The newly redesigned Mazda 6 is like a skateboard for grown ups. This thought crops up as I zip along a tangled web of hilly roads that make up a very good automotive playground.
I pop over a steep crest, the front end of the car seeming to float for a long second, and then I zing down the other side.
The car is light, maneuverable and just a little bit squirrely. Olympic snowboarder and skateboard champion Shaun White would love this thing.
The Mazda 6 is a midsize sedan which starts at just over $21,000, placing it in one of the most hotly contested auto segments. It’s also one of the most conservative, with an emphasis on cars that are reliable and get good gas mileage.
But stylish and fun? Those words are rarely mentioned in marketing materials or in showrooms of midsize economy sedans. Toyota is the titan of this market, and the Camry might as well be a generic term for a reliable, sober, four-door car.
Hiroshima, Japan-based Mazda simply can’t compete in terms of volume or developmental costs. Toyota sold more than 400,000 Camry models in the U.S. in 2012, out of the more than 2 million vehicles overall, including the Lexus and Scion brands.
By contrast, Mazda moved only 110,000 of its best-selling model, the 3. The company projects to sell only 30,000 of the 2014 model-year 6 here.
I do imagine, though, that most of those buyers will have a pretty good time with their purchase. Mazda has always been a sideline player, which allows it certain latitude. I can think of no other economy brand whose entire range of vehicles is as entertaining to drive as Mazda’s.
Take the MX-5 Miata, a two-door, rear-wheel-drive roadster and coupe, long considered one of the purest driving machines available. It is tiny, light and comes with a perfect manual transmission.
Even the oversize CX-9 crossover, which seats seven, follows the Mazda fundamentals of crisp steering and a tidy suspension.
The company no longer offers a high-end sports car since the RX-8 went out of production, but it still sponsors one of the best racetracks in the world, Laguna Seca in Monterey, California. (Or, as Mazda personnel will constantly correct you, “Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.”)
Mazda gave me a test car without a single option, a rather gutsy move. (Carmakers most often have the most impressive model, with every available option, in their press fleets.) The total price was $21,675 and had no interior leather, navigation system or satellite radio.
The Grand Touring model starts at just over $30,000 and gets options including Bluetooth, bigger 19-inch wheels, a Bose stereo and seats with leather trim.
All models share a direct-injected, 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine with 184 horsepower and 185 pound-feet of torque. Power is modest, but the gas savings are sizable. The six-speed manual gets 25 miles per gallon around town and 37 on the open road. The available six-speed automatic does a mile better in each situation.
After 100 miles of highway driving, the gas gauge on my car barely moved. A diesel engine will also be offered in the future.
The 6 looks far more posh than its price suggests. It is long and lean, with a blacked-out B pillar and brightwork around the side glass, creating a stretched window profile. There’s also a distinctive, suggestive swoop around the front wheels. The sedan is just under 16 feet long and six feet wide, slightly bigger than the Camry.
It’s the front end, though, which is most novel. The bottom lip on the front fascia juts out prominently, similar to those often found on hardcore sports cars. Fortunately, it stands high enough that you won’t scrape it on curbs.
The manual-equipped model is only 3,183 pounds, a featherweight. This is a huge asset on winding roads, as the 6 snaps through turns. Yet that lack of heft may fill some drivers with unease on the freeway. Those used to the weight of an SUV, for instance, may initially find that the 6 doesn’t feel as substantial at high speeds.
(The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety recently gave the 6 a “top safety pick” rating after crash testing.)
The excellent six-speed manual transmission put me in mind of the Miata. It has short throws and works in perfect concert with the light clutch. Sadly it’s only available on the base — the more expensive models come with automatic transmissions.
One word about the interior: Sparse. The inside is definitely the place where the cost savings are most evident.
I suspect that those who want some fun and style in their midsize economy cars won’t mind a bit.
The 2014 Mazda 6 at a Glance
Engine: 2.5-liter four-cylinder with 184 horsepower and 185 pound-feet or torque.
Transmission: Six-speed manual.
Speed: 0 to 60 mph in about eight seconds.
Gas mileage per gallon: 25 city, 37 highway.
Price as tested: $21,675.
Best features: Looks more expensive than it is; fun to drive.
Worst feature: The interior shows its inexpensive side.
Target buyer: The midsize sedan shopper who likes to a little zip.