When you're the little kid with the softest voice on the block, you can only outwit the big guys with ingenuity or a big stick.
Mazda doesn't have the latter. But it's working on the former with all of its vehicles, most notably the 2014 Mazda6.
The Mazda6 is the Japanese manufacturer's entry in the midsize sedan category, the most lucrative and competitive in the panoply of vehicles offered in the United States.
So far, it's been a minor irritant. In 2012, 10 out of 12 midsize sedans, not including luxury nameplates, boasted sales in six figures, led by the Toyota Camry with 404,886. Of the two remaining, only the Mitsubishi Galant, with 13,261, had fewer sales than the Mazda6, which tallied 33,756.
It's not for lack of trying. For many years, Mazda has fielded a competitive midsize entry with the Mazda6, which has even been offered in three versions: notchback sedan, hatchback four-door and station wagon. But it has never caught on, for reasons that can be debated among automotive aficionados.
The wagon and hatchback are long gone, leaving the 2014 Mazda6 sedan to do battle with Accords, Passats, Altimas and Optimas.
It should do well. Completely redesigned, it offers attractive new exterior styling, interior design simplicity and quality that could have issued from Germany's vaunted Audi, and a menu of Mazda's new Skyactiv technology.
Though it's an unfamiliar term to many prospective buyers, Mazda is working hard to make Skyactiv familiar. It refers to an entire reworking of a vehicle's key components: engine, transmission, chassis, suspension system -- in short, anything that can be refined, even in miniscule ways, to contribute to increased performance with improved fuel economy. One of these is i-ELOOP, which gathers electricity from braking and stores it in a capacitor to power on-board systems.
On the Mazda6, Skyactiv also means a new four-cylinder engine that muscles 184 horsepower to the front wheels through an equally new six-speed manual gearbox or a six-speed automatic transmission with a manual shift mode.
Mazda doesn't mess with published acceleration times, preferring to let the enthusiast publications do their own tire-scrubbing tests. Suffice it to say that the Mazda6 is no slouch off the line, although it no longer offers V6 power in obeisance to ever-stringent government fuel economy requirements.
With the six-speed automatic, the new Mazda6 manages 26/38/30 mpg on the EPA's city/highway/combined fuel economy cycle. The six-speed manual is rated at 25/37/29 mpg.
Those numbers surely will be eclipsed later in the model year when Mazda will offer a diesel engine in the Mazda6 -- the first Asian manufacturer to do so in a midsize sedan. It will compete directly against Volkswagen's Passat diesel, which so far has had the only oil burner in the class. Other manufacturers have favored hybrids over diesels.
The company calls the Mazda6 "the modern interpretation of the sports sedan." It could be classified that way if it had a bit more power. Except for that, however, it does have sports sedan attributes: nicely weighted and accurate power steering, good throttle response and a suspension system calibrated to provide a decent ride with crisp handling.
Though it comes in three versions -- Sport, Touring and Grand Touring -- with varying features, the preference here is for the base model, called the Sport. It comes with the six-speed manual gearbox and all of the equipment most motorists would want, with one exception: satellite radio. The sticker price is $21,675, stingy given the equipment and attributes.
Sure, you could spend $31,490 for the Grand Touring with the tight-shifting six-speed automatic transmission, navigation, electronic connectivity and a load of other equipment, but it won't get you any more performance.
Besides, the Sport with the stick shift is a delight. It has comfortable cloth upholstery, plenty of manual seat adjustments, a tilt and telescoping steering wheel, and most of all, an intuitive shift linkage and light clutch action that make stirring the gears something to savor.
There's plenty of space and comfort for four passengers, though as usual the poor fellow in the fifth center rear position gets disrespected and cramped.
Mazda CX-5: For 2014, Mazda's acclaimed CX-5 compact crossover also gets the new 2.5-liter engine. When first introduced, all CX-5's used a 155-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that was sometimes overworked. With the new 2.5, standard on the Touring and Grand Touring versions, performance is closer to that of the Mazda6. The Sport continues with the 2.0-liter with a manual or automatic transmission.
Model: 2014 Mazda6 Sport four-door sedan.
Engine: 2.5-liter four-cylinder, direct gasoline injection, 184 horsepower.
Transmission: Six-speed manual.
Overall length: 16 feet.
EPA passenger/trunk volume: 100/15 cubic feet.
Weight: 3,183 pounds.
EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 25/37/29 mpg.
Base price, including destination charge: $21,675.
Price as tested: $21,675.