Fighting father time: 2021 Mazda 6 battles to stay relevant

2020 Mazda 6 Signature

By Chuck Giametta

What changes will make the 2021 Mazda 6 different?

Very little, even as Mazda strives to keep its stylish midsize sedan relevant against newer competition — and against the market’s rush to crossover SUVs. All-wheel drive (AWD) and a diesel engine may well be on the agenda, but probably not until the next all-new Mazda 6 arrives, potentially as a 2022 model.

Expect the 2021 Mazda 6 to return as a little-changed front-wheel-drive four-door with the prettiest body in the segment. Other carryover assets include a classy cabin – top-line Signature models get real wood trim — sporty handling, and, with the available turbocharged engine, outstanding performance. None of that has increased demand, however. Mazda 6 sales plunged 30 percent in 2019, far worse than the 8-percent decline for the segment.

AWD would place the Mazda 6 among the growing number of midsize cars offering it as an option to standard front-wheel drive. AWD is available on the Volkswagen Arteon, Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima, Ford Fusion, and Buick Regal; it’s standard on the Subaru Legacy; and is a likely option for the redesigned 2021 Kia Optima. Borrowing the turbodiesel engine from the Mazda CX-5 compact crossover would boost fuel economy. But it would also smack of yester-tech, and the Mazda 6 would still be without an electrified powertrain in a class where top rivals offer hybrid models.

Should I wait for the 2021 Mazda 6 or buy a 2020?

2020 Mazda 6 Signature

Buy a 2020. The ’21 is unlikely to change in any way worth waiting for, although it is apt to cost more. And Mazda isn’t known for heavily incentivizing its vehicles, so you’re more likely to be offered cash back or cut-rate financing as it clears model-year 2020 inventories.

Look for the 2021 Mazda 6 lineup to return Sport and Touring models with a naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine and fancier Grand Touring, Grand Touring Reserve, and Signature versions with a turbocharged four. All will again come with a six-speed automatic as their sole transmission. 

Note that driving impressions and other subjective conclusions in this review are based on test drives of 2020 Mazda 6s furnished by the automaker. Where the ’21 might be different, we reserve judgment.

Will the styling be different?

2020 Mazda 6 Signature

No, and that’s dandy. Introduced for model-year 2014, today’s third-generation Mazda 6 is older than all competitors save the Fusion, which will be discontinued in 2021, and the VW Passat, which was last fully redesigned for model-year 2012. Still the Mazda remains handsome as ever. Contemporary and understated, its looks were honed by a model-year-2018 refresh that brought a bolder grille, reshaped headlights, and a toned-up tail.

Visual differences between ’21 6 models should remain subtle. All will return with automatic-leveling LED headlamps, LED taillamps, dual exhaust outlets, and alloy wheels: 17s for the Sport, 19s for the other models. Expect the Touring Reserve and the Signature to get exclusive bright polished wheels, fancier LED lighting, and a rear spoiler.

2020 Mazda 6 Signature

The interior of the 2021 Mazda 6 should continue to fend off father time, just. It’ll carryover simple forms tastefully dressed, gauges that are clean and functional, and controls that move with class-above precision.

An eight-inch dashboard infotainment display will remain standard. It’ll again be governed via voice command, touchscreen icons, and Mazda’s user-friendly console knob/button cluster. The display qualifies as adequate in size for the segment but tends to respond to inputs slower than most. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto were standard on all but the Sport for model-year 2020. Imbedded navigation, which doesn’t require a cell signal to provide real-time GPS service, was exclusive to the Signature. That probably won’t change for 2021.

Also repeating should be cloth upholstery for the Sport, leatherette for the Touring and Grand Touring, black or Parchment leather for the Grand Touring Reserve, and upgraded Nappa leather in Parchment or Deep Chestnut for the Signature. All models should return with a leather-covered steering wheel and shift knob.

2020 Mazda 6 Signature

The Signature’s decor stands out, but subtly. A frameless rearview mirror and LED ambient lighting are modest upscale cues, and its application of Japanese Sen wood trim is so delicate as to go almost unnoticed. The UltraSuede dashboard bumper feels rich but seems prone to marring and tearing.  

The 2021 6 will again be among the narrowest midsize sedans, so a cabin that comes across as uncommonly sporty to some will seem a little cozy to others. The front buckets’ lateral bolstering is supportive in fast corning but may feel confining to heftier occupants. The rear seat is by no means uncomfortable but fitting three adults isn’t practical, and headroom and legroom are less than generous.

Interior storage space is at a premium, hurt by an especially small center console box. The 14.7-cubic-foot trunk is below class average on paper, but it’s usefully shaped, has a larger than average opening, and thoughtfully encases the lid hinges to keep them from crushing cargo.

Any mechanical changes?

2020 Mazda 6

Very unlikely. Expect 2021 Mazda 6 Sport and Touring grades to return with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. At 187 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque, it’ll again be competitive with other midsize sedans’ base engines and provide adequate acceleration, with decent jump from a stop but nominal punch when you want to pass or merge aggressively.

Far livelier is the turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder that’ll again power the ’21 Mazda 6 Grand Touring, Reserve, and Signature models. Mazda should continue to rate it at 227 horsepower on 87-octane gas and 250 horsepower using premium 93 octane; torque is unaffected, at 310 pound-feet. We tested it with the higher octane and found it very satisfying, particularly off the line. Lazy movement from a stop is a common shortfall of the 2.0-liter turbo fours that are its main rivals. But the 2.5’s extra half-liter displacement helps provide low rpm thrust until the turbo spools up. And once underway, throttle response is terrific and power to pass or merge is abundant.

A six-speed automatic transmission seems outdated against the competition’s eight-, nine-, even 10-speed automatics. But Mazda’s six-speed is a generally good match for the 6’s engines. Our Touring test example did, however, suffer occasionally delayed downshifts when more power was needed for high-speed merging and passing.

2020 Mazda 6

No such issues with the turbocharged 2.5-liter, and the turbo models also get steering-wheel paddle shifters whose ability to effectively downshift and hold gears is more pronounced than most. Still, the turbo 2.5 pines for at least two more ratios to really get the most out of it. And Mazda may believe engine growl under more than half-throttle signifies performance. Here, it sounds rather coarse.

Road manners are very good overall, if no longer quite front of the pack. Steering is flawed by indecisive feel on center at highway speed. And effort could build more progressively and naturally in turns, but you quickly become accustomed to its weight and feel.

Handling is tight and composed, with the 6’s relative narrowness contributing to the car’s lithe character. Standard on all ‘21s will again be Mazda’s G-Vectoring Control Plus technology that momentarily retards engine torque as you begin to turn and applies light braking to the outer wheels as you steer out of a corner. It’s hardly discernable but likely does contribute to the car’s confident stability in quick changes of direction. Grip is best with the 19-inch wheels and tires, but they do a poor job keeping the impact of bad bumps and sharp-edged ruts from infiltrating the cabin. And they generate an annoying hollow-drum whine on coarse road surfaces.   

Will fuel economy improve?

2020 Mazda 6

Very unlikely, absent unanticipated changes to engines or transmissions. Expect the 2021 Mazda 6 EPA ratings to repeat those of the 2020. That would mean the Sport and Touring models would remain less fuel-efficient than most midsize sedans of similar power, while the turbocharged 6s would again be competitive with rivals of similar performance.

Look for the 2021 Mazda 6 Sport and Turing to rate 26/35/29 mpg city/highway/combined. Expect the turbocharged 2021 Grand Touring, Grand Touring Reserve, and Signature models to again rate 23/31/26 mpg.

Unlike many newer competitors, the Mazda 6 hasn’t employed a system designed to save fuel by automatically turning the engine off when the vehicle is stopped, then restarting it when the driver releases the brake pedal. It isn’t likely to gain it for 2021. But both engines will again feature cylinder deactivation designed to conserve gas by shutting off the two outside cylinders during cruising. It works unobtrusively. Our Signature test car averaged 26.5 mpg in suburban commuting.

Will there be new features?

Probably not, but the ’21 Mazda 6 won’t lack for amenities. Its manufacturer should again simplify your decision-making by limited factory options to extra-cost metallic paint colors: $200 for Snowflake White Pearl Mica, $300 for gray, and $595 for the popular and striking Soul Red Crystal.

Most vitally, every 2021 Mazda 6 will again come standard with the automaker’s comprehensive i-Activesense suite of safety features. The suite includes autonomous emergency braking designed to mitigate a frontal collision with another vehicle, object or pedestrian; adaptive radar cruise control to maintain a set distance from traffic ahead, even in stop-and-go driving; lane-departure warning with automatic steering correction; and blind-spot and rear cross-traffic alert.

Automatic high-beam headlights and rain-sensing windshield wipers will be other driver assist returning as standard across the board. Look for the Grand Touring Reserve and Signature to also return steering-linked headlamps.  

2020 Mazda 6 Signature

In addition to the features already covered, every ’21 Mazda 6 should again include as standard dual-zone automatic climate control, two front USB charging ports, pushbutton engine start, and an electronic parking brake. Expect the Touring model to again upgrade from the Sport, with heated front seats, a power driver’s seat, keyless entry, power moonroof, and two rear-seat USB charging ports.

The ’21 Grand Touring would include all that, plus an automatic-dimming interior and driver-side mirrors, satellite radio, and a Bose-branded 11-speaker audio system. The  Grand Touring Reserve should build from there, with ventilated front seats, an 8-way power driver’s seat with memory and power lumbar, a 6-way power passenger’s seat, heated rear seats, a heated steering wheel, automatic power folding side mirrors, and windshield wiper de-icer. It’ll also come with a very effective head-up display that projects onto the windshield not only vehicle speed but such useful data as blind-spot-warning icons.

The 2021 Signature will continue with the aforementioned exclusive features, while adding to the Grand Touring Reserve equipment a surround-view camera, front- and rear-obstacle detection, and traffic-sign recognition for the head-up display.

Will 2021 prices be different?

2020 Mazda 6 Signature

They’ll probably creep higher, but only slightly. For reference, here are 2021 Mazda 6 base prices, including the manufacturer’s $920 destination fee.

Base prices were $24,920 for the ’20 Mazda 6 Sport and $27,520 for the Touring. The ’20 Grand Touring was priced at $30,620, the Grand Touring Reserve at $33,120, and the Signature at $36,220.

When does it come out?

2020 Mazda 6 Signature

Expect a 2021Mazda 6 release date in the third quarter 2020.

Best competitors

Buick Regal, Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima, Nissan Altima and Maxima, Subaru Legacy, Toyota Camry, Volkswagen Areteon and Passat

About Chuck Giametta

This nationally recognized, award-winning writer brings to two decades of automotive testing and reporting for newspapers, books, magazines, and the Internet. The former Executive Auto Editor of Consumer Guide, Chuck has covered cars for, Collectible Automobile magazine, and the Publications International Ltd. automotive book series. This ex-newspaper reporter has also appeared as an automotive expert on network television and radio. He’s a charter member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, the president of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Media association, and a juror for the annual Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year awards. Chuck writes from Colorado Springs, Colo. If you have a question for Chuck, write to him at [email protected]