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Review

2014 Mazda 6: Fun, if to a fault

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Explaining why the new Mazda 6 should attract notice in the fiercely contested mid-size sedan segment, Mazda design director Derek Jenkins believes the eyes have it.

The sedan’s headlamps were relieved and contoured by Jenkins’ team to impart an eye-like visage that is more engaging than the common practice of rendering them smooth and flush-mounted.

Any bit of differentiation helps. Sales of mid-size sedans in North America are bellwethers of company health.  The 6 earned compliments from the valet at the exclusive Soho Grand hotel in Manhattan during the New York auto show press days. These guys know their cars, and latched onto the Mazda as a new favourite.

They chose well, because Mazda builds cars for driving enthusiasts.  From the tiny Mazda 2 hatchback to the hulking CX-9 three-row crossover, Mazda infuses  its vehicles with the responsiveness and fun that remind car obsessives how they became that way. The Mazda 6 is the kind of mid-size family sedan that Porsche would build, were its business sub-$30,000 family sedans.

That is because Mazda’s engineers attend to the details others overlook. The steering really does communicate what is happening at the tire’s contact patch with the road. Turn in to a corner and the car gamely follows the set trajectory, rather than rolling about on its chassis as it aims for somewhere in the same zip code, as is the case with competitors like the Toyota Camry and Nissan Altlma. "We make the car behave exactly as drivers intend," said 6 programme manager Hiroshi Kajiyama.

Drivers specifying a six-speed manual transmission get a shifter that slides deftly through the gears, while the clutch pedal conveys precise information about its take-up on launch. The Honda Accord notwithstanding, there is little about most competitors’ manual shifters that tempts the driver to practise clutchless gear changes, but the 6 welcomes these impulses.

The automatic transmission operates invisibly, knowing  which gear to be in by instinct. Throttle response betrays none of the sluggishness and heaviness of a Subaru or frustrating delay of recent Hondas.

All 6’s in North America receive the 2.5-litre SkyActiv-G gasoline engine, which delivers impressive low-rpm torque while revving willingly. Die-hard V6  drivers will notice that the four cylinder is not quite as silky as they are accustomed to, but the fuel-economy benefits are a good palliative. Rated at a healthy 184 horsepower and 185 pound-feet of torque, the SkyActiv-G engine scores 26mpg city and a laudable 38mpg highway rating on the EPA's tests for the six-speed automatic transmission, with one mpg lower economy for the more involving six-speed manual. And unlike competing sedans whose purchasers have struggled to replicate their advertised fuel economy, the 6 backs up the big talk. It averaged 34.5mpg during a Washington DC to New York round-trip that saw the car travel 500 miles without a refill.

Along with distinctive styling and fine driving dynamics, Mazda expects its slate of technological advances to help the 6 stand apart. SkyActiv is the corporate shorthand for the suite of efficiency-, safety- and performance-boosting technologies that aim to make Mazda's cars at once more fuel-frugal and engaging.

While computer-aided engineering has driven a convergence of solutions that make cars more alike than ever under the skin, Mazda – ever the contrarian – is making its cars even more different. The company will build diesel engines, destined for US models in the second half of 2013, on the same Hofu, Japan, production line, which improves the economic case for these fuel-sipping power plants in a market that is still sceptical about diesel’s benefits.  In a market where only Volkswagen acknowledges demand for a sub-$30,000 mid-size diesel sedan, Mazda has much room to grow.

The 6's interior has become more cleanly arrayed and proportioned, with a matte-finish, one-piece, soft-touch dash  that is a welcome contrast to the hard, shiny plastic and cluttered appearances that have afflicted other Mazdas. "We are keeping things calm, simple and easy-to-read," explained Jenkins.  Clean white backlighting is now the rule rather than the previous garish orange, providing a similarly simplified nighttime appearance for the cockpit.

Here's a cool detail: the Bose audio system now supports surround sound from mobile devices rather than only from CDs. And an uncool detail: the TomTom navigation system is so impenetrable that Mazda is shipping a Little Orphan Annie Decoder Ring with each one. In2013, such systems should at least be accurate, if not easy to use or pretty, but this unit ticks none of those boxes.

The seats in the tested Grand Touring 6 are wrapped in noticeably softer, more supple leather than Mazda used in the past, and even in the base model, the fabric seats feel richer than they ought to, and fit better, too, thanks to a standard manual lumbar adjuster. With its slick six-speed manual transmission and smooth clutch action, the $21,675 Mazda 6 Sport is a base car shoppers can buy and love, without feeling like they have settled for an inferior product.

Some companies  approach product development with the expectation that customers will not really discern the difference between “good enough” and “right.” Mazda sweats details, and gets most of them right. For anyone who has ever owned a sports car, but who now pores over installation manuals for Graco infant car seats, the Mazda 6 is a very smart choice.

Vital Stats: 2014 Mazda6 Sport

  • Base price: $21,675, inclusive of $795 destination charge
  • Drivetrain: 184hp, 2.5-litre in-line four-cylinder engine with direct fuel injection; 6-speed manual transmission; 6-speed automatic optional
  • EPA fuel economy: 25mpg city/37mpg highway (manual trans.); 26mpg/38mpg (automatic)
  • Standard equipment: 17-inch aluminium wheels, leather-wrapped, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, six-way manual adjustable seats with driver’s lumbar adjustment
Mazda sweats details, and gets most of them right.

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