The long-term Mazda6 has also long since left my driveway. Looking back on my notes from the time it was in my charge, however, I see all remarks are dominated by one highlighted section at the top: "worst winter drive of all time." I hardly need the reminder, to be honest. Here's what happened.
When the Mazda showed up at my door, we'd already fitted the thing with its new winter rubber: Bridgestone Blizzaks. Plunking down for dedicated snow tires was a near necessity this year – as it almost always is in Michigan. We didn't see much reprieve from snow-choked, iced over roads here in Ann Arbor, and the knobbier rubber proved invaluable in getting me out of my house time and again.
Obviously front-wheel-drive cars throng the Snowbelt for their usefulness in low-grip scenarios, but good tires give an added advantage in all situations. I live at the bottom of a fairly sizable hill, on a tertiary neighborhood street that is near last in line to see the plow's blade after a snowfall. Plenty of my neighbors fell victim to the combination of said hill and all-season tires on their front-drive Focus and Civic daily drivers, while our loaner Mazda6 pulled like a draft horse up and out of the drifting accumulation.
Our loaner Mazda6 pulled like a draft horse up and out of the drifting accumulation.
It's hard to say what affect the sturdier rubber had on dry roads, for a few reasons. One, I barely saw an un-iced piece of pavement in the time I drove the Six. Two, the last time I'd driven this model on summer rubber, I'd been on the smooth roads and grippy, hot asphalt of the Texas Hill Country. Let me say this, on long, dry stretches of highway driving, I didn't notice much more in the way of tire noise or ride compromise than I'd remembered from that first go. Suffice it to say that I didn't push the Mazda hard on a dynamically challenging road during my weeks with it.
What I did do, was cover a piece of highway along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan – roughly 20 miles of it – during the single worst hour of night blizzard I've ever driven in.
Anyone who knows anything about Lake Effect Snow can take one look at this route map and know I set myself up for some trouble. It was the last week in January, and I was in Saugatuck, MI for a wedding. (No, a wedding on the Michigan coast in January is not typical, but the couple in question is as intrepid as the weather. Congrats again, Jake and Bernadette). My wife and I shot westward across the state with no more issue than some blowing snow in the early evening, to meet the wedding party for a late dinner, before heading 20 miles north to West Olive, MI to stay with my folks. By the time we left dinner, close to midnight, it was pitch black, the wind was strong enough to push a child or an old man to the ground and the Six had amassed an easy six inches of snow over its sleek body.
The wind was strong enough to push a child or an old man to the ground and the Six had amassed an easy six inches of snow over its sleek body.
The roads in downtown Saugatuck were choked. A smart man (or my wife, Molly), would have skipped the 'short' drive north and checked into the B&B two blocks down one night early. A stubborn man would insist things like "it won't be so bad off the lakeshore, on the highway," and "don't worry, I grew up driving in this stuff."
I used every scintilla of grip available from those lauded tires just to get to US 31 North, to find, rather quickly, that things were not at all better off the lakeshore and on the highway. Nothing was plowed. The strong winds whipped drifts across the median, with snow standing perhaps 18-inches deep in patches on the highway itself. There were a few weaving tracks in the snow to point the Mazda towards, but as many of them followed unlucky cars and trucks off the edges of the pavement as followed the true path of the highway. I couldn't see anything, or feel what the front of the car was doing; both to such a degree that I came with in a hair's breadth, multiple times, of getting sucked into the abyss myself.
I used every scintilla of grip available from those lauded tires.
Eventually, thanks to a poised winter vehicle and, I'm sure, no small amount of luck, we rolled into my Dad's driveway. The wheels and wheel wells were absolutely packed with snow (it took a run through the only open carwash I could find to fully free them), but car and passengers were otherwise completely intact.
Safe from the blizzard driving, I was slightly disappointed with my observed fuel economy over the 800-plus miles I logged with the car. I average a pretty poor 25.5 miles per gallon, though the conditions I drove in make that number understandable. The long-trip detailed above was made with more halting pace (thanks to the weather) than you'd normally see on a highway cruise, and the rest of my driving happened in the fuel-economy-unfriendly confines of my suburban crawl. Still, the winter rubber may have had a small effect here, as well.
I'm going to be smart enough to not drive through a hellish winter storm next time, I promise. But if I do get caught out I could do far worse than having Mazda's sure-front-footed Six under me at the time.
If you haven't already, catch up with the rest of our long-term 2014 Mazda6 updates, here.