The Midwest Automotive Media Association last week hosted its annual Spring Rally at Road America – a two-day event that brings together roughly a hundred automotive journalists from the Midwestern United States to sample some of the latest road-going automobiles from numerous manufacturers. It was there, on the curving, four-mile road course near Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, that we explored the limits of Mazda Motor Corporation‘s latest mid-size passenger car: the refreshed, 2018 Mazda 6. Our conclusion: Ford might have learned a thing or two about building a fun, engaging mid-sizer from the world’s fifteenth-biggest automaker.
Now, it’s more than a bit unusual for a manufacturer to allow its ordinary, pedestrian passenger vehicles on the race track; the Mazda 6 has little in the way of sporty credentials like monobloc brake calipers, aerodynamic aids, or a boosted/large-displacement engine. In fact, the factory brakes are of the basic, inexpensive “floating” type, and its standard engine is a 2.5-liter inline-four with no power-adders.
Yet so confident is Mazda in the litheness of its chassis and the pluckiness of its base 2.5-liter four-pot that the company allowed its no-frills mid-size commuter onto the race track with any journalist willing to give it a go. We’re glad they did, because more than perhaps any other budget-minded carmaker, Mazda prioritizes fun-to-drive, continually cranking out infectiously jovial daily-drivers that nonetheless deliver remarkable fuel efficiency. Mazda’s current range of normally-aspirated Skyactiv gasoline engines leverage the Atkinson cycle, cam-phasing, and a 13:1 compression ratio (14:1 in markets outside the US) to deliver a crowd-pleasing mix of thrift and thrills, even on widely-available 87-octane.
Exhaust scavenging is so crucial to the engine’s operation that Mazda has graced its Skyactiv 3 and 6 models with what basically amounts to a long-tube racing header from the factory. Zoom zoom indeed.
Weight being the enemy of fun-to-drive, Mazda took pains to remove as much of it as possible from its Skyactiv chassis, resulting in a mid-size sedan that weighs less than certain variants of the third-generation Ford Focus – a car that sells in an entirely different, smaller class of automobile. On the track, the result is a surprisingly fun and refreshing grocery-getter, with a communicative wheel, quick turn-in, and delightful controls, even on automatic-equipped cars like the one we tried. The Mazda 6 gets a bit squirrelly under hard braking, the back end dancing around a bit as it becomes unloaded, but the standard indicators that you’re driving a FWD car at the limit – torque steer and power understeer – are in short supply. It’s remarkably well-balanced.
In short, it’s everything that Ford’s own mid-size Fusion could have been – and quite literally, at that. Ford and Mazda have a long history together, with the former once owning as much as a 33% stake in the former, and eliciting its aid in engineering vehicles from the Ford Probe sports coupe to the Ford Ranger pickup truck. The platform used by the third-gen Focus is an evolution of a platform developed with help from Mazda and Volvo, and the CD3 platform underpinning the first-gen Fusion was Mazda-designed.
Had Ford’s deep involvement with Mazda continued, the current second-generation Ford Fusion might have been every bit as efficient, refreshing, and fun to drive. Not that the Fusion sold particularly poorly in the US or was an especially poor driver’s car, mind you, but the Mazda 6 is just simply better. It has a sharper-looking exterior, an interior that looks like it was plucked from something far more expensive, a bit better fuel efficiency, and perhaps most important of all, a manual transmission option.
Would all that have been enough to save the Ford Fusion from discontinuation, as the automaker prepares to axe “traditional sedans” from its North American lineup? It’s hard to say. But we will say this; Mazda’s modest market share in the US belies its first-rate automotive engineering. If Ford were ever in need of a partner to bring out a world-class Honda Accord-fighter, it would need only look to its past alliances.
We look forward to your hate mail.