We're sitting in a 14th-century manor just outside of Paris watching a Powerpoint presentation. Outside of this stone room are rolling hills, funny-looking road signs and the all-new 2014 Mazda 6.
We're trapped. Sure, the car is outside waiting to be driven, but for now we're stuck listening to various Mazda officials tell us why the new Mazda 6 sedan is better than the old Mazda 6 sedan.
The message today is not subtle and it's not hidden. It's a mantra, repeated frequently and with conviction and it's not one usually associated with the midsize family sedan segment: Precise and Responsive.
The 2014 Mazda 6 may be safer, better equipped, more fuel-efficient and more comfortable than the car it replaces, but in true Mazda fashion, the main focus is on the drive.
It's easy to think that Skyactiv is simply a well-publicized name for an engine family, but the ethereal, misspelled portmanteau is nothing less than a cult within the Mazda camp. You see, Mazda found itself in a hole recently with an entire fleet of reasonably priced, seriously fun-to-drive cars that just happened to return very average fuel economy numbers.
Mazda needed to do something and, being Mazda, it wasn't thrilled to simply chuck in a Toyota-sourced hybrid system and call it a day. Instead it built a new, lightweight modular body system that first debuted in the States in the CX-5. Then it built a new family of engines focused on efficiency which first showed up in the 2012 Mazda 3. It was called Skyactiv and Mazda called it Sustainable Zoom-Zoom.
The zoominess was easy for Mazda — it's what it does — but the sustainable part took a little more work and yet another exercise in branding: i-ELOOP.
Skyactiv is already firmly rooted in efficiency, but to really make its mark, Mazda added a brake-energy regeneration system called i-ELOOP. The system makes use of a variable voltage alternator (12-25V) and a capacitor to help store energy and reduce fuel consumption. When the driver lifts off the accelerator, the alternator's spinning is used to charge the capacitor which then, after a quick pass through a 25-12V converter, powers the car's electronics.
Mazda says that a full capacitor can run the entire car, including air-conditioning, for a full minute. This energy storage not only reduces the strain on the engine-driven alternator, but allows Mazda to implement a stop-start system that shuts the engine down completely when the vehicle isn't moving. Mazda is currently evaluating the stop-start system for the U.S. market.
Something About Driving It
Under the sculpted hood and behind the Kodo-inspired gaping grille is the newest jewel in Mazda's Skyactiv crown: a 189-horsepower, direct-injection 2.5-liter inline-4 running an absurdly high 13:1 compression ratio. It's the largest and most powerful Skyactiv powertrain to date. To keep things from shaking themselves to bits, Mazda adopted a balance shaft for the big new four-banger that has resulted in an engine that is quieter and smoother, according to Mazda's calculations, than the 2.0-liter Skyactiv engine used in the Mazda 3.
We finally get out on the road, and it's clear there's no reason to doubt Mazda's assertions so far. The 189-hp Skyactiv-G 2.5 revs smoothly and effortlessly across the rev range, enticing you to drive it with enthusiasm. Peak power arrives at a lofty 5,700 rpm while the peak torque rating of 189 pound-feet arrives at 3,250 rpm. Mazda says the engine is as precise and responsive as anything you'll find with direct injection and without a throttle cable. We would agree, as it's a vast improvement over the soulless mooing of the 2013 Honda Accord EX even if you do need to rev the Mazda a little higher to get to the sauce.
While we weren't thrilled with the operation of the idle-stop (the 2.5 runs smoothly, but has a bit of a shake to its start and stop), there's no arguing with the results. Mazda says the system returns 6.3L/100km combined on the European cycle which, roughly translated, is about 37 mpg.
Part of the engine's responsiveness can be attributed to the six-speed automatic transmission in our test car, which is also part of the Skyactiv family. The transmission features an "extra-wide lock-up range clutch," which brings us back to that whole "responsive" thing. The guts of the 6AT have been lightened, while at the same time the electronics have been rejiggered to more accurately assess the driver's needs and emotions.
Brake hard for a panic stop and the car reacts as normal. Brake hard after aggressively taking a sharp curve and the transmission responds by downshifting smoothly into each gear until you're off the brakes and back on the gas. Of course, if you don't trust Mazda's electronic brain to do the shifting for you, there are paddle shifters and a manual mode on the gear selector that still, mercifully, works the only correct way: forward for downshifts, back for upshifts.
There's also a kick-down button that occupies the final 5 percent of the accelerator pedal's travel. Floor it all the way to this hard-to-accidentally-depress button and you'll accelerate to pass swiftly, not aggressively. Push through that resistance, however, and the transmission automatically kicks down a gear — or more — and throws you into the meat of the power band.
Since this is a Mazda after all, a proper six-speed manual is available, too, if you're so inclined. History says less than 10 percent will be; if that's so, don't expect to see many on dealer lots.
Refined Road Manners
"Precise" and "responsive" take on new meanings when the 2014 Mazda 6 is on the open road. As every other midsize sedan has followed Toyota down the path of isolation, Mazda's still laser-focused on oneness between driver and vehicle. This oneness is a double-edged sword, especially if you consider the competition.
The steering is active and accurate, a trait that will appease drivers and enthusiasts but the casual consumer will find it busy. Our test car, fitted with summer tires, follows rain grooves and transmits every seam and bump through the wheel. The impacts and wanderings are never harsh; they simply exist and Mazda trusts you enough to deal with it. Consider it the difference between watching a movie censored on an airplane vs. watching the director's cut.
Similarly, the same suspension that has us "accidentally" missing our exits at every roundabout in rural France is a talkative, controllable revelation in the segment. If you're offended by road imperfections and potholes — in more than the "where did my tax dollars go" way — the Mazda 6 may be too firm. Our preproduction, European-spec test car also exhibits some serious wind noise. We're chalking that one up to the preproduction specs of this vehicle, as no enthusiast save Caterham drivers and motorcyclists finds high-pitched, A-pillar-meets-roof wind noise fun.
Next Stop: Skyactiv Interior
So it drives well, looks fantastic and returns significantly better fuel economy while being faster. So what's the rub?
In short: the interior. After Mazda spent serious dollars on the exterior and the powertrain, there wasn't much left for the interior. At least that's our initial impression.
The new cabin is stylish, has leather and soft-touch materials and a control knob to navigate menus on the optional 5.8-inch screen. The trouble is, these features and the quality of them are more in line with the outgoing Toyota Camry and Honda Accord than a sedan that's trying to blur the lines between family car and luxury car.
This problem isn't new to Mazda. The Mazda 2, Mazda 3 and Mazda CX-5 all lag behind the competition in terms of interior styling and perceived quality. It wasn't a deal breaker to the engineers at Mazda. Is it for you?
Mazda is certainly concerned about the driver with this new 6, but it didn't forget what this segment is all about. Remember, the enthusiast pejorative and common name for the C/D segment vehicle is "family sedan." The 6's wheelbase measures 111.4 inches, nearly 2 inches longer than either the 2013 Honda Accord or 2012 Toyota Camry and it's part of the reason the 6 has the best rear legroom in the class. Unfortunately, the swoopy body results in a lower car with less headroom front and rear than its competitors. Taller drivers use every inch of legroom and a good deal of the seat's rake getting comfortable, and rear-seat passengers, already used to tighter accommodations, shouldn't have any complaints.
But Wait, There's More!
The 2014 Mazda 6 won't even hit our shores until January of 2013 and already we're curious at what's next. Along with the standard sedan, Mazda is also preparing two other variants: a wagon and a diesel-powered sedan. It's unlikely we'll see the wagon in the States, as Americans just don't buy enough of them to justify the expenditure. Not when gas is still cheap, parking abundant and not as long as the Mazda CX-5 is still flying off the lots faster than they can build them.
The diesel model, however, is almost a guarantee. Oil burners are notoriously hard to certify for the U.S. market (blame NOX) but once the engine is certified, it's in the automaker's best interest to try and spread the cost. Mazda has confirmed that the 2.2-liter Skyactiv-D (310 lb-ft of torque) will be coming to the U.S. in early 2013, likely in the CX-5. Shortly thereafter, though, it should find its way into the 6 sedan and a few months later, the 3 sedan and hatchback.
Preaching to the Choir?
If our rough calculation of 37 mpg is correct, it's a number that will likely act as the spine for an advertising campaign that will drive fuel-conscious consumers into Mazda showrooms. At least that's what the company is hoping.
Then again, the Nissan Altima already boasts about its 38 mpg rating on the highway while the Honda Accord gets a mere 36 mpg. Landing in the middle of those two isn't a bad place to be, especially as mileage becomes the basis for getting on shopping lists.
Mazdas usually find their way onto shopping lists because buyers want a little more than your average car in terms of ride and handling. This 6 certainly delivers in that department, and now it delivers in the mileage category, too. Add in the dramatic styling and 2014 Mazda 6 might finally get out from underneath the shadow of its more well-known Japanese competitors.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.