AUSTIN, TX - I have always had a soft spot for the underdog. Compared to giants like Toyota, General Motors, Honda and its old-owner Ford, Mazda may be a pipsqueak, but it is also a David willing to take on these goliaths, with considerable success.
Mazda developed the world’s best-selling sports car, the MX-5, nee Miata. It produced a diminutive Miller-Cycle supercharged V-6 engine for the Millennia.
It is the only company to have pursued and successfully developed the rotary engine (RX-7/8). And most recently, the little Hiroshima-based band of engineers has thrown out conventional wisdom and redefined the internal combustion engine.
As the company’s new flagship, the 2014 Mazda6 has the full suite of Mazda’s innovative SkyActiv technologies, showcased in a brand new and stylish body.
And it's, equipped and priced to go head-to-head with the biggest names in the business Accord, Altima, Camry, Fusion, Malibu and more than a dozen others, all scrapping it out for a piece of the lucrative mid-size family car market, which is the second-best-selling passenger-car segment in the country.
In case you have been on an extended vacation away from news outlets, or in a coma, and have somehow escaped hearing about it, SkyActiv it is essentially a tag line much like Zoom-Zoom.
It encompasses both a new approach and a suite of technologies that collectively define a new approach to fuel-efficiency.
When Ford sold off its shares in Mazda, beginning in 2008, to raise some cash necessary to avoid bankruptcy, it left the little Japanese company without the seemingly endless resources that were so useful when developing new ideas and vehicles.
On its own, Mazda doesn't have the deep pockets necessary to experiment with things like hybrids and electric vehicles both of which have proven to be major financial drains on those companies that have done so.
Not only are they expensive to develop, they don't sell well to the extent that some companies are losing money on every one they build.
So the Mazda brain trust decided to look at what it could do within the framework of existing technologies. The very base of this plan was to look closely at areas where conventional wisdom said nothing more was to be gained.
Take engines for example others said you can’t raise compression without causing detonation and necessitating the use of premium fuel. The new SkyActiv Mazda four-cylinder engine has a sky-high 13:1 compression ratio and runs on regular fuel (14:1 in Europe where better fuel is available).
Conversely, diesel engines depend on high compression ratios (15 19:1) to squeeze the fuel to the point where it self-ignites. These tremendous pressures typically require a super-sturdy and thus very heavy cast-iron block.
Mazda has developed a SkyActiv diesel engine with the lowest compression ratio in the industry and an aluminum block. It revs like no other diesel thanks to light-weight internals.
I’ve driven several examples and it is a gem. Demand for the diesel in Japan and Europe is so strong the factory can’t build enough ion three shifts to keep up, so we won’t see it in North America until production can be further increased later this year.
Conventional automatic transmissions include a something called a torque converter which essentially provides enough slippage to let an engine run when it is connected to the drive wheels and the vehicle is stopped.
Other companies have addressed this inefficiency by spending development money on Continuously Variable or dual-shaft/dual-clutch transmissions. As one Mazda engineer told me, CVT s are a soul-sucking experience completely at odds with any semblance of driving enjoyment.
Mazda also knew that dual-clutch transmissions, while very efficient, were also hard to program for smooth operation at low speeds, as in parking lots, or when trying to start off smoothly on a slope.
So they turned to the conventional transmission and developed a way to lock up that slipping torque converter once the vehicle reached 10 km.hr or so and leave it locked up through every gear and at all times until the vehicle came to a rest.
At the same time, they tackled the manual transmission as well moving parts around to allow smoother shifts that required less effort.
The little MX-5 sports car is widely acknowledged as having one of the slickest manual gearboxes in the industry. Now the bigger Mazdas do as well.
Mazda is so proud of the new manual transmissions it offers both on the new 2014 Mazda6 at the same price. There is no premium for the automatic!
The new mid-size Mazda6 gets hybrid-level fuel economy on regular fuel with either transmission.
Chassis and platform
SkyActiv thinking was also applied to a new chassis and platform first found beneath the 2013 CX-5 CUV. Light yet exceptionally strong, it was designed from the outset for application for a variety of cars and CUVs.
Stretched to suit the new Mazda6 it will also serve as the basis for an upcoming new CX-9.
The suspension system has also come in for extensive development work to ensure the Mazda6 retains the fun-to-drive dynamics that separate Mazdas from the pack without sacrificing comfort. Seventeen inch rubber is standard on base models and 19-inch alloys as you move up.
Kodo design language
The 2014 Mazda6 shows the company’s new Kodo design language. The distinctive grille is more upright and there is a pronounced lip or, as racers call it, a splitter, down low. The head and taillights use LED technologies.
The interior of the new Mazda6 is replete with plenty of soft-touch surfaces and attention to detail.
There is nothing flashy or innovative about the instrument panel or controls. But everything is highly visible, where you expect it to be, and operates with precision.
The supportive front seats offer lots of elbow, head- and leg-room. The rear seating area is larger than in the outgoing Mazda6 but the swoopy shape means you have to duck to get in or out.
The trunk is spacious but access somewhat restricted by a very small opening another nod to the design department.
Aggressively priced and equipped
Mazda has priced and equipped the new Mazda6 aggressively. The most technologically advanced car Mazda has ever made, it comes in three trim levels; GX ($25,695); GS ($28,395); and GT ($32,195).
They spann the same range as the competition but offer more standard features at each rung of the trim ladder.
Standard equipment on all includes heated seats, 17-inch alloy wheels, power windows, locks and mirrors, remote keyless entry, air conditioning, cruise control, tilt & telescope steering wheel, push button start, Bluetooth wireless connectivity and automatic headlights.
The GS trim level, expected to be the volume seller, adds "Smart" keyless entry, a moon-roof, automatic climate control, a blind spot monitoring system with cross-traffic alert and a back-up camera.
The GT comes with 19-inch alloy wheels, leather seats, a custom 11-speaker Bose audio system and HID headlights.
To top things off Mazda is offering a technology package on the GT. At $34,195 this car gets all of the above plus Smart City Braking (prevents bumping into vehicle in front), radar-based active cruise control, front obstruction warning, automatic high beams, lane departure warning and satellite radio.
On the road
On the road the 2014 Mazda6 does indeed retain the sprightliness expected of the brand. The SkyActiv engine is silky smooth and quiet. Throttle response is immediate and there is ample power to tackle most situations.
The diesel produces 10 fewer horsepower but a whopping 310 lb-ft of torque! Can’t wait for that one!
I tried both transmissions and while the manual is a delight with short, crisp throws and well-defined gates, the automatic with paddle shifters on the back of the steering wheel allows the driver to keep the engine in its sweet range when having fun. It's not necessary to move the shift lever into a special position the paddles work at all times.
The ride is pleasantly firm but in no way harsh. Steering response and feedback are excellent and there is very little body roll in the corners. The Mazda6 is clearly the best-handling car in the segment, in my opinion.
With virtually no content carried over from the outgoing model, the 2014 Mazda6 serves notice that this scrappy little company is armed for a fight.