A Winning Combination

At the coronation celebration for the 2013 AJAC car of the year, the confetti had barely settled on the ground around the Honda Accord when across the convention centre hall, a new contender to the throne emerged, fresh-faced and eagerly looking forward to its laurels and trophies.

I’m no soothsayer or mystic, but the 2014 Mazda6 had enough of an effect on me to prompt this bold and audacious contention. Indeed, a year earlier, I accurately predicted the Hiroshima’s mid-size sedan entry as the next big winner. I don’t want to tell ya’ I told you so, but…

Practical and Stylish

As has been the case for the previous two generations of Mazda6 sedans, the 2014 model is a car that is not only roomy and practical for family duties, but also efficient, stylish and legitimately fun to drive.

It achieves all of this while still respecting the average Canadian’s budget.

In reality, the Mazda6 is not alone in its ability to dispense with all of these crucial deliverables. The aforementioned Honda Accord (is luxurious and refined beyond its relatively modest cost. The Ford Fusion is an absolute styling triumph while also providing a visceral driving experience that belies its ‘family sedan’ mission. And a new Hyundai Sonata is not far off. The competition is indeed fierce in this class as manufacturers tirelessly try to outdo each other with impressive levels of technology, safety and quality.

The 6 has always looked like the most sporty offering in the segment, with aggressive headlight treatments, handsome wheels and stylish body flares. The new car takes the sporty look and fully modernizes it while also making the 6 appear more upscale than ever before.

Proportions are excellent and the arcs in the front fenders are reminiscent of classic cars of the 1920s and ‘30s with pontoon fenders. Finished in a rich, lustrous deep red paint and complemented by gunmetal-grey wheels and smoked taillight lenses, the Mazda6 could arguably wrestle the Best Dressed award away from the Ford Fusion.

Interior and Feature Content

Inside the styling achievements continue, particularly in the handsome two-tone black and linen colour scheme of my tester. When compared with the last generation, the leather feels (and looks) richer, and the textures, trims and overall quality appear to be a considerable upgrade. Small details like red accent stitching on door handles and seatbacks are not immediately noticed, but become little treats to the eye as you grow more familiar with the car.

Ergonomics are also considerably improved with a single infotainment screen for navigation, audio, communications and climate display, replacing the silly LCD screen atop the centre dash from the previous generation. The “Info” button for the trip computer is no longer placed by the driver’s knee, but found sensibly on the steering wheel for easier access. Gauges are large, clear and easy-to-read, just as they ought to be.

Complaints for Mazda’s 6 are relatively minor and do not detract from the overall driving enjoyment.

First, the Bose audio system still sounds rather muddy as it did in the previous generation car. What’s more, the system is completely baffled by my iPod, always starting with the same song following an inordinately long boot-up and never showing the proper artist and song name for what is being heard. While displaying “19th Nervous Breakdown” on the screen, the stereo quite appropriately played “Dazed and Confused”. Curiously the same problem does not occur when using Bluetooth audio from my iPhone.

The other complaint stems from Mazda’s choice to make the option group of high tech safety features (High-beam control system, Lane Departure Warning System, Radar Cruise Control, Forward Obstruction Warning, Smart City Brake Support and Sirius XM Radio) available only with the automatic transmission. While I can appreciate that the manual transmission may pose practical problems for the Radar Cruise Control and Smart City Brake Support, the other features should be available regardless of transmission choice.

For what it’s worth, at $2,000 the Technology Package represents a lot of kit for a reasonable price if you are looking at a Mazda6 with an automatic.

Ride and handling

Mazda’s mid-size sedan draws the best from the refined, sophisticated side of the spectrum, while still living up to its zoom-zoom brand identity, especially when equipped as my press car is, with a manual transmission. The shifter works through its gate with reasonable precision and fairly short throws, accompanying the easily modulated clutch to produce a fun and engaging experience. With so many manufacturers doing away with stick shifts altogether, Mazda deserves a round of applause for rewarding those who still enjoy actually driving their cars.

What’s more, opting for a manual transmission does not necessarily relegate you to a featureless base model. On GS and up-level GT models, either an automatic or manual can be had for the same investment. Automatic shoppers can rest assured that the auto transmission is smooth and efficient as well.

Together with accurate steering that offers considerably reassuring feel (sadly, a rarity in this age of electric power steering) and a surprisingly well-sorted suspension, the driving enjoyment continues when the road deviates from the straight. The ride versus handling trade off is almost like a BMW 3 Series in its execution with nasty road imperfections being absorbed, while maintaining an impressively flat attitude during cornering maneuvers.

Power and Efficiency

One of Mazda’s proudest achievements for the new Mazda6 is its 2.5L inline-four cylinder, which is imbued the brand’s SkyActiv technology. The basic gist of it is that Mazda aims to improve its environmental impact while also improving performance – often two mutually exclusive elements. This is achieved through reduced weight, custom-engineered transmissions and clever, high-compression engines.

Both SkyActiv engines I’ve experienced to date (the 2.0L and 2.5L in the Mazda3 as well as this new 2.5L in the 6) are a little gruff and noisy on startup. Once warmed up however, the newer, larger engine settles down better than its more diminutive cousin and provides a more rewarding driving experience. Under load and with a revs sweeping into the upper reaches of the tachometer, the sound is a bit reminiscent of BMW’s growly four-cylinder turbo engines – not musical like a six cylinder, mind you, but not as flatulent as most four-bangers.

Lacking the Bimmer’s turbos, you certainly won’t get the same accelerative pull from the Mazda’s 2.5, but neither will you really need more power than the 184 hp and 185 lb-ft of torque to keep you grinning. My wife drives a previous generation Mazda6 GT with four cylinders and a six-speed manual, and the newer car’s added ponies (nearly 20 of them) are definitely noticeable.

Still, when compared to the sweetly mechanical V6s in the Accord, Altima and Camry, the Mazda’s four-banger is comparably weak-kneed.

Mazda rates the new 6 at an impressive 7.6 L/100 km city and 5.1 L/100 km highway for fuel consumption with the automatic (8.1 and 5.3 respectively for the stick shift). My tester was a very fresh model with only a few hundred kilometres on the odometer when I drove it and when combined with messy winter conditions, my mostly highway driving netted an average of 8.5 L/100 km. While well off Mazda’s estimates, a fully broken-in example driven by someone with a lighter foot will undoubtedly generate more favourable figures.

Conclusion

With the demise of the Mazda Millenia and 929 from generations ago, the Mazda6 is the company’s flagship sedan. Where it might have been diluted or spared some of the effort in order to not steal the limelight from a costlier stable mate, Mazda appears to have truly pulled out all the stops with the 2014 Mazda6 and given consumers yet another outstanding offering in this automotive segment.

With such a fun, stylish and all-round competent entry, it really should not have been a surprise to anyone that the Autos.ca Mid-size Sedan Comparison Test winner was also AJAC’s Canadian Car of the Year.

Pricing: 2014 Mazda6 GT
Base Price: $32,195
Options: Soul Red Mica paint, $300
Destination: $1,695
A/C Tax: $100
Price as tested: $34,290

Competitors:
Ford Fusion
Honda Accord
Toyota Camry