Mazda fights it alone with the new Mazda6
Mazda CEO Takashi Yamanouchi speaks while the Mazda6 is shown during it's North American debut at the LA Auto Show in Los Angeles, Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
Published Saturday, February 2, 2013 7:00AM EST
A couple of years ago I thought Mazda was toast. It was simple economics. Here was a relatively small, independent automaker that had rung up a loss of $1.29 billion in 2011. That was the fourth year in a row of red ink and the largest loss in a decade. Mazda’s CEO announced that “every option” was being considered, which usually means lights out.
Their former partner Ford had walked out on them and they were basically a one-car company – living or dying on the venerable Mazda3, a compact car which has thinner profit margins than bigger stuff.
There was the Japanese earthquake/tsunami disaster to deal with, terrible economic conditions and the sky-high Japanese yen. I was saying bye-bye, so long, farewell, sayorara Mazda.
So far I have been proven very wrong. Last year Mazda managed to turn a slight profit. Last week I drove a car that should keep them profitable.
Never count out a scrappy little company with guts and ambition when it gets its back against the wall. Mazda ain’t dead yet.
The car I drove last week was the all-new Mazda6. How new? Ruben Archilla, Group Manager of Research & Design for Mazda North America says, “Let me give you a round figure. This Mazda6 has zero content taken from the previous one.”
When Mazda was on the brink a two or three years ago they decided they had to go new or go home. They didn’t have the money to get into fuel cells or electric cars or even hybrids. But they did have a bunch of smart engineers and designers so they went to work on the basics: better bodies, better chassis, better engines, better transmissions.
Everything needs a buzz word these days so some marketing genius decided to call the new combo of stuff Skyactiv.
So far Mazda has pumped out two Skyactiv models: the CX-5 crossover last year and now the Mazda6 mid-size sedan. Both are on the same platform and share the same engines, transmissions and various bits and pieces. I’ve driven them both and I can tell you they’re first rate. Given Mazda’s financial situation they’d better be.
Mazda6 competes in the all-important mid-size category against such giants as Camry, Accord, Altima, Fusion, Altima, Sonata, Optima, Malibu and more. There are more than 20 cars in this segment and it’s very difficult to stand out. Other manufacturers can sell you a mid-size in dozens of different configurations: V6 to hybrid to plug-in. Not Mazda. The 6 offers three trim levels, one 2.5-liter four cylinder 184 HP engine and 2 transmissions. That’s it. Shop for your hybrid or plug-in elsewhere.
They promise that a diesel and a mild, mild hybrid is coming but I’ve heard those promises before. Basically Mazda is going to sink or swim on Skyactiv and now I’ve changed my bet to swim.
Before we get to the mechanical bits let’s check out the curb appeal and take a look at the exterior beginning at the front. This is where Mazda had previously slapped that grotesque “happy face” on nearly everything they built.
You recognize a slight, slight resemblance to the past mistakes but essentially it’s been all fixed up. The interior is also perfectly presentable – it won’t blow you away but you will find it comfortable with very good seats and roominess. It could stand to be better insulated against road and wind noise, however.
The four cylinder engine isn’t going to win you anything on the race track but that’s not the point. The point is to be smooth, quiet, reliable and save you gas. Accomplished.
You can get a six speed manual but forget it, the six speed automatic is a gem. So is the “electric” steering. This is a fuel economy measure and early versions from various manufacturers were pretty awful, but this one is the best yet.
The car is a pleasure to drive. They tell you they engineered it to drive like the MX-5 sports car but that’s a stretch.
However, for overall driving dynamics in the mid-size zone it’s up with the best. If they do come up with a diesel clean enough to be certified throughout North America that will give them something to sell against the surprisingly successful Volkswagen Passat.
Gutsy little Mazda says that they’re going right after the Passat from Volkswagen Group - a company that’s six or seven times larger than Mazda. Passat sells about 8,000 cars in Canada. Mazda says they’re going to sell 6,000 Mazda6s.
Almost never do car companies give you a sales prediction but Mazda is doing things – Mazda has to do things – a little differently.
Mazda6 starts at $24,495 and runs all the way up to $32,195 when it’s loaded with options including some very clever safety technology.
The mid-size segment has more than twenty brands slugging it out. There’s so much choice reaching up into the expensive German premium brands. But Mazda battles on alone.
With the MX-5 crossover and now the Mazda6 sedan they certainly have the ammunition to fight another day.