Every once in a while, a total reboot is necessary. That's something Mazda learned the hard way with a new-for-2014 remake of its once-popular, now invisible Mazda6.
First, a history lesson. The 2003 Mazda6 - Mazda's first genuinely interesting modern midsizer - was as close to a cult classic as a mainstream sedan can be thanks to its Miata-inspired handling, its just-right proportions and its cool optional hatchback and wagon bodies. But then there was a 2009 redesign, which resulted in a larger-than-life abomination: A big bruiser designed according to what product planners in Japan thought Americans might buy.
For 2014, Mazda is ready to start all over, something that should be obvious at your first glance of the new car. Bold and fresh outside, its sinewy looks mask an all-new platform, a high-mpg four-cylinder engine and a pair of re-imagined transmissions.
Of course, it's the exterior that will probably drive the most showroom traffic. This new sedan is damn good looking from its pronounced front wheel arches to the chrome touch between its tail lamps. If not for the Mazda badges, it could easily have emerged from an Italian design house. Remarkably, even the base Sport trim gives up nothing to the high-buck range-topper.
Inside, the new Mazda6 hardly disappoints either. The short dashboard, nicely-bolstered seats and meaty steering wheel mean business. Controls are logically arrayed, especially the classy climate knobs.
We aren't enamored with the optional navigation at the top of the dash, which occupies a lot of real estate despite its small screen. In fact, it feels more like a placeholder for something yet to come. We hope whatever arrives in the future is a big leap forward, since the Tom Tom-based system that's there now is just acceptable in its operation. That said, it did readily accept our voice commands and the secondary steering wheel controls are effective.
Materials set the standard for the class, even in the lowest-specification models. Soft, nicely grained plastics cover just about every conceivable door and dash panel. There's almost nothing that looks or feels downmarket in the Mazda6.
Skyactiv isn't likely to become a household term, but if you're automotively inclined, you might be aware that the Japanglish is Mazda-speak for a host of new technologies designed to breathe life (and fuel economy) into the traditional internal combustion engine. In short, Mazda wants to retain the direct feel and control of existing engines, transmissions and chassis without resorting to costly, complicated and fun-sapping technologies like hybrids and CVTs.
It's a noble effort, one that enthusiasts should appreciate but one that average shoppers might not quite understand. But that's fine for Mazda, which is no longer chasing Toyota-like sales volume at the expense of diminishing margins.
In the new Mazda6, the automaker is debuting a 2.5-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine that cranks out 185 horsepower and 184 lb-ft. of torque. Neither is a high figure for an engine this large, but what's notable is the relatively wide torque band. Two transmissions are available, an all-new six-speed manual (on the two lowest trims) and a similarly new six-speed automatic. The automatic is a technological tour de force in that it combines the smooth torque converter feel of a regular automatic at low speeds with more of the rapid-fire shifting of a dual clutch unit at higher velocities.
A 2.2-liter turbodiesel with what Mazda promises is V6-like performance will follow later this year. Color us intrigued.
For now, the Mazda6 2.5 offers adequate, class-competitive performance thanks in part to a rather low (3,200-3,300 lbs., depending on specification) curb weight. And, boy, is this ever a smooth performer. Silky at idle, the four-cylinder wakes up a bit at higher revs with a refined growl. Shifts are fast but virtually imperceptible, with none of the real world uneasiness that occasionally plagues dual clutch units like the DSG used in the Volkswagen Passat.
We didn't have the opportunity to measure fuel economy, but Mazda's estimates of 26/38 mpg (automatic) and 25/37 mpg (manual) are nearly class-leading among non-hybrid vehicles.
The Mazda6 won't burn rubber, but this front-wheel-drive sedan is more than capable when the road turns twisty. We sampled models with both the standard 17-inch alloy wheels and the available 19s. The smaller wheels provided a touch more ride compliancy, but both were comfortable over the admittedly terrific pavement in and around Austin, Texas.
Through the rolling Hill Country west of the People's Republic of Austin, we found that this four-door is a willing dance partner, arguably the most fun-to-drive midsizer in its class. The light electric power steering could stand to be tightened up, but it is quick and precise enough to be just right for this kind of vehicle. The stiff chassis settled nicely into corners, predictably moving into oversteer when pushed to the limit.
There's a little more road noise than we'd like to hear, which probably indicates that Mazda scrimped on sound deadening to reduce curb weight, but otherwise the Mazda6 felt like a terrific long distance highway cruiser thanks to its arrow-straight steering.
Actually, this reboot is more like a full hardware upgrade.
Leftlane's bottom line
Teetering on dire straits, Mazda has created a terrific midsize sedan worthy of serious consideration.
We'll have to spend more time in a 2014 Mazda6 before making a final judgement, but some terrific hardware has been lined up to create a compellingly redesigned midsize sedan that pushes all the right buttons.
2014 Mazda Mazda6 base price range, $20,880 to $29,495.
Words and photos by Andrew Ganz. Follow Andrew on Twitter here.