Mazda has fallen from Ford's financial nest -- the Detroit giant having sold the stake that once gave it control -- and must now feed itself.
The small scale of the fierce-yet-fragile Japanese independent, struggling to hang onto roughly 2 percent of the American market, will be a never-ending challenge as it tries to compete with global empires like Toyota, General Motors, Volkswagen and Ford itself.
The redesigned 2014 Mazda 6 seems to show evidence of that strain, but also the upside of the company's emotional, uncompromising approach to engineering.
Automakers like Toyota and Hyundai don't care to be reminded, but Mazdas almost always handle and perform better than more pedestrian rivals. Yet typical mass-market buyers don't put much stock in performance, choosing Toyota Camrys and other dull-but-reliable cars by wide margins over Mazda's medal-winning counterparts.
Perhaps counterintuitively, Mazda's worst failures have come when it has tried to out-Toyota Toyota, forsaking sporty principles and settling for the middle ground.
The Mazda 6 has been a great example. The first-generation sedan of 2003 was lauded as a midsize benchmark, and by Mazda standards, it posted excellent sales. One notable criticism was that the back seat was a bit tight.
So Mazda gave in to mass-market temptation for the redesign of the 2009 model. It pumped up the 6 to the size of a Honda Accord, with handling that seemed as unrecognizable as the car itself. Sales plunged and have never recovered.
Now Mazda regroups with a mildly scaled-down 6 for 2014. The car is a looker again, a shapely adaptation of the Takeri concept car that made the rounds of international auto shows.
Production has moved to Japan as Mazda wrapped up a quarter-century of building cars alongside Fords in Flat Rock, Mich.
And Mazda's personality shines clearly, with an all-new chassis, transmissions and engines, including an advanced 2.2-liter Skyactiv-D diesel that will go on sale later this year. That will make Mazda, long associated with rotary engines, the first Japanese brand to offer a modern clean-diesel passenger car in America. Mazda has been coy on mileage, but the diesel version should breeze past 40 miles a gallon on the highway.
Keeping its priorities straight, Mazda has lavished resources on the mechanicals. The new 6 delivers that familiar Mazda connectedness, but with a pronounced improvement in fuel economy, historically a sore spot for this brand. The gasoline version, with a 2.5-liter direct-injection 4-cylinder, has a thrifty economy rating of 26 m.p.g. in town and 38 on the highway, with its redesigned 6-speed automatic transmission. That's up from a mere 21/30 m.p.g. for the departing model.
The new engine, designed to run on regular gas, also has 184 horsepower and 185 pound-feet of torque, up from 170 and 167 in the obsolete 2.5 liter of last year.
Like many of its rivals, the 6 no longer offers a V-6 option.
Tech tricks abound, though, including extremely high compression that improves efficiency.
The automatic transmission incorporates both a conventional torque converter for silky low-speed operation and a single automated clutch for decisive gear changes -- which can be made with paddle shifters behind the steering wheel. Naturally, Mazda has kept the stick-shift faith, offering its fine new 6-speed manual on all but the top-level Grand Touring.
The 6 is the first car in America to capture energy in a fast-charging capacitor with no rare-earth metals, rather than a slower, bulkier and harder-to-recycle battery. Lift off the gas, and the optional i-Eloop system spins the alternator to charge the capacitor in eight seconds flat. The stored juice -- roughly 2,000 watts -- then powers the electric system and accessories. E.V. and laptop users, take note: unlike lithium-ion batteries, Mazda's capacitor is designed to charge and discharge millions of times with no loss of storage capacity.
Yet for all of its prowess, Mazda's relatively small financial basket suggests that there are only so many eggs to go around. For the cabin, Mazda needs to break a few more eggs.
Don't get me wrong: the 6 puts its driver in perfect alignment with the steering wheel and controls. The seats and forward visibility are excellent. The trunk officially measures a modest 14.8 cubic feet, but it feels cavernous in daily use. An 18.5-gallon fuel tank lets the Mazda cover 600 highway miles between fill-ups.
The Mazda also keeps up with the gadget-obsessed Joneses. Owners can choose a smooth-running adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning, forward collision alert system, blind-spot monitors, rear cross-traffic detection and headlamps that automatically switch between low and high beams.
But compared with, say, the lavish Honda Accord or Hyundai Sonata, the 6 feels as if it's playing catch-up inside. That begins with the amateurish TomTom navigation system and its scrawny, inscrutable 5.8-inch screen. The optional system is mediocre enough if you've programmed a destination; when you haven't, it's the bane of lost travelers, often failing to label streets, cities and even freeways.
Worse, the design pizazz of the exterior is missing inside. I'm all for minimal cabins, but the Mazda seems as featureless as the nighttime prairie, and some wobbly-feeling switches don't help. In comparison, a Chevy Malibu is a paragon of texture and daring.
The rotary console controller halfheartedly mimics those in a dozen other cars. And who, among Mazda's red-blooded engineers and executives, signed off on those wimpy gauges? With a generic font and pale white lighting, the display is perfect for a Chinese minivan, but not suited for this driver's car.
Fortunately, beyond the cabin lies the most dynamic, assertive driver's car in the midsize realm. The chassis is far stiffer, and 58 percent of the body is high-tensile steel, holding the base model's weight to barely 3,100 pounds.
Electrically assisted steering, fast becoming a universal fuel saver, has damped the response of even six-figure cars. But Mazda's system feels attuned to every road nuance, with a steering ratio that's nearly as fast as the Miata convertible's. The front wheels' caster angle is more acute than in any front-drive rival, more even than the Mazda's late, fondly remembered RX-8 sports car, another contributor to the 6's right-now reactions.
Flirting with two-lane roads in upstate New York, the Mazda caressed every curve, showing excellent grip -- almost too much, considering its modest power -- from optional 19-inch wheels and tires. Pushed hard, the back end eventually bobbles. But it takes serious pushing to remind you that the 6 is intended for families, not just drivers.
The 2.5-liter engine, while adequate by class standards, elicits less excitement. The engine works to make speed, emits a gassy bleat and barely revs to 6,200 r.p.m. before running out of steam. But that is apparently the price to pay for major fuel savings. (Enthusiasts can cross their fingers and hope that a more powerful, tightly wound Mazdaspeed 6 is in the works).
The price starts at $21,675 for a Mazda 6 Sport with a 6-speed manual transmission. Moving up, the automatic Touring version starts at $25,290. The chart-topping Grand Touring costs $30,290. Come summer, a new Advanced Package will be offered for $2,080, adding the various collision warnings and monitors, adaptive cruise and high-beam systems, and the i-Eloop regenerative system.
Graft the Accord's interior into this handsome, frisky and frugal Mazda, and the result could be the world's leading family sedan. For now, Mazda 6 buyers will have to settle for the sportiest.autonews
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.