2014 Mazda6

Strong Contender For Hottest Mid-Size Sedan
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Timing can be everything: If Mazda had the all new 2014 Mazda6 ready for U.S. introduction even a couple of months earlier, as a 2013 model, it would have had to compete with four other excellent all-new mid-sizers - Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord and Nissan Altima - for media and public attention, and for the coveted North American Car of the Year. Fast forward a few months, the dust has settled and now we see the emergence of the 2014 Mazda6 into this highly competitive market segment. How does the Mazda6 stack up against other mid-size entries.

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2014 Mazda6 Debut

Arriving in early 2013, the all-new 2014 Mazda6 will probably be the only all-new mid-sizer this model year. The downside is that it still has to compete with that formidable quartet, as well as the new-for-2012 Toyota Camry and Volkswagen Passat and the still-popular Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima.

The 2014 Mazda6 is a four-door beauty that has turned out to be well worth the wait. Mazda calls it, "the latest - and sexiest - beauty to emerge from the brand's KODO [soul of motion] design-inspired lineup." And when you look beneath its lovely skin, you see a lively but fuel-efficient SKYACTIV-G 2.5-liter 4-cylinder gas engine and Mazda's industry-first i-ELOOP ("Intelligent Energy Loop") capacitor-based brake energy regeneration system. By midyear it will also add a rare (for North America) SKYACTIV-D diesel engine option. Due to ultra-tough U.S. emissions standards that typically require very expensive after-treatment systems, only Volkswagen's Passat so far offers a diesel-powered mid-size sedan here.

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Design

Mazda says the 2014 Mazda6 was "strongly influenced by the TAKERI Concept," a beautiful four-door concept car introduced at the April, 2012 New York Auto Show. We say this new Mazda6 essentially IS the 2012 TAKERI concept, save for a few showy details. That 2012 concept sedan even debuted the production 2014 Mazda6's i-ELOOP system and SKYACTIV-D diesel engine. And if this is what Mazda's KODO design is about, we want to see more of it.

Atypical for a family sedan, the Mazda6's curvaceous body exudes character, both playful and powerful, with its elongated cab-rearward stance, muscular fenders and sweeping character lines emanating from its five-point "signature wing" grille. The lower front fascia evokes a strong chin with eyelids over the (available) deep-set fog lights. The top-level Mazda6 Grand Touring model's 0.26 coefficient of drag is sleekest among mid-size sedans.

The 2014 Mazda6 has a driver-oriented cabin, loaded with intuitive and well-placed controls, including your choice of voice, touch screen, button or knob control of oft-used functions. Soft-touch surfaces and warm textures provide a quality look and feel, and the instrument cluster's meter lighting makes the gauges readably clear in bright daylight while minimizing eye strain at night. The comfortably-small, racing-inspired, leather-wrapped, three-spoke steering wheel has a tilt-and-telescopic adjustable column and offers handy audio and cruise controls.

There's ample room inside the 2014 Mazda6 with 38.4 inches of headroom (one inch less with a moon roof) in front and 37.1 inches in back. Legroom is also good at 42.2 inches front and 38.7 inches rear. The sport-bolstered front buckets are comfortable and supportive, and the driver's seat is power-adjustable in all but base Sport models, which get six-way manual adjustment.

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Mazda SKYACTIV Technology

Compared to its larger competitors, Mazda is taking a very different approach to meeting government and customer demands for fast-increasing fuel efficiency. Instead of betting billions on hybrids and electric cars, it is pursuing a comprehensive effort to increase the efficiency of every element of every vehicle - bodies and chassis as well as engines and transmissions -- under the name "SKYACTIV" (which Mazda says means "sky is the limit").

"Our goal is to improve fuel economy globally by 30 percent," says Mazda Motor Corp. Product Planning executive officer Kiyoshi Fujiwara. Yet, he adds, "SKYACTIV will retain our 'Zoom-Zoom' brand character." The Mazda3 compact cars got SKYACTIV powertrains in carry-over bodies and chassis for 2012, while the all-new 2013 CX-5 CUV and this 2014 Mazda6 sedan boast the full SKYACTIV treatment.

That means all-new engines, transmissions and drivetrains and aluminum-intensive body and chassis designs with every component thoroughly "lightweighted" as well as strengthened. The Mazda6's SKYACTIV-G 2.5L gasoline four, with its racer-high 13:1 compression ratio, delivers 184 horsepower and 185 lb-ft of torque; eight-percent more power and 11-percent more torque than the same-size engine it replaces.

Yet, paired with the new Mazda SKYACTIV-MT 6-speed manual transmission, it's EPA rated at 25 mpg city, 37 highway and 29 combined. With the SKYACTIV-Drive 6-speed automatic (standard on Touring and Grand Touring models), it's good for a segment-best 26/38/30; 24-percent better EPA city and 27-percent better highway economy than the 2013 Mazda6.

The soon-to-come new Mazda SKYACTIV-D 2.2L clean turbodiesel four will offer even better fuel efficiency along with much higher torque for quick acceleration. With its ultra-low (for a diesel) compression ratio of 14:1, Mazda says it will burn so cleanly that it will not need the expensive nitrous oxides after-treatments typically needed to meet U.S. emissions standards.

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Key Features

The 2014 Mazda6 offers all-new infotainment and connectivity options, including a 5.8-inch touch screen for phone, audio and available navigation functions and Bluetooth phone and audio (including iPod) connectivity. A six-speaker sound system is standard in Sport and Touring models, while the Grand Touring boasts 11-speaker Bose Centerpoint Surround Sound with AudioPilot. New audio options include HD Radio and Pandora.

A new safety system called Smart City Brake Support (SCBS) is designed to help prevent front collisions at speeds of less than 20 miles per hour. It uses an imbedded laser sensor to detect potential collisions and reduce brake rotor travel to quicken braking. Then, if the driver fails to react, it will activate an automatic braking function. The efficiency enhancing i-ELOOP brake energy regeneration system recaptures energy normally wasted during braking and stores it in a capacitor that can power all the car's electrical systems.

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Bottom Line

Mazda Product Planning Director Tim Barnes says the 2014 Mazda6 targets buyers who love cars and driving and value styling and performance. He might have added fuel efficiency, given its segment-leading EPA economy.

Still, we found the Mazda6 SKYACTIV's four-cylinder engine (there's no V6 option) acceptably strong, especially in mid-range torque, and its dynamics (ride, handling, steering, braking) Mazda-typical excellent. Our only significant criticisms were its smallish (relative to competitors) infotainment touch screen and some off-putting quirks of its available (Tom-Tom-based) navigation system.

With prices starting around $21,000, this fine-looking, fun-to-drive 2014 Mazda6 is well worth a look and an extended test drive. After spending some time with the 2014 Mazda6 we have determined it has all the right ingredients to compete with the quartet of strong 2013 entries in the crowded mid-size segment. Time will tell how well the buying public receives the 2014 Mazda6.

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