear would go a long way toward increasing the system's functionality.
Behind the touch screen is a six-disc CD player with MP3 playback capabilities, part of an optional 10-speaker Bose premium audio package. That's where your MP3 journey ends with the Mazda6, unless you have an A2DP-enabled Bluetooth MP3 player or mobile phone. The Grand Touring trim level of the Mazda6 includes Bluetooth as a standard feature. We were able pair our T-Mobile Shadow for both hands-free calling and audio streaming in one fell swoop. Once connected, we were given limited control over playback from our phone (only play, pause, and skipping forward and back). Our phone didn't broadcast track information, so the audio system was unable to display song or artist information.