By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
The 2014 Mazda6 was one of the earliest-release ’14 models. I got one to test drive back in late March of this year — less than three months into calendar year 2013.
The big news — in addition to the bodacious new bodywork — was the announcement that the new 6 would be four cylinder-only. The optional V-6 had been dropped from the roster — and would not return. But, there was compensation. First, the updated “SkyActiv-G” 2.5 liter four that was the new 6’s standard powerplant would deliver best-in-class fuel economy — as high as 38 MPG on the highway, superb for a mid-sized sedan and exceptional for a mid-sized sport sedan.
Second, Mazda promised a “SkyActive-D” diesel four (and mid-40s on the highway) later in the year.
Unfortunately, that promise hasn’t been fulfilled — at least, not yet.
At the time of this review — very close to November and so only about eight weeks left in calendar year 2014 — there’s still no Sky-D diesel engine option. And, apparently, won’t be until at least “late spring” of 2014. Mazda issued a release a few weeks back stating that the delayed rollout is necessary to “accommodate final emissions testing and certification.”
But at least the diesel’s still on deck . . . eventually.
Unfortunately, the (drop-dead gorgeous) wagon version of the new 6 isn’t. It’s an export-market only deal — because Mazda believes not enough Americans are interested in sportwagons.
Not Uncle, this time.
Mazda’s decision makes no sense to me. Benz and BMW and Audi and Volvo have no difficulty selling wagons here. In the compact class, wagons in all but name (because what the hell else is a “four door sedan” with a fifth door liftback?) are common.
I wish Mazda would have given the 6 wagon a chance here, at least.
And I hope the kibosh has not been put on the Sky-D engine — because as pretty as the 6 is, without either a more powerful engine upgrade — or a much more fuel efficient one — it is at a competitive disadvantage relative to others in this class that may not be as pretty, but give you more scoot or more MPGs (via available hybrid powertrains and so on).
This is a damn nice car.
It’s just not — yet — a complete car.
WHAT IT IS
The 6 is Mazda’s Altima-Accord-Fusion-Optima fighter, with the chief difference between it and these other mid-sized sporty sedans being fuel-efficient sportiness. It no longer offers a powerful but consumptive V-6 engine, but it does offer a peppy and highly fuel-efficient four cylinder engine — with an even more fuel efficient (and also sporty) turbo-diesel engine on deck.
Prices for the 2014 model start at $20,880 for the base trim iSport — vs. $21,900 for a base Ford Fusion, $21,760 for the base-model Nissan Altima, $21,680 for a base Honda Accord sedan and $21,200 for the base Kia Optima.
A top-of-the-line i Gran Touring lists for $29,495 — vs. $30,200 for a top-of-the-line Fusion Titanium, $30,560 for a V-6 Altima SL, $33,430 for an Accord Touring w/V-6 and $26,800 for the turbocharged Kia Optima SX (the deal of the bunch).
The 2014 Mazda6 is all-new, a complete redesign cosmetically as well as functionally.
When — if? — the diesel option becomes available, the 6 will be the only sport sedan in this class to offer such a powerplant (The VW Jetta offers a diesel, but it’s a smaller car; the Passat diesel is larger — but not especially sporty. The Chevy Cruze diesel is also smaller — and not very sporty.)
One of the — if not the — best-looking cars in this class.
Supple, quiet ride. Precise, engaging handling.
New SkyActiv-enhanced 2.5 liter four delivers much better power/performance than the old four — and better performance than most competitor models equipped with their standard-issue four-cylinder engines — along with exceptionally good gas mileage.
If it ever gets here, Sky-D diesel engine will give the 6 close to hybrid-car fuel efficiency with (probably) better performance and without (for sure) the downsides of the hybrid layout, such as the additional weight of batteries and electric motors.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
The 6’s four maxxes out at 184 hp — a bit loose-toothed relative to several competitors’ available 250-280 hp V-6s (and turbo fours).
SkyActiv diesel engine should be on the menu now — not later.
No wagon . . . for us.
UNDER THE HOOD
The 6 has lost its formerly optional V-6 and for now is available only with an enhanced SkyActiv-G 2.5 liter gas-burning four. It’s the same size as before, but Mazda has tweaked and tuned it to get 184 hp (and 185 lbs.-ft. of torque) out of it as opposed to 170 hp (and 167 lbs.-ft. of torque) last year.
The object appears to have been to bridge the gap between last year’s too-weak/too-slow base-engined 6 — and the too-thirsty V-6 that was optional but which one almost had to buy because the base four (in the old 6) wasn’t getting it done, performance-wise.
Or even efficiency-wise.
The updated four in the new 6 rates a very solid 26 city/38 highway — and gets the car to 60 in 7.5-7.6 seconds, depending on the transmission: your choice of six speed manual or six-speed automatic. This is an epic improvement over the old four-cylinder 6’s torpid 9 second to 60 run — and not-so-hot 21 city, 30 highway EPA mileage stats (worse than some of competitors delivered with their optional — and much more powerful — turbo fours or up-sized sixxes).
The 6 is now one of the — if not the — quickest base-engined cars in its class. And it is without question the most fuel-efficient.
The new Honda Accord can match the 6’s 0-60 run, but falls short MPG-wise, with an EPA rating of 27 city, 36 highway. It’s close — but no cigar. And the Honda’s top numbers are only valid if you buy the continuously variable (CVT) automatic. When ordered with the available six-speed manual transmission, the Accord’s numbers at the pump drop to 24 city, 34 highway. With the 6, you only lose 1 MPG if you choose the manual over the six-speed automatic.
Pretty sweet. Also sweet is the fact that performance of the ’14 6 with the SkyActiv four is only about a second or so off the pace of last year’s 6 with its optional V-6.
Of course, there will inevitably be comparisons between the power/performance offered by the new 6 — which is after all, a sporty-minded car — and sporty-minded competitors like the Optima and Accord, Altima and Fusion when fitted with their much stronger optional engines . . . which Mazda hasn’t got an answer for at the moment.
The Fusion, for instance, has also nixed its six — it only comes with fours now. But you can upgrade from the gimpy 175 hp engine to a turbo 2.0 engine that makes 240 hp and cuts the 0-60 time down to 6.8-6.9 seconds. So equipped, the Fusion still gets decent gas mileage, too: 22 city, 33 highway.
The Kia Optima can be equipped with a 274 hp turbo 2.0 four that beats the turbo Fusion — and runs circles around the 6 — with a 6.5 second to 60 posting. It also carries a very impressive (given the power/performance) EPA fuel efficiency rating of 22 city, 34 highway.
And the V-6 powered Honda Accord is downright ferocious: Zero to 60 in about six seconds flat. It’s not a hog, either: EPA says 21 city, 34 highway — which isn’t at all that far behind the Mazda’s 26 city, 38 highway.
The game-changer will be the 2.2 liter Sky-D diesel that’s — hope/pray (plead?) — on deck for next spring/summer.
It will — reportedly — deliver better acceleration than the current 2.5 liter gas engine in addition to much higher fuel economy (should be mid-40s on the highway and 30 or so in city driving).
Unfortunately, we’re in a holding pattern.
The risk Mazda runs is that the newness halo of the “2014” 6 may have waned by the time we actually get to 2014. It will have been on the market for more than a year by the time the diesel engine becomes available next spring/summer — by which time, competitors will be unveiling their 2015s.
ON THE ROAD
The Sky-G engine is quiet and smooth — with good torque for a non-turbo four. The nearly 20 ft.-lbs. bump in output is particularly relevant insofar as how the car pulls at lower road speeds (and engine RPM). There is substantially more torque relative to last year — and it’s available almost 800 RPM sooner: at 3,250 revs vs. the old non-Sky-G four’s 167 lbs.-ft at 4,000. That means it doesn’t struggle or feel flaccid unless you’re really working it. Instead, it gets the car moving with minimal apparent effort — no need to ring it out to four or five thousand RPM just to keep up with traffic. In sum, it is an economical four that doesn’t behave like an economy four.
The only other car in this segment that deserves similar kudos is the four-cylinder Accord — but, again, to get mileage that’s comparable, you must forgo the more fun-to-drive manual transmission and accept the CVT automatic. With the 6, you get to have your cake (very high fuel economy) and eat it, too (excellent performance/driving enjoyment).
Still, the absence — at the moment — of an engine upgrade is a problem, I think. Because the 6 is not a Camry or Malibu. It runs — or looks like it wants to run — in the same company as the Accord and Altima, the Fusion — and other mid-sized sport sedans.
All of which offer engine upgrades.
Good gas mileage is good — certainly. But it’s not everything. Well, maybe it is for the government control freaks who keep insisting on ratcheting it ever upward — and to the exclusion of almost every other consideration. But car buyers have different needs and wants.
This is the crux of the dilemma.
A mid seven seconds to 60 run isn’t slow.
However, is it quick enough? Relative to what the competition offers?
If the 6 still had its optional V-6 (or could be ordered with the pending but not-yet-here turbo-diesel four) the performance uptick achieved by the base four would be hailed as exemplary.
It is certainly no longer all-but-mandatory to upgrade to get reasonably snappy performance — as it arguably was last model year. The 2.5 liter SkyActiv four absolutely has guts enough to achieve freeway-matching speed on merge ramps and do it quickly enough that you don’t feel as though you’re driving an overloaded Geo Metro.
You will never feel this way driving the new four-cylinder 6.
Unless, of course, you square off against a V-6 Accord or Altima — or the turbo’d versions of the Fusion and Optima. The can rip the paint right off those pretty fenders, unfortunately.
If the not-yet-here Sky-D engine gets the 6 to 60 in seven seconds flat — or in that ballpark — while also delivering mid-40s in the highway . . . well, that’s another kettle of fish.
The ride/handling of this car is superior.
Plush — and firm. It sounds like a contradiction in terms, I know. But go for a drive. You will find the suspension’s ability to roll with the road without jostling your guts to be absolutely top-drawer. If the road dips — or a pothole drops a wheel — the driver (and passengers) will hardly know it. Perhaps this is due to the new car’s longer wheelbase — now 11.4 inches vs. 109.8 for the old model. But Mazda deserves credit for doing more than just stretching the chassis. That helps — but that alone does not a fine-handling car make.A lot of work went into tuning this car to behave right — to strike that fine and often-elusive balance between too-firm (and too harsh) and too soft (and too squishy).
The 2.5 liter engine is also remarkably quiet — especially for a four.
The only deficit is you can’t power out of the curves like you used to be able to — when the 6 could be had with 270-plus hp under its hood.
AT THE CURB
Overall, the new 6 is slightly smaller — and lighter — than before: 2.2 inches shorter and about 100 pounds less beefy (3,183 lbs. vs. 3,268 for the ’13). It sits almost 1 full inch lower to the ground, too: 57.1 inches vs. 57.9 last year.
The front clip especially is almost feline in the way it stretches forward over the arched wheelwells — with the arches rising like an ocean swell from the front door area before they wash over the tires. The much-enlarged grille opening, meanwhile, suggests a lust for airflow — and a need for speed.
It’s a pretty car . . . a sexy car.
The elongated wheelbase allowed Mazda to carve out about 3/4 of an inch more rearseat legroom — which stands at 38.7 inches for the 2014 vs. 38 for the ’13.
This is an area where the Mazda absolutely mops the floor with the very appealing Kia Optima — which is otherwise one of the strongest contenders in this segment and arguably, the 6’s closest-in-spirit competition. It has only 34.7 inches of backseat legroom. That’s three full inches less — a big difference. The Optima makes up for this with 45.5 inches of front seat legroom — which is more than any car in this segment by several inches, including the 6 (42.2 inches). But frankly, unless you’re an NBA forward, the Kia’s 45.5 inches up front is an on-paper advantage and more than you’ll ever need to be comfortably situated. I say this as a guy who’s six feet three — which means I’m taller (and longer legged) than 95 percent of the population. If you’re my height or less, you’ll be fine with the 6’s 42.2 inches up front — and your passengers in the second row will be fine, too.
Meanwhile, if you buy the Kia, your backseat passengers won’t be.
However, all is not sunshine and light. The subtraction of those 2.2 inches of overall length from the 6’s silhouette has had a more meaningful downsizing effect on trunk space — which drops to 14.8 cubes from the old 6’s much more generous 16.6 cubic foot trunk. The new 6’s trunk capacity is less than many of the other cars in this class, including the Fusion (16 cubic feet), Accord (15.8 cubes), the Optima (15.4 cubic feet) as well as the VW Passat (15.9 cubic feet).
Though the base iSport trim is well-equipped (standard AC and major power options, 17-inch wheel/tire package, LCD driver display, etc.) some stuff that probably ought to be included — like satellite radio/Bluetooth — isn’t. They’re available — but extra-cost. Also, the base car with six-speed manual transmission comes with a smaller LCD display. If you order the optional six-speed automatic (which brings the MSRP up to $22,495) you get a larger (5.8 inch vs. 3.5 inch) display, Bluetooth/HD stereo and a rearview back-up camera.
You can get (in Gran Touring trims) a Smart City Brake Support system that can detect objects in the car’s path and commence braking the car automatically if the driver fails to notice the need to do so. I am very ambivalent about the wisdom — and the functionality — of these systems. They strike me as a form of idiot-proofing (why not encourage drivers to pay attention to the road as opposed to texting?) and the plain fact is the systems I’ve sampled miscue frequently — confusing road berms with objects in the road, or getting frantic when a car up ahead of you slows and signals a left turn. You know the turning car will have turned by the time you get there; the system doesn’t. It flashes lights and hits you with buzzers if you don’t brake — which can be annoying and distracting.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Sky-G 6 is a player — but a Sky-D 6 could be a game-changer.
I just wish it were in the game — instead of waiting in the wings.