Competing against sales giants like the Toyota Camry, the Honda Accord, and the Nissan Altima, the Mazda 6 has long been overshadowed in the midsize sedan market. Although a competent contender, Mazda's entry has been hampered by a generic name, anonymous styling, and mediocre fuel economy. The name hasn't changed, but the all-new 2014 Mazda6 does have a new look, improved fuel economy, and a more engaging driving experience, which should help it emerge from the shadows.
The Japanese, it seems, cannot restyle a car without coming up with a name for their effort. At Mazda, the current design language is dubbed Kodo, which means "soul of motion." The Kodo design language first appeared on the CX-5 but is perhaps better realized here. The upright front end has a serious appearance with overtones of the BMW 3-series; the profile, meanwhile, is rakish yet still sedan-like. The Mazda6 achieves more cab-rearward proportions due to its shorter front overhang and longer dash-to-front-axle distance, both enabled by canting the engine back by ten degrees.
It's clear that Mazda engineers paid careful attention to the driver's relationship to his surroundings. Reduced wheel well intrusion allowed the pedals to been moved slightly to the left; Mazda also switched to a floor-hinged throttle and fitted a large dead pedal. The small-diameter steering wheel has a thick rim wrapped in smooth leather, and the seats are firm, with plenty of lateral support. The deeply hooded trio of gauges and the cockpit-like layout create a sportier, more intimate environment than the midsize sedan norm. The upper dash houses the requisite touch screen, which on higher trim models also can be controlled via a knob on the console that's similar to the one provided by BMW's iDrive system. It's too bad the TomTom navigation system is slow acting and cheap looking. We were, however, happy to see that Mazda stayed with the driver-friendly simplicity of three large dials to control temperature and fan speed, plus volume and tuning knobs for the audio system. The overall interior design is richer than before, with sculpted door panels, padded surfaces, and metal trim. The top-spec model's available two-tone off-white and black leather livens up the cabin; lesser models get leatherette or cloth.
The new exterior and interior are only the most visible changes, but the 2014 Mazda6 also rides on an all-new platform, which is stiffer and lighter. The new car's wheelbase is 1.6 inches longer but its overall length is two inches shorter. Overall width is the same. Predictably, electrically assisted power steering has arrived, but Mazda engineers have done a good job tuning this system. It's quick and precise, if a little wanting for feedback. The ride and handling were a little harder to judge. The car was composed and responsive on the smooth roads in the French countryside, but our drive on the eve of the Paris Motor Show was restricted to European-spec cars, and suspension tuning will be different for the U.S. market. (We'll have a chance to drive U.S.-spec cars in January, right about the time they arrive in dealerships.)
Under the hood, the optional V-6 is gone, and the old 170-hp, 2.5-liter four-cylinder has been replaced by a new, 2.5-liter SkyActiv unit four, a larger version of the 2.0-liter engine in the Mazda 3 and the CX-5. (Look for the 2.5 to find its way into Mazda's popular crossover sometime soon.) Like its smaller sibling, the 2.5-liter features direct injection and dual variable valve timing. It's energetic off the line but midrange punch is a little wanting. Still, its 189 horsepower is enough to send the 3232-lb sedan from 0 to 62 mph in a factory-measured 7.8 seconds.
We also spent some time with the 2.2-liter SkyActiv turbodiesel, which has plenty of midrange punch--thanks to 310 pound-feet of torque that comes on stream at 2000 rpm. Its 173 horsepower is also extremely good for a four-cylinder diesel, and a twin-stage turbocharger helps makes for better-integrated boost and a fairly linear throttle response. So far, the company hasn't said whether this engine will be offered in the U.S. Mazda 6, only that the diesel will be sold here in some car. We drove the diesel with the six-speed manual transmission, a combination that matches the 7.8-second 0-to-62-mph time of the 2.5-liter. The newly designed manual -- which is confirmed for our market -- has shorter throws and slips through the gates with a light touch. It's backed up by an easy-to-use clutch. Too bad few U.S. buyers will take it. Instead, they'll flock to the six-speed automatic, which has shift paddles and performed admirably enough in our short experience with it.
Mazda does not yet have EPA fuel economy ratings for the new 6, but the company is hoping for best-in-class figures. It will be a tall order, however, to top the current class leader, the Nissan Altima, which rings in at 27/38 mpg city/highway. Mazda has a couple of technologies to help in its quest, however. The first is a brake energy regeneration system called i-ELOOP (catchy, huh?). Rather than storing the recaptured energy in a battery, however, it's stored in a capacitor, which is quickly recharged and can power all the electric accessories in the car for brief periods. This means that less engine power is needed to run the alternator.
Another fuel saver is auto stop/start. This system is on both the automatic and manual transmissions -- on the manual it doesn't shut the engine down unless you shift into neutral when you stop, which keeps it from being overly annoying. Restarts aren't quite as smooth as in the new Ford Fusion; drivers who find it bothersome can switch it off. Other new tech features finding their way into the Mazda 6 for the first time are mostly safety-related: lane departure warning, adaptive front lighting, adaptive cruise control with forward collision warning; and in low-speed, city driving conditions (up to 18 mph), Smart City Brake Support can take an unheeded warning one step further by automatically applying the brakes -- similar to Volvo's City Safety system.
The Mazda6's charms are subtly revealed, particularly to the discerning driver. This car isn't likely to blaze a swath through the dense forest of big-name competitors, with their huge built-in base of repeat buyers. But the 2014 version of Mazda's midsize entry has enough style and enough of the brand's Zoom-Zoom chops to significantly raise its profile.
2014 Mazda 6
On sale: January 2013
Base price: $22,000 (estimated)
Engine: 2.5L I-4
Power: 189 hp @ 5700 rpm
Torque: 189 lb-ft @ 3250 rpm
Fuel Economy: N/A