Mazda push into new territory with latest '6'
It is fair to say the Mazda6 has been one of the most underrated cars on the market. Those who own one sing its praise; those who don't shrug their shoulders and say they never thought of it.
Here's the hard part. There's a spanking brand new Mazda6 just after landing here and I have to ask a tough question – will I be saying the same thing about it, as its predecessors, in a few years' time?
I don't know, but I'd have to say it won't be for lack of effort by the Japanese marque which commands about 2.5pc of the total market here.
This is a distinctly different Mazda6 and the distributors make it clear they are repositioning it. In other words they are shifting it a bit up-market – making it what they call 'semi-premium'.
So while they will still be competing for buyers of the Ford Mondeo or Toyota Avensis, they will also be trying to catch those with aspirations of owning an entry-level Audi A4 and the like.
Such moves are always a bit of a gamble, but I can see where they are coming from in trying to find a relevant and focused niche for this car. Given that it can't match the big-volume sellers in market reach (nonetheless they are aiming for 700 buyers this year), it has to distinguish itself in other ways.
Certainly, it is bigger, quite striking looking, has a large 'upmarket' cabin, a massive boot and lots of equipment. The only engine of relevance to us is the 2.2-litre diesel and it outguns most rivals with its mighty 150bhp (there is a 175bhp version, but it's a minority affair).
I drove the saloon Sport SE 150bhp which at €35,895 will not be the big seller. That duty falls to the mid-range Sport trim version with a six-speed manual transmission and it embodies the real price of the car – €31,795 ex-works.
Yes, that is a handful of money for a family to find these days, considering what some of the traditional rivals are charging but it is also where dealers will earn their crust convincing buyers of its 'semi-premium' pedigree and equipment levels. This is all-new, by the way, with Mazda insisting there's not a trace remaining of former owner Ford.
They've done a fine job. The car, lighter than before, looks outstanding; no doubt about that. And the suspension has a good blend of the sporty and supple.
Over some tough Wicklow roads in heavy rain, it was never less than surefooted and rock solid. Have to say it handled really well and the engine's pulling power shone through as I left it in third or fourth gear nearly all the time.
The steering felt a bit on the heavy side and I disliked it. I subsequently discovered it was down to the 19ins wheels, because the 17ins version was deemed a bit light, but one with 18ins were adjudged just about right.
The cabin in the version I drove will make a good case for the 'semi-premium' I think. Here we had a Mazda with really decent quality fabrics, plastics, fit and finish – the lack of which prompted criticism of the previous one. And there's a lot of safety and comfort equipment.
Diesel saloons will make up 95pc+ of all sales. Add €2,000 for automatic versions.
They are claiming all sorts of figures for fuel consumption (67mpg) but so much depends on how you drive it. I will say, however, that there are not too many 150bhp cars out there in the €190-a-year road tax bracket.
Standard equipment ranges from several airbags to Hill Hold Assist, dual-zone climate control, cruise control, Bluetooth with voice control, colour touchscreen display and much more.
In summary: the car is fine and makes a strong case; the price is 'semi-premium' and doesn't. The challenge is for your dealer to convince you it's worth it.
A big job at a time like this, but the new 6 is easily the best chance they've had for a long time to finally throw off that 'most underrated' mantle.