Sunday
Jul272014

Test Drive: A Tale of Two Mazda's 

As a car enthusiast, it’s almost impossible to not have a soft spot in your heart for Mazda. Even if you prefer American muscle cars or European sports cars, Mazda’s commitment to building affordable, engaging cars and a fervent dedication to motorsport is worthy of respect, and the fact that the “fun to drive” ingredients are infused into everything from the MX-5 Miata to the CX-9 sport utility vehicle makes it hard to find a Mazda that’s not going to put a smile on your face.  Having owned two CX-9’s as family cars over the last six years I was already sold on Mazda, but I gained even more admiration for the brand after spending a week each driving the latest 2014 MX-5 Miata roadster and Mazda6 sedan.

MX-5 Miata

When Mazda says “on any given weekend, there are more Mazda’s on the road-race tracks of America than any other brand of vehicle,” the MX-5 Miata gets most of the credit. Ever since it was introduced, the Miata has been raced in SCCA or pro racing series such as the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge, where Miata’s finished 1-2 in the Street Tuner class at Sebring and swept the podium at Laguna Seca and Lime Rock Park. The Miata is also a perennial favorite of the track day crowd, as it’s not only  well-balanced and fun to drive, but is also very reliable and inexpensive to maintain.

The 2014 MX-5 Miata sticks with the same recipe that has made it such a success from its beginning, with a front-engine, rear-drive layout with near perfect 50/50 weight distribution. Power comes from a two-liter 16-valve four-cylinder engine with variable valve timing that puts out 167hp at 7,000rpm and 140 lb-ft of torque at 5,000rpm. Those numbers don’t look all that impressive, but since it’s relatively light in weight at 2,593 pounds, that engine gives the Miata enough motivation to scoot to 60mph in a little over six seconds.

Among other less significant options, Mazda gives prospective buyers a choice of soft-top or power hardtop and manual or automatic transmission. My test car had the power hardtop and manual transmission with the “Club” package, which includes Bilstein shocks and a limited slip differential.  At 6’5”, I was able to fit surprisingly well into the Miata, though it was a little tight for pedal work and my legs tended to get in the way of my hands at times. Even with those challenges, the MX-5 Miata was great fun to drive on the twisty country roads near my home in northwestern New Jersey. With near perfect balance and a sporty suspension setup with the Bilstein shocks, the Miata loved to be thrown into corners and pushed hard through the apex of corners. The manual transmission provided short and precise throws and the brakes were strong with good pedal feel. I thought the steering (which is still hydraulically assisted) was a little on the light side for a car this small, but it was accurate, allowing the car to be placed exactly where you wanted it going into corners.

The MX-5 Miata is quite obviously made for the back roads and not the interstate, but it’s still comfortable enough to take on a trip if the situation calls for it and can deliver up to 28mpg. If you’re looking at buying a Miata and expect that it will be driven on the highway on a regular basis, I wouldn’t recommend the Club package, as the Bilstein shocks that work great on the back roads make the car a little too stiff for pockmarked highways. All in all, the MX-5 Miata is the kind of car that will make you go out in search of challenging country roads and look for the long way home. The only area that I felt could use some improvement is the engine. You can’t drive this car without thinking about how much better it could be with more power that’s delivered more smoothly. That may be fixed with the 2016 Miata, which will also get a styling update with cues from the new Mazda3 and Mazda6.

Mazda6

The Mazda6 was given a makeover last year, and Mazda managed to make a good car a great one. The Mazda6 ticks off all the boxes for a bargain-priced sport sedan, with an attractive design, excellent handling characteristics and a smooth and adequately powerful engine that can deliver up to 38mpg. Crucially, the Mazda6 also retains the fun-to-drive character of the Miata. All Mazda6 models use the same newly designed 2.5-liter four-cylinder “SKYACTIV” engine that puts out 184hp at 5,700rpm and 185 lb-ft of torque at 3,250rpm. This car is no scorcher, as it takes just a tick over 8 seconds to get to 60mph, but the engine is very smooth with good power delivery that makes it feel quicker than it really is, and there’s minimal torque steer with its front-drive layout. Both manual and automatic transmissions are available in this car (yay for Mazda) and even the base model is well-equipped with features like power accessories and cruise control at a starting price of less than $22,000, which makes it one of the best bargains in its class. My test car was a loaded Grand Touring model with the automatic transmission.

I took the Mazda6 on a long trip from New Jersey to Wisconsin, the type of lengthy trip that can bring out the weaknesses in a car and accentuate them over the course of hundreds of miles at the wheel. After putting well over 2,000 miles on the Mazda6, I didn’t find any real weaknesses to speak of, but instead grew to like it more as the miles racked up. I’ve owned three different generations of the BMW 3 Series and have driven the new models extensively, and it’s kind of eerie how much the Mazda6 feels like a BMW 3 Series, from its ride and handling to the feel through the steering wheel.

The Mazda6 is comfortable enough to spend hours at the wheel without becoming too fatigued, but like the 3 Series, it’s also entertaining and fun to drive on the back roads, with decent steering feel, a nicely damped suspension and good brake feel. Like the 3 Series, the Mazda6’ electrically assisted steering is a little too much on the light side for my tastes, but it’s precise and accurate and feels good in the hands with its three-spoke design. The front seats are supportive and comfortable and the rear seat is roomy for a car this size. The trunk is surprisingly spacious, with more than enough room for a 2,000 mile, six-day trip for two adults.

I have to nitpick to find any real fault with the Mazda6. My test car was loaded with options, but there were no one-touch windows in the back seat, only in the front, and you’d think there would be on the higher-end Grand Touring model. The tire pressure monitor was a little too sensitive; as it would give a warning that tire pressure had dropped when it was simply natural changes that occur when driving. I’m also not a fan of some of the shiny black plastic trim that Mazda seems to like putting in their models, as they tend to show fingerprints too much. Also, I’d be remiss as an enthusiast not to mention that the Mazda6 could easily handle more power, and I’d love to see them come out with either a Mazdaspeed version of this car, or at least one loaded up with some Mazdaspeed options that has some more power. Overall, the Mazda6 is the kind of car that you should seriously look at if you want a car that is very close dynamically to the BMW 3 Series but costs much less. It’s a great car.

More info: www.mazdausa.com

 

Mazda MX-5 Miata

Mazda6

Base MSRP

$28,665

$21,190

Curb weight

2,593 (manual), 2,619 (auto)

3,183 (manual), 3,232 (auto)

Engine

2.0-liter 4-cylinder

2.5-liter 4-cylinder

Power

167hp @ 7,000rpm

184hp @ 5,700rpm

Torque

140 lb-ft @ 5,000rpm

185 lb-ft @ 3,250rpm

Suspension

Double-wishbone with forged aluminum control arms front, multi-link with tubular control arms rear

MacPherson strut with stabilizer bar front, multilink with stabilizer bar rear

Brakes

11.4-inch vented disc front

11.0-inch solid disc rear

11.7-inch front

10.9-inch rear

Fuel economy

21 city / 28 highway

26 city / 38 highway

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