Just when we thought the mid-size sedan segment was full to the brim with terrific new offerings, in drives Mazda's Mazda6, the redundantly named but altogether very likable new offering from Hiroshima. Just one look at the sleek sedan confirms that this is one mid-size car that is quite willing to break from the "appliance-car" mode, and its handling is equally sweet. Some might decry the absence of V6-fueled horsepower, but we take solace in the fact that Mazda will soon (mid-to-late 2013) introduce a turbo-diesel-powered version of the car. For now though, the 2.5-liter, 184 horsepower SKYACTIV-G engine is a willing enough performer, and it will suffice until the diesel, which presumably will have significantly more low-end torque, arrives.

Radical compression ratio

Overall, "willing performer" is an apt description of the Mazda6. The absence of a V6-equipped version leaves a power vacuum at the top end of the range, but the sweet spot in the mid-size segment continues to be models powered by four-cylinder engines, and there the Mazda6 can hold its head up in any company. By going to great lengths to endow the SKYACTIV-G engine with an almost diesel-like 13:1 compression ratio, Mazda engineers have been able to wring eight percent more horsepower and nearly 11 percent more torque compared to the MZR 2.5-liter gasoline-fired engine that graced previous Mazda products. Fuel economy is up at the same time, and by significant margins overall, a feat that starts with the engine but is enhanced by every piece of the model, virtually all of which is utterly new.

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For example, the engineering staff started from the ground up in designing both the SKYACTIV-MT six-speed manual and the SKYACTIV-Drive six-speed automatic transmissions. Though much of the engineering was undertaken in the pursuit of higher fuel economy - something all manufacturers must be keenly aware of as we move into the future - it didn't come at the expense of Mazda's "Zoom-Zoom" persona, as the use of a continuously variable transmission (CVT) surely would have. Instead the new Mazda automatic uses aspects of both torque-converter and dual-clutch transmissions, and the mash-up offers both excellent low-speed feel and admirably quick shifts.

Mazda goes it alone

Mazda's Ruben Archilla made it clear in the press conference introducing the car that nothing in the Mazda6 is shared with other car companies, following Mazda's divorce from Ford Motor Company after two decades of engineering cooperation. Even more to the point, almost nothing is shared with the previous Mazda6 either. Seeking its future as a single car company in a world filled with joint ventures and shared tech among global giants, Mazda chose to change very radically the way it develops automobiles. In the face of difficult-to-meet standards on safety and fuel economy, some of which conflict, its executives decided that it would have to give each of its vehicles a total transformation. Body, chassis, interior accommodations, engines, transmissions - all were the subject of massive makeovers that involved a significant amount of innovation. One example is the unusually high compression ratio of the gasoline engine; another is a technology Mazda refers to as i-Eloop, a system that gathers energy that would otherwise be lost while the Mazda6 is coasting. Using this system, the Mazda6 captures energy in a capacitor, not an expensive and slower-to-charge battery, and it uses the energy to power ancillary equipment.

The fuel-economy results speak for themselves. Equipped with the manual transmission, the 2014 Mazda6 offers an EPA-estimated fuel economy rating of 25 city/37 highway/29 combined miles per gallon. That's a 19-percent mpg increase in the city and a 23-percent mpg increase on the highway versus the previous-edition Mazda6 in similar trim. With the all-new automatic transmission, the improvement is even greater: up nearly 24 percent to 26 mpg in the city and by nearly 27 percent to a segment-best 38 mpg on the highway.

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By designing the body, engine and transmissions at the same time, Mazda engineers were able to tailor the body and chassis to match the other components, resulting in a lighter yet stiffer body, which offers more precise handling. At the same time, suspension mounting points were optimized, a higher caster angle specified and a very quick 15.5:1 steering ratio instituted, aided by the engineers' knowledge that fully electric power steering would be the norm across the Mazda6 range. Happily, there is more to this radical approach to vehicle engineering than simply an entertaining press conference. On the road the Mazda6 offers handling that is among the best in its class.
Design with animal magnetism

As pretty as its handling is, however, we have to believe that its pretty face and voluptuous curves will be what capture the immediate attention of midsize car-buyers. Auto critics were immediately taken by the great looks of the Takeri concept vehicle that followed in the footsteps of the Shinari, ushering in Mazda's current Kodo "soul of motion" design theme. The good news is that the new Mazda6 is a faithful translation of the Takeri into a production vehicle, retaining important elements like the long hood, rearward-set windshield and bulging haunches over the rear wheels. The Mazda6 also retains the Takeri's bold front end with its sweeping "wing" and finely sculptured lower valance. From both front and rear the emphasis is on width, which gives Mazda's mid-size sedan the look of a more expensive car.

According to chief designer Derek Jenkins, width is also a key theme in the interior. The dash makes a broad sweep from the driver's to the passenger's side, but the aspect before the passenger is almost entirely uncluttered, while the driver grips a smaller-diameter steering wheel surrounded by a dense cluster of instruments, gauges and knobs. In the Mazda6 there is no doubt that the driver is in control. Jenkins says his team's emphasis was on simplicity and integrity, stressing finishes that look and feel authentic. (Okay, some of the "metal" trim isn't really metal, but it looks enough like metal to fool most of us.) We think the interior is among the most upscale in the segment.

So as we said at the beginning, the mid-size category is full of terrific new cars, and the Mazda6 deserves to be added to that list. We are impressed by the revolutionary thinking that is the SKYACTIV concept and the pervasive manner in which it has manifested itself in this car. Coming on the heels of the very successful CX-5 compact crossover vehicle and in the wake of Mazda's triumph in our 5-Year Cost to Own Awards, the Mazda6 is primed and ready for its own success. We have to admit we have a secret hankering to drive the turbo-diesel-equipped version, but those seeking sporty performance in a no-compromises four-door sedan will find an eager partner in the 2014 Mazda6.


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