Road Test

ROAD TEST: 2016 Mazda6 GT... with i-ELOOP!

With or without i-ELOOP, the go-its-own-way Mazda6 avoids conformity

2016 Mazda6 GT

It’s more than 15 years since the first hybrid cars hit the streets, but one of the few automakers that hasn’t at least dabbled in the gasoline-electric technology since then is Mazda. Or has it?

While Mazda adopted SkyActiv as its emissions-and-efficiency “silver bullet” (essentially, a holistic program to take conventional engineering and then optimize the heck out of it) the automaker does have one exclusive technology that arguably operates on the margins of mild hybridism.

Not Alley-Oop but i-ELOOP

Fitted to the top-rung GT version of the Mazda6, it’s called i-ELOOP (short for “intelligent Energy Loop”). As in all hybrids, the basis of i-ELOOP’s fuel-saving role is to use regenerative braking to recapture energy that can then be re-used to help power the car.

But there are two key differences from other hybrids on the market, mild or otherwise: with i-ELOOP, the energy harvested under braking is not stored in the conventional battery but separately in a capacitor. And rather than helping power the wheels directly, the stored energy is assigned to powering the car’s electrical systems.

Since electric loads can consume about 10% of an engine's fuel-use, i-ELOOP promises a modest but measurable contribution to fuel efficiency. Mazda says a full capacitor charge is enough to run the vehicle’s electrical systems for a minute or so. 

Capacitor advantages

The Mazda6 equipped with i-ELOOP rates 8.5 L/100 km in the city and 5.9 L/100 km on the highway – impressive numbers for a midsize sedan, and about 3.5% more fuel-frugal than the regular car. Mazda claims, though, that in real-world driving the i-ELOOP should yield efficiency gains even greater than in the lab test cycle.

Unlike conventional lead-acid batteries, a capacitor happily tolerates repeated and rapid charge/discharge cycles, so a side benefit, Mazda claims, is a longer service life for the main 12-volt battery.

In combination with a variable-voltage alternator, the company says its system can regenerate three times more energy than systems that use only a conventional alternator and lead-acid battery.

As well, since the alternator is disconnected when the engine is under power, full-throttle acceleration should get a boost (though that may be offset by a taller axle ratio on the i-ELOOP versions).

Failure to find traction

Despite winning AJAC’s 2014 Car of the Year award, this generation of the Mazda6 has struggled to find traction in the market. In 2013, its debut year, sales dipped 17 per cent from the 2012 sales of the previous generation.

Mazda Canada attributed the decline to a deliberate choice to pull out of fleet sales. But 2014 was even worse – sales tumbled 28 per cent to less than half of what its predecessor had achieved in 2010.

Mazda has responded with a mild refresh for 2016, which was our excuse to sample the upgrades and get up-close and personal with i-ELOOP. 

Greatest revisions in the cockpit

Although there are minor tweaks to the exterior (many of them confined to the GT trim), the greater revisions are in the cockpit.

These include a reshaped instrument panel with a free-standing 7-inch touch-screen (standard on all trims), plus classier fit and finish, re-sculpted front seats, and an electric parking brake. Mazda also says it worked hard to reduce interior noise levels.

Kudos to Mazda for making the 7-inch screen and rear seat heaters standard, but why is satellite radio still exclusive to the most expensive trim?

The revised seats suited my medium-sized frame just fine, and with the eight-way power adjustment on the GT I had no problem arranging my bones comfortably (though bear in mind the GX and GS have only 6-way adjustment, manual and power respectively.

But for all the work Mazda did on the instrument panel I still had some issues with the ergonomics: the gauge graphics could be brighter and the HVAC push-buttons are too small for easy operation wearing gloves.

Staying with interior factors, the rear seat is comfortable enough, but the fact is the Mazda6 has one of the coziest rear cabins in its peer group.

How is the zoom-zoom holding up?

In the case of the 6, Mazda’s long-standing trademark quality is still there, but it could use a reboot now that rivals have raised their game.

The straight-line-acceleration story is good news/bad news. The good is that the 6er’s 8.3-second 0-100-km/h time is among the quickest we’ve seen among base four-cylinder midsize sedans. And solid low-end grunt means you don’t have to whip it along to maintain a brisk clip.

The bad news is that in the Mazda’s case the 184-hp, 2.5-litre “base” four-cylinder engine is also the only engine; there’s no HO, turbo or V-6 option for the higher trim grades.

The six-speed automatic (a six-speed manual is also available on all trims) is a smooth and willing partner for the engine and serves up a 120-km/h cruising pace at barely more than 2,000 rpm.

Even so, you sometimes hear some engine growl at highway speeds; overall, whether just cruising or working the engine hard through the gears, the Mazda6 is still no benchmark for NVH refinement.

It does handle nicely. Its road moves are neat and tidy and it feels like a smaller car than it is. Engaged drivers, at least, should appreciate the steering’s firm effort and natural feel. 

Only the lack of sharp, decisive turn-in denies the handling a five-star rating. And the ride – at least on the test car’s winter tires-- is at the firm end of the family-car spectrum.

So how about that fuel economy?

On the fuel-economy front, my test car had several strikes against it: bitterly cold mid-February weather; lots of cold-start, short-trip suburban driving; and only 252 km of engine break-in on its odometer at the start of my test. So in the circumstances, 9.8 L/100 km seemed pretty impressive.

For the record, the last Mazda6 I tested enjoyed lots of highway driving in summer weather and returned 7.0 L/100 km – and that was before i-ELOOP became available.

Unfortunately i-ELOOP seems more an expensive engineering curiosity than a core fuel-saving technology. You can only get it on the top-rung GT automatic ($32,295) and even then it’s an extra-cost option bundled into the Technology Package ($2,800) along with Sirius XM radio and a suite of drive-assist technologies such as adaptive cruise control.

If you wanted your Mazda6 fully loaded anyway, consider i-ELOOP as a free bonus. But there’s no way it could “pay for itself” if your only reason for splurging on a loaded GT is to get i-ELOOP.

On the other hand, even without i-ELOOP the Mazda6 is a stylish and relatively exclusive mid-size sedan that offers a segment-leading blend of four-cylinder acceleration and fuel economy. And what it lacks in roominess and refinement it makes up in driver engagement. Starting at under $25K, it’s worth a loo

SPECIFICATIONS:

Model: 2016 Mazda6 GT

Price:  $24,495 base; $35,095 as tested

Type of vehicle: FWD midsize sedan

Engine: 2.5-litre, 16V, DOHC, Direct-injection I-4

Power/Torque:  184 horsepower/185 lb-ft

Transmission:  Six-speed automatic

Acceleration: (0-100 km/h):  8.3 seconds

Natural Resources Canada fuel consumption (city/hwy): 8.5/5.9 L/100 km

Competitors:  Chrysler 200, Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima, Nissan Altima, Subaru Legacy, Toyota Camry, Volkswagen Passat.

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