It took a few years, but the turbocharged Mazda6 was worth the wait
Editor’s note: This piece is part of the ClassicCars.com Journal’s Road Trip Month. We’ll be celebrating anything that helps pass the miles and the cars that get us there during the month of June.
About three hours southeast of Phoenix sits Bisbee, a former mining town that prides itself on being weird. As a native Arizonan, I had always wanted to experience that weirdness but never actually went there.
When Mazda USA lent me the turbocharged version of its 2018 Mazda6 sedan, I knew I had found the excuse I needed.
I’ve always been a fan of Mazdas and previously owned the Mazda6’s little brother, the Mazda3. Though my former car was far from a powerhouse, it had zip. I originally had thought about getting the larger sedan but felt like it was a little underpowered.
Mazda solved that this model year. The automaker now offers a turbocharged 2.5-liter Skyactiv inline-4, the same powerhouse found in the much larger CX-9 SUV, and available in some three trim levels.
The previous Mazda6 was a nice car that moved smoothly through traffic, but it had struggled a bit going uphill. The upgraded 6 had enough power to keep me smiling nearly all the way to the Mexican border.
Bisbee was founded in 1880 after copper, gold and silver were discovered in the Mule Mountains. By 1910, the population had ballooned to more than 9,000 people as the Copper Queen Mine became the most successful copper mine in the state.
Though it remained sort of a boomtown through both World Wars, things began to dry up in the 1960s. The Phelps-Dodge Corporation shuttered the operation in 1975. By then, more than 8 billion pounds of copper had been pulled from the Earth.
After the closure, the city was at risk of becoming another dusty ghost town. However, the steadfast residents and artists remade the town, and Bisbee became the odd little haven it is today.
When my wife and I climbed into the Mazda6 and prepared to leave Phoenix, I was surprised and impressed by the interior of the car. Mazda made a concerted effort to improve the cabin of the 6 to compete with some of the luxury brands, and it shows, particularly in the top-of-the-line Signature model that I drove.
As someone who lives in a city where the mercury regularly tops 100 degrees, I’m not generally a fan of leather seats. But in the Mazda, the standard ventilated Nappa leather seats changed my mind. No vehicle should be sold without them. The seats in Deep Chestnut were supportive and bolstered enough to offer a sporty feel, something I look for in a car that caters to driving enthusiasts.
The gauge cluster has a sophisticated appeal, with the information displayed in cool white over black. Interestingly, the center-placed speedometer is digital and can display other information, while other gauges are analog.
A dual-zone climate control system was a welcome feature for my wife, who always thinks I turn the air conditioning too cold (she’s wrong, by the way). The climate controls are mounted above the shifter, which is paired to a 6-speed automatic transmission that can be switched to Manual or Sport mode. More on that later.
The drive to Bisbee from Phoenix takes about three hours, with about half the drive on State Route 80, which passes through arguably the most famous Western town: Tombstone. It still retains some of the original storefronts, albeit with a heavy dose of modern marketing.
It’s delightfully hokey, but not that far removed from the days when it earned its moniker of the “Town Too Tough to Die.” Founded in 1879 after silver was found in the area, it quickly became a powder keg for violence – the town’s 110 saloons likely didn’t help.
The most famous incident was the shootout at the O.K. Corral, in which Marshal Wyatt Earp and his brothers, along with Doc Holliday, killed three men who had attempted to rob a stagecoach. The fatal nature of the town and its cavalier attitude to death are displayed at Boothill Graveyard, the final resting place of about 250 people, most of them outlaws.
The road between Bisbee and Tombstone is really where the Mazda6 was able to shine. The steep, winding roads leading into the Mule Mountains let me test the car’s handling combined with the turbocharged engine.
I engaged Sport mode and, as the gear ratios shifted, I could feel the turbo come to life. An innovative valve system helps spool up the turbo quickly below 1,620 rpm so that there’s no dreaded turbo lag, and the response is fairly immediate. The turbo could be heard over the music in a pleasing almost-growl.
A retuned chassis and G-Vectoring Control steering gives the new 6 a great road feel. Driving through Mule Pass Tunnel with the turbo purring was just enough to make me feel like I was driving a performance sports car, but at a sub-$40,000 price tag. As we emerged back into the daylight (and a lower speed limit) I found myself wishing the drive wasn’t done.
We were able to leave the 6 across the street from our hotel, the Gym Suites Inn. A former YMCA, the building is now home to individual suites. Ours, No. 401, offered a small deck with a panoramic view of Bisbee.
Parking in an old mining town can be tricky, and unfortunately, the 6’s parking safety system left a sour taste in my mouth.
The system has front and rear cameras to give a 360-degree view of the car’s surroundings, and sensors on the bumpers alert the driver to possible obstructions.
The system works, but the front and overhead views leave something to be desired. The camera resolution is low-quality when compared with that of the rear backup camera; some objects appeared as little more than pixelated blobs.
I didn’t hit any of the blobs, so the system works, but those cameras need an upgrade.
Being an older city, Bisbee is best explored on foot. My wife and I strolled around town and wound up at Screaming Banshee Pizza, a deservedly crowded spot.
After, I insisted we belly up to the bar at the Copper Queen Hotel, once the shining pearl of the city. It has been well-maintained since it opened in 1898 and is full of characters – both in this life and supposedly in the next, if you believe in that sort of thing. It is rumored to be one of Arizona’s most-haunted locales.
I was excited to get back behind the wheel despite noticing a second irritation: The lack of compatibility with either Android Auto or Apple Car Play. Instead of using those navigation services, we were required to use Mazda’s system. Smart-phone integration is expected to come later this year, according to Mazda, but confusingly won’t be standard on all models.
On the other hand, the standard Bose 11-speaker audio system was a delight. The sound was crisp at every volume level.
Mazda certainly stepped up its game with the redesigned Mazda6. It still has a few bumps, but those who can overlook a couple of minor tech issues can get the loaded Signature for $36,435.
Personally, I would think about adding the Grand Touring trim to my garage. You still get the turbocharged engine but lose some options, such as the heads-up display, Nappa leather seats and the underachieving 360-degree monitor.
Considering the top-of-the-line Signature is priced well below $40,000 and the Grand Touring starts below $30,000, Mazda could be offering one of the best midsize sedans on the market at an affordable price.
2018 Mazda6 Signature
Vehicle type: 5-passenger four-door sedan, front-wheel drive
Base price: $34,750 Price as tested: $36,435
Engine: 2.5-liter turbocharged Skyactiv inline-4, 250 horsepower @ 5,000 rpm, 310 pound-feet of torque @ 2,000 rpm Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 111.4 inches Overall length/width: 192.7 inches / 72.4 inches
Curb weight: 3,560 pounds
EPA mileage estimates: 23 city / 31 highway / 26 combined
Assembled in: Hofu, Japan