The Mazda 626 has always been a worthy midsize entry, just as durable though less-heralded compared to the Honda Accord, Nissan Altima and Toyota Camry. When it was renovated into the Mazda6, it moved higher on the artistic list and had an edge in sporty handling, but still didn’t match the hot-selling numbers of its competitors. Its last restyling,took the Mazda6 to a much more flowing look, although like the Accord it became large enough to be too large for some midsize buyers.
For 2014, Mazda has introduced another all-new Mazda6, and it appears to connect on all (four) cylinders. It has outdone all previous models in styling and technology, with styling that has a strong resemblance to recent auto show Mazda concept vehicles, and performance from its Skyactiv powertrain technology.
The styling, Mazda officials say, captures the muscular energy of a lion or leopard as it tenses up to pounce, same as the concept car. The tight lines are attractive, none moreso than the contour that arches above the front wheel openings before blending into the flanks.
Its engineering starts with Skyactiv, which allows Mazda to become the first Japanese manufacturer to discard its well-engineered array of engines in favor of entirely revised engine technology, focused on the future as well as current demands.
A recent test-drive of the 2014 model in the later stages of Minnesota winter indicates that the front-wheel-drive Mazda6 has made direct hits on its multiple targets of style, comfort, versatility, performance and technology. Amazingly, if the test vehicle I drove had listed at $30,000, I would have thought it was worth it; instead, it listed for just over $20,000 — a remarkable bargain.
As for sales volume, Mazda is a quick welterweight boxing against a ring-full of heavyweights. Toyota, Honda and Nissan are focused on massive sales, while Mazda seems content to be a niche player, focusing on changing directions more efficiently to be stay after its image of technology, performance, and the now-familiar “zoom-zoom” philosophy of building cars that are fun to drive.
Mazda developed a well-earned reputation for clever, high-tech engine building, including the rotary engine in its RX-8 sports car. Despite its quick, durable and strong-performing 4 and V6 engines, including those used by Ford over the years, Mazda looked at new engine technology against rising gas-mileage and decreased-emission standards and decided to take the lead with a new scheme.
Mazda switched to Skyactiv, the name for its holistic changeover of everything from inside the engine to the transmission. It introduced a constrained version of its new 2.0-liter Skyactiv 4-cylinder in the Mazda3, then used its full capacity in the CX-5 crossover SUV, and now it and a bigger brother power the new Mazda6.
In the Skyactiv 2.0, Mazda reduced the bore from 87.5 to 83.5 mm., and lengthened the stroke so it remains 2.0. Direct injection measuring 2,900 psi of pressure is sprayed through a 6-hole pattern on both intake and combustion strokes, and Miller-cycle valve timing lengthens the duration of the intake valves being open, while a combustion pocket at the top of each piston contains the ignited flame. Electric control of intake valve timing gives faster response, and a 4-into-2-into-1 exhaust gets rid of exhaust gases most efficiently.
Altogether, the engine has 13-to-1 compression ratio but still burns regular fuel, which seems impossible, but is all due to the holistic internal redesign. Another part of it was to also build unique transmissions, with wider ratios on the manual and automatic, both of which are 6-speeds.
Mazda brought out its compact Mazda3 with a partial Skyactiv engine, and it was able to get 40 miles per gallon on the highway in some tests, including mine, with greater power as well as the lofty fuel economy. The 6-speed transmissions are geared more for efficient highway cruising than stoplight drag-races, which are so 1980s anyway.
The full Skyactiv treatment appeared on the 2.0 in the impressive new CX-5 compact-crossover SUV, which was actually designed around the full-scale holistic Skyactiv. While test-drives in cold weather didn’t approach 40 mpg, getting over 30 in any sort of SUV is impressive. Curiously, in the current world of sound-bite media, the significance of Skyactiv has been greatly overlooked, misunderstood, or even dismissed as an attempt at a catchy nickname.
Mazda ignored such naive criticism and announced it would soon add a larger 4-cylinder, and a 2.0 turbo-diesel, both with Skyactiv technology. The diesel is coming, but the 2.5-liter Skyactiv is here now, in the new Mazda6. The test car had it, delivering plenty of punch with 184 horsepower and 186 foot-pounds of torque. It was particularly quick and zoom-zoomy with the 6-speed stick, and it felt smooth and slick-shifting. When my wife, Joan, got the chance to drive it, she said that it felt like the perfect gearbox, even for those who haven’t driven, or don’t like, manual shifters.
The styling is flashy, in a subdued sort of way. The nose of the Mazda6 starts with a quite vertical grille, not unlike the aerodynamic standard established by the CX-5. The gracefully sloping lines, including that accent contour over the front wheels, come together harmoniously, and the uplifted rear helps its aero qualities as well as its appearance.
The car did not have a navigation screen, or a back-up camera, and it lacked leather or power seats. I’ve always thought power seats mostly cut an inch off headroom, and if you switch drivers, you might have to pull the horizontal bar under the front of the seat to reset it to your liking. It also didn’t have a sunroof. What it did have, however, includes 17-inch alloy wheels with all-season tires, and its front-wheel drive balance made the last couple of snowstorms no problem.
While manual, the driver’s seat is 6-way adjustable, and the steering column tilts and telescopes. Antilock brakes have electronic brake distribution and brake assist, for those who might not get full pressure when they put their foot down. Electric power steeering, independent front and rear suspension, and front and rear stabilizer bars assures that the Mazda6 will stay flat and stable even in emergency steering circumstances.
The test car was Meteor Gray with black interior, and the instrumentation includes a small trip computer and easy to operate controls. The higher-tech and much pricier electronic Turn a dial and get more air, or higher temperature. After a couple tries, you can reach down and adjust it without looking. Aren’t ergonomics great?
Fuel economy was about 27 miles per gallon on the highway, which wasn’t bad for a snow cover and near-zero conditions. Power was readily available, and the 6-speed stick kept you in the right range. I would anticipate that the same car would get well into the upper 30s for fuel economy in summertime, when the Skyactiv system will be able to reach full potential.
Base price for the Mazda6 Sport is $20,880, and with tax, delivery and a couple of options boosts it to $21,675. Not bad for what you get, including zoom-zoom technology. Accord, Camry, Altima, Fusion, Sonata, Optima, and Malibu will find it hard to beat that price. And while all those prime competitors have newly refined engines, none of has Skyactiv. With a turbo-diesel coming.