With the sun beating down on Pelon's, an old, limestone-faced Tex-Mex restaurant on Red River Street in Austin, Texas, it seems entirely reasonable to drive this 2014 Mazda 6 to Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Two days later in Mt. Vernon, Illinois, it doesn't seem like a very smart thing to have done in early February, as we awake to the ominous sound of crunching footsteps outside our motel window, an indicator of a fresh snowfall.
Nevertheless, it was the right thing to do. Why keep driving mid-size sedans around town as if we were nothing more than taxi drivers? Instead, let's take this 2014 Mazda 6 on the road.
Making a Style Statement in Texas
So there we are, the tires singing in the dark of east Texas after departing late in the afternoon from Austin, where the 2014 Mazda 6 had made its debut on the highways of America. When we told the Mazda people that we were headed to Michigan, they just shook their heads in disbelief and handed us the keys.
Compared with the other cars in its class of mid-size sedans, the 2014 Mazda 6 looks unexpectedly great thanks to a new styling vocabulary that comes from the Shinari concept car introduced at the 2010 Paris auto show. Riding along the interstate, the Mazda 6 feels sound and stable in that familiar way, yet now it's also supple. This comes from a more rigid chassis with lots of high-strength steel, a long 111.4-inch wheelbase that promotes stability, and a change in the rear suspension geometry to reduce impact harshness.
Unfortunately the tires really are singing, as the tread pattern of these 225/45WR-19 Dunlop SP Sport 5000s reacts badly with the Texas concrete. Just like the previous-generation Mazda 6, this new car seems to transmit more road noise than it should.
As we check into a place to stay for the night, the clerk asks what has brought us to Mt. Pleasant, Texas. "The waters," we reply, as we always do wherever we go. She notes that this part of east Texas is mostly farms. We admit that we have been misinformed.
Breakfast of Champions
No, not the racer's breakfast of coffee and a cigarette, but instead a trip to the drive-through lane at McDonald's for the American version of Eggs Benedict – the Egg McMuffin. In the process, we unexpectedly learn all about the Mazda 6's six-speed automatic transmission.
This is a high-efficiency automatic, not a dual-clutch automated manual. It has a torque converter, which is why the Mazda 6 can creep through the McDonald's drive-thru without unexpectedly surging forward, which is what usually happens with a dual-clutch design, as the internal clutches tend to engage unpredictably. The Mazda automatic's own internal clutches still engage sooner than is customary, though, and the result is improved mechanical efficiency without the shudder you might expect. So you have creep capability with high efficiency, the best of both worlds. Mazda also claims its automatic is more fuel-efficient than either a dual-clutch design or a CVT.
We also like the way the Mazda 6's automatic works as you accelerate down the freeway on-ramp with a cup of coffee in your hand. The shifts are accomplished not only quicker but also smoother, so you can hustle into the merge lane at an appropriate speed without having to fool with the shift lever. This means fewer big-rig trucks trying to run you down with 50,000 pounds of frozen chicken as you blend into traffic.
Motoring in the Horse Latitudes
As the sun comes up over Arkansas, we see flights of geese overhead and ducks in the flooded rice fields between the woodlands. Now that the road surface is asphalt, the Mazda 6's tires are much quieter.
This 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine gives you 184 hp and 185 lb-ft of torque, enough to move comfortably with the crowd, which hardly ever exceeds 70 mph out here in real America. Thanks to the latest, high-tech direct fuel injection, plus better combustion, plus a clever way to eliminate the mechanical losses of powering an alternator, plus improved transmission efficiency, plus a lighter car overall, plus a million other little engineering victories by Mazda R&D, the 2014 Mazda 6's trip computer keeps telling us that we're averaging 33 mpg.
Of course, we've all driven cars with transmission calibrations that drastically suppress engine performance to get good mpg. When you're driving such a car, you can find yourself strangely becalmed in the nether regions of the engine's power curve, as if you were in the horse latitudes, those regions in the ocean where the trade winds don't blow. During the great age of exploration, sailing ships would drift for weeks in these places until (so the apocryphal explanation goes) the animals began to die of thirst and were pushed overboard. Put down your throttle foot while cruising on the turnpike and some cars will leave you feeling similarly becalmed, as if there were a couple of dead horses in the trunk.
But the Mazda 6 feels lively and responsive, and here again it's the automatic transmission that has come to the rescue. First, there's less slip from the torque converter, so the throttle produces quicker response. Second, the control module has been programmed to deliver quicker kickdowns into a shorter gear, so you don't feel like the transmission is always taking a vote about the next gear ratio. And when you use the shift lever, you get rev-matched downshifts for quicker ratio changes.
By the end of the day, we have pushed up through southeast Missouri to Cape Girardeau, an old steamboat port on the Mississippi River. Grand homes from the 1890s still stand on the bluff above the downtown district along the river. We cross over to Illinois on a spectacular cable-tie bridge, and then the TomTom navigation system helps us find our way on back roads in the dark to the interstate. This affordable, no-frills navi displays a fairly sketchy landscape in map mode, yet it's extremely good when you ask it to give turn-by-turn directions. It never fails us.
Snow and the Safety Net
It's the crunching outside the motel window that tips us off about the snow as we awake in Mt Vernon, Illinois. Fortunately the accumulation has been relatively light, so the tire tracks through the white stuff on the Interstate are getting wider and drier as we push on. And why not, since we have a car that features an array of safety-related electronic features with acronyms that cover nearly every letter in the alphabet?
In this particular Mazda 6 Grand Touring car, there are six airbags, whiplash-reducing seat headrests, anti-lock brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution, brake assist, traction control, stability control, blind-spot warning, cross-traffic alert, radar-controlled cruise control, lane-departure warning, automated city braking, forward obstruction warning, and high-beam warning. It's encouraging to find such a comprehensive safety net in what is meant to be a car of average cost.
And yet sometimes, when the plows, scrapers, and salt trucks are out and there's just a narrow two-track path across the snowy, wind-blown crests on the highway, you have to get in the car and drive. As the snow begins to fall with serious intent in Indianapolis, we're glad to be in a sport sedan instead of a glorified taxi. When you're on the verge of slipping and sliding, you need a driver's car to stay out of trouble, and we always feel like we've got a handle on the Mazda 6.
In the 6, Mazda has turned electric-assist steering to its advantage. The front suspension incorporates more steering castor and trail than even the Mazda RX-8 sports car, so it delivers a sure, heavy feel of stability. Even so, the electric assist keeps the effort level manageable in parking lots.
As a result, we're not daunted when we drive in the increasingly faint traces of pavement left behind by the big rig trucks with which we share the road. We make it to our overnight stop on a farm in the woods outside Jackson, Michigan.
Another Day at the Office
When the 2014 Mazda 6 comes to rest in front of the Ann Arbor office on Highland Drive, it looks like it has endured no more than just another snowy morning in paradise -- one in which the temperature reading is 21 degrees F instead of the 73 degrees F that we had in Austin.
The odometer has recorded 1419.7 miles since leaving Austin, and we've consumed 42.9 gallons of gas at a total price of $144.63 to get here. That's 32.9 mpg. We filled up once per day with regular-grade gasoline, and each time the trip meter gave us a distance to empty of more than 500 miles, so there's definitely no range anxiety.
We learned that the Mazda 6's good looks never get tiresome, and neither does its dynamic personality. We learned that the interior is still a black hole of visual interest despite the redesign. And we learned that as you pass a big rig in the fast lane, the radar sensor for the cruise control always gets confused by the towering flanks of the truck and abruptly slows the car.
We've also learned that the 2014 Mazda 6 is still a sport sedan at heart. At the same time, we've found that a sport sedan can manage a long-distance trek on the interstate without compromising comfort. Better yet, when weather is a factor -- as it always is out there in America -- a sports sedan can be exactly the car you want.