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Mazda6 is nifty, thrifty sedan built on rebellious tradition

The interior of the 2014 Mazda6 is super

The interior of the 2014 Mazda6 is super clean and nicely detailed, although it doesn't scream "look at me!" as much as the outside of the Mazda6 does. Photo Credit: Mazda USA

The more established members of the mid-size sedan class are in for a shock once they spy the latest Mazda6. But for Mazda, shaking up the automotive establishment is all in a day's work.

Always the rebel, Mazda has a reputation for going against the grain in product development. The automaker refuses to offer a hybrid powertrain option, which is tantamount to sacrilege. Instead, it pursues internal-combustion-engine refinement under the SKYACTIV label. The 2013 CX-5 wagon was the first Mazda fitted with this technology (direct fuel injection, etc.) and the recently launched third-generation Mazda6 is following suit.

From most angles the Mazda6 is more expressive than the previous version and closely resembles Mazda's Shinari and Takeri concept cars that revealed a new styling direction. The front-end treatment is arguably the best looking in this class, while the rest of the car doesn't stray too far from the past and retains the familiar sweep of the roofline and truncated rear.

The distance between the front and rear wheels has been increased by about two inches (the longest among its direct competitors, claims Mazda) for extra passenger room, while overall length has been reduced by about the same amount.

Interior styling doesn't quite match the exterior on the panache meter, but the straightforward dashboard avoids the use of excessive knobs and switches.

The new-design Mazda6 sheetmetal is the gift-wrapping that hides considerable technological advancements beneath the skin. The base engine - in fact the only available powerplant at this point since the V6 is toast - is a 2.5-liter four-cylinder that makes 184 horsepower and 185 pound-feet of torque. That's up from the previous 2.5's 170/167 rating. 

The uniqueness of the new four-cylinder is its higher-than-usual 13:1 compression ratio that gives the engine much of its extra punch. In addition, its specialized components, including the pistons and direct fuel-injection system (which actually cools the combustion chambers), actually allow it to run on regular-grade fuel.

Transmission choices include a six-speed manual that uses a MX-5 Miata-inspired short-throw shifter, or optional six-speed automatic. Selecting the former pegs the drivetrain's estimated fuel economy at 25 mpg in the city and 37 on the highway, with the numbers increasing to 26/38 for the automatic. Those numbers are nearly equal to the class-champ Nissan Altima's 27/38 numbers, but without resorting to a continuously variable transmission.

Arriving later in the model year will be a Volkswagen-challenging 2.2-liter four-cylinder turbo-diesel option that also receives the SKYACTIV appellation. It features lowered engine compression that Mazda says makes it clean burning without any nasty particulates exiting the exhaust. A recent drive in one of Mazda's test mules confirms that the diesel 2.2 generates plenty of torque, but that it also drives just like a gasoline engine without the usual tell-tale clatter normally associated with diesels.

Exact power and torque specs will be released closer to launch.

The base Sport model that lists for $21,700, including destination charges, comes with the usual power and comfort ingredients and push-button start. Adding the automatic transmission to the Sport also gets you a touch-screen display with Bluetooth networking and a rearview camera.

The mid-level "i Touring" increases the content level with dual-zone climate control, power driver's seat and 19-inch wheels (17-inchers are standard), while the i Grand Touring bulks up with standard navigation, premium Bose-brand sound system and laser-guided speed control that applies the brakes when a potential rear-end collision appears imminent.

Among the more interesting options is Mazda's Intelligent Energy Loop (i-ELOOP). The system's compact capacitor stores energy from the alternator, then feeds it directly to the car's numerous electrical components. Mazda claims the i-ELOOP will reduce the Mazda6's fuel consumption by about five percent overall.

With its dedicated approach to improving power, reducing overall energy consumption and creating a heartbeat-skipping shell, the Mazda6 will generate plenty of look-sees, or at least make buyers seriously ponder this nifty, thrifty sedan.

What you should know: 2014 Mazda6
Type: Four-door, front-wheel-drive mid-size sedan
Engine (hp): 2.5-liter DOHC I4 (184)
Transmissions: Six-speed manual; six-speed automatic
Market position: Mid-size sedans are the backbone of the auto industry, which makes it one of the most highly competitive categories. Mazda is committed to improving its performance in this segment with its all-new four-door.
Points: Eye-grabbing design demands attention; Base four-cylinder engine's increased performance negates need/demand for V6; Forthcoming diesel option should give VW Passat turbo-diesel (TDI) some competition; Mazda6 SKYACTIV system proves great fuel economy possible without resorting to hybrids or continuously variable transmissions.
Safety: Front airbags; side-impact airbags; side-curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes; traction control; stability control.
MPG (city/hwy): 26/38 (AT);
Base price (incl. destination): $21,700


Ford Fusion
Base price: $21,500
V6 option is gone; two hybrid choices join three four-cylinder gas engines.

Honda Accord
Base price: $22,500
Your choice of two-or four-doors and I4, V6 and two distinct hybrid picks.

Nissan Altima
Base price: $23,700
2013 edition comes with fuel-sipping four-cylinder and upgraded CVT. 

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