2014 Mazda6 first drive
For the third generation of its midsize sedan, Mazda starts again from scratch
Austin, Texas — For automotive writers, every new car launch is an education. It's not just about learning new specs and features for the nth generation of a familiar nameplate. There's also all the brand-new technologies. Over the years I've had to learn the workings of everything from anti-lock brakes through variable valve-timing to steering systems that automatically keep the car centred between the lane markings.
But I'm not sure I've ever studied a new car quite like the 2014 Mazda6. For one thing, rarely has a redesigned car been as genuinely new as the 2014 '6 — the architecture, the body, the chassis, the engines, the gearboxes, everything.
At the same time, all the technology on the Mazda6 is familiar ... except, it isn't. While many automakers raise their average fuel economy with a handful of extreme-efficiency hybrid or electric models, Mazda resolved to significantly reduce the fuel consumption across its entire model range. And not by reinventing the wheel, but by painstakingly and holistically optimising familiar hardware.
It all comes under the umbrella of Mazda's SkyActiv philosophy. Skyactiv was partly introduced on a refresh of the compact Mazda3, and found its first full expression in the 2013 CX-5 crossover. Although it's a compact, the CX-5 shares its basic architecture with the all-new Mazda6, not with the Mazda3, which is still based on an older architecture shared with former partner Ford.
Starting from scratch both challenge and opportunity
The divorce from Ford forced Mazda to create its own architecture. And since economies of scale are longer shared with Ford, Mazda could no longer afford to develop separate Mazda6 designs for North America and the rest of the world, as it had with the outgoing Gen-2 car.
As a global car once more, the new 6 walks a fine line between small enough for the narrow, crowded streets of Europe, and large enough for the role of flagship model in North America. The original global Mazda6 was too close in size to the Mazda3, but this time the package seems to favour the Americans. The outgoing design had one of the largest footprints in its peer group, and while the new one is 55 mm shorter in length, its wheelbase is longer, and the width unchanged.
The globality of the new model also shaped it in other ways. European pedestrian-protection laws dictated a higher cowl and blunter front end than might have been chosen if the designers had free reign. And then there's the new 2.5-litre SkyActiv-G engine: a key element in its fuel-efficiency is a free-flowing exhaust (like the "bunch of bananas" headers on race engines), which requires more underhood space than conventional exhaust plumbing. That meant the firewall and A-pillars had to be pulled further back.
The 2.5-litre direct-injection four with its uniquely high compression ratio is the only engine choice across the three trim grades — GX, GS and GT. There is no replacement for the former (and thirsty) 3.7-litre V6. While the 2.5 itself is 20 per cent more economical than the old MZR 2.5, there is also a 2.2-litre turbodiesel in the pipeline; Mazda officials even suggest the Skyactiv-D option could appeal to former V6 choosers.
Standard manual for all, automatic "free" on upper trims
The gas 2.5 is rated at 184 hp and 185 lb.-ft. of torque, well in the ball-park with other four-cylinder midsizers. All trims will be available with a six-speed manual gearbox, while a six-speed automatic is a $1,200 option on the GX and no-cost on the upper trims.
For the automatic, Mazda considered dual-clutch and CVT options but instead developed a hybrid hardware that employs a torque converter (for smoothness) at speeds below 8 km/h and a multi-plate clutch (for efficiency) at higher speeds. The six-speed stick was painstakingly optimised for minimal weight, bulk and friction.
The Mazd6 is priced in the heartland of the midsize segment, and starts well appointed: even the GX ($24,495) includes aluminum wheels, push-button start, heated seats and Bluetooth; for $28,395 the GS adds a moonroof, automatic climate control, six-way power driver's seat, smart keyless entry, backup camera, and blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert; advance to the GT, and for $32,195 the fixtures list grows to include 19-inch wheels, leather, Bose 11-speaker audio, and auto-levelling HID Xenon headlamps.
An $1,800 Luxury Package for the GS adds eight-way power driver's seat, navigation and leather.
A fully loaded Mazda6 would be the GT with Technology Package, which adds a suite of active-safety aids including Smart City Braking, radar cruise control, and lane departure warning.
But you also have to stretch to the GT Technology Package just to get satellite radio — something many rivals include at much lower price points. As well, Mazda's novel i-ELoop regenerative-braking technology, which saves fuel by recapturing energy under braking and storing it in a capacitor, will also be restricted to the GT Technology Package.