On The Road

A pair of sensible but fun Mazdas

courtesy of Mazda
The Mazda3 comes with an 184-horsepower engine.

If asked to name any three Japanese automotive manufacturers, Mazda probably wouldn’t make your list.

Sure, you might say, they make that little Miata sports car, but beyond that – unless you actually own one of its models – you may not even know that the compact Mazda3 and one-step-up Mazda6 sedan have been regulars on auto magazines’ top 10 lists for a long time.

We drove them both, in Grand Touring trim, in recent weeks, and two words come to mind to describe them. “Sensible” and “fun” would be accurate adjectives, words that don’t often appear in the same sentence in automotive reviews.

One reason that both cars can be described this way is that under the skin, they both have the same 184-horsepower 2.5-liter four-cylinder engines putting 185 pound-feet of torque to the front wheels.

Both come with a six-speed automatic transmission and, if you’re old school, there’s the option of buying the Mazda3 with a six-speed manual transmission, complete with a separate clutch pedal. However, the manual version comes with a cost – fuel efficiency is not as good as with the automatic model. The larger Mazda6 sedan with the automatic transmission gets 30 mpg in combined use (27 city, 35 highway), while the compact hatchback or sedan with the manual tranny installed gets only 28 mpg in combined use (25 city, 33 highway).

There’s also the option of getting the Mazda3 in four-door sedan or five-door hatchback body style. The hatchback is the better choice for consumers watching their budgets (it sells for less than $28,000) and/or those who intend to make it their only car, because it’s capable of carrying big boxes home from the big-box store and camping equipment and bikes for those weekend trips.

But if you need a little more room in the backseat and trunk than available in the compact hatchback, the larger Mazda6 in the Grand Touring trim costs just $34,540 and provides an additional 3 inches of rear legroom and an additional 2.4 cubic feet of cargo space.

Standard on both models

Both models come with a full range of recently developed safety features. A new one is Smart City Brake Support, designed to prevent collisions at street speeds with cars stopping ahead or crossing in front of you, as well as bicyclists, children or animals that might dart out ahead of you by slowing down the car or bringing it to a complete stop if necessary. Also standard on both models: rearview cameras with rear traffic alert; lane departure, blind-spot and lane-keeping assist; cruise control; and hill launch assist.

In addition, Mazda introduced a new technical feature this year that’s only available in its cars, but which most people probably will never even notice. The official name is (take a deep breath) Standard G-Vectoring Control vehicle dynamics enhancement. Performance driving coaches talk about a technique we call “steering with the throttle,” where we lightly increase or decrease engine speed during a curve to keep the vehicle balanced from front to back to maintain maximum traction. By combining motion sensors with computerized throttle control, the Mazda does this automatically.

The problem, of course, with many of these Mazda features that its competitors in this class don’t offer is that they are invisible. As one person commented in an online vehicle-buyers chat room, “I know that the Mazda engineers have my safety and driving pleasure at heart, but once in a while instead of working on mechanical features, I wish they would put some comparative improvements into the interior and accessories like Kia and Hyundai do.”

It’s not that the Mazdas lack for interior comfort or convenience. Both cars – identical in many respects to one another on the inside – are attractive, trimmed with high-quality materials and ergonomically well designed. It’s just that the product planners at Mazda seem to be trying to build the best quality entry-price cars on the market rather than making an effort to pretend to be near-luxury cars at mid-level prices like some of its Asian competitors.

As far as exterior styling goes, however, the Mazda3 and Mazda6 are grown-up, definitely giving off a good-taste vibe rather than pretending to be millennial funky. The recent refreshes in styling are very pleasant and, we thought, looked particularly good in the new Eternal Blue color that was just added to the palette.

And lest we forget, both cars are noted by all the reviews as being fun to drive, which translates to mean peppy off the mark, easy to maneuver from lane to lane, quick to respond to unexpected situations and well planted in corners. That characteristic, we know, comes from the same engineers who do the track testing and handling development for that Miata that we all recognize, which is famous for being the most successful and best-selling sports car in history.

So if you haven’t thought of the brand before, maybe it’s time to take notice of the Mazdas when you’re in the market for a compact hatchback or a mid-size sedan.

Longtime Los Altos residents Gary and Genie Anderson are co-owners of Enthusiast Publications LLC, which edits several car club magazines and contributes articles and columns to automotive magazines and online services.

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