2014 Mazda 6: First Drive

February 1, 2013
Among affordable, even frugal, mid-size sedans, the all-new 2014 Mazda 6 is about the closest we’ve ever come to love at first sight.

We thought the new 2013 Ford Fusion, this model year’s The Car Connection Best Car To Buy, was hot; but the Mazda6 doesn’t have an even vaguely awkward angle on the outside.

In full admission, we had high expectations for the way the new Mazda 6 would drive. Based on our experience with the previous Mazda 6—already what we considered the best-driving model in the segment—and what we’d sampled of Mazda’s new SkyActiv strategy in the CX-5 and in the Mazda3 (powertrain), it's exciting. Mazda has shown that it's in tune with what enthusiasts want—especially those who don't want to guzzle gas.

After spending most of a day out on the irregular roads of Texas Hill Country near Austin, we can say that the new 6 provides a driving experience that is definitely all that—along with way more interior comfort than we expected, as well as impressive refinement and an excellent feature set. The only significant disappointments all reside in the instrument panel's center stack.

Mazda had been developing vehicles—and engines—together with Ford, but as the result of a messy divorce agreement it’s now essentially on its own. Instead of partnering up with a different major automaker, Mazda opted to ‘go it alone,’ and in 2008 kicked off its SkyActiv program—an initiative for vehicle development. While it was a tough road for a relatively small automaker like Mazda to take, it resulted in a from-scratch look, from the ground up—including new fuel-saving engines and transmissions, a new approach to chassis design and body structure, and a focus on weight savings while still preserving Mazda’s reputation as the maker of particularly fun-to-drive vehicles.

A rev-happy engine, and transmissions that do it justice

Together with the new CX-5, which was released less than a year ago, the Mazda6 is on an all-new platform, boasting these new engines and transmissions. In the Mazda 6, the only engine at launch is a 2.5-liter four, making 185 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque and fitted with direct injection and an awesome 13:1 compression ratio. This engine needs to rev more than the base fours in some other mid-size sedans to tap into its perky side, but the six-speed automatic is deft and always on its game, downshifting almost instantaneously when needed, smartly hitching revs down whenever they can be, and most of the time feeling a lot like the better dual-clutch units.

The six-speed manual is a star, too, snicking neatly from gear to gear, with short throws and neat clutch takeup. We only wish the automatic would stay in a manually selected gear at full throttle (if you’re zigzagging up a mountain pass, for instance, and don’t want to upset the car’s composure); instead it still downshifts the moment you hit the detent (a new German style one).

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. Our pick of the lineup, that said, would be the better-equipped Touring model with the manual transmission.

In all, the Mazda6 is as quick as most gas-mileage-minded shoppers will ever want, although it doesn't exactly address the black hole left by the discontinuation of the scorching V-6 model—which had been one of our absolute favorite affordable 'sleeper' enthusiast sedans. That kind of torque and more will arrive to the Mazda6 lineup later in the model year—in diesel form, with about 170 hp and more than 300 pound-feet of torque, as well as an EPA highway rating of (likely) more than 40 mpg.

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