While you might not find the straight-line performance that's hinted in leaping-forward form of the 2014 Mazda 6, this is a satisfying, sporty-feeling car, considering what it also is: a frugal, practical family-oriented sedan.
The new Mazda 6 has a rather simple powertrain lineup; it's powered by a new 2.5-liter 'SkyActiv' in-line four-cylinder engine, fitted with direct injection, variable valve control, and a very high 13:1 compression ratio (unleaded gas is just fine)—altogether making 184 horsepower and 185 pound-feet of torque. All versions have front-wheel drive, and the engine is fitted to two all-new transmissions: a six-speed manual, or a six-speed automatic.
Through Mazda's SkyActiv initiative, it's cut weight from the body structure, made transmissions more efficient and direct-feeling, and found all sorts of other ways to make efficiency gains of up to 30 percent. In all, the new 6 weighs a rather light (for the class) 3,200 pounds with the base setup and manual gearbox, and only slightly more with the automatic—making it feel very peppy, considering what it has.
In all, the Mazda6 is as quick as most gas-mileage-minded shoppers will ever want; although at the same time, the new SkyActiv engine needs to be revved in order to access most of its torque. Luckily, it's smooth and well behaved when it's revved or pressed. Mazda has this time given the 6 a sturdy accelerator pedal with a floor-hinged feel, as well as a solid-feeling (German-style) detent that clicks reassuringly at full throttle.
The new six-speed automatic slips very little at low speeds, like a dual-clutch gearbox, and has a knack of raising revs and downshifting only when needed, and smartly hitching onto the highest gear whenever you’re only cruising—or even accelerating lightly. Some models get steering-wheel paddle shifters to supplement the manual gate for the shift knob—allowing you to select your own gears, except at full throttle, where the transmission forces a downshift to the lowest available gear.
As likable as the new six-speed automatic is, we’d still rather be in the manual version. Unfortunately, as much as the 6 is trying to appeal to driving enthusiasts, you can only get the manual gearbox if you opt for one of the lower trim levels. The shift action is the best it gets, with short throws and a neat, precise linkage. These versions get Hill Hold Assist, too.
Overall, the Mazda6 handles near the top of the mid-size class. With entirely new suspension geometry aiming especially at eliminating dive and squat, Mazda has given the suspension a little more travel, and also raised the pivot point for the rear suspension, which reduces the impact shocks making their way into the cabin while also increasing controllability under load and near the limit.
Mazda boasts that the 6's steering ratio (15.5:1) is nearly as quick as the Miata's (15.0:1), and that results in a quick, responsive feel; the new electric power-steering system provides weighting that's just right—well-centered, and with effort that builds nicely—but road feel is surprisingly a little lacking.