2014 Mazda6 I Sport with Skyactiv: What better way to kick off a new model year?
Price: $21,675 (no options)
Marketer's pitch: "Conviction. Creativity. Courage. This is what changes the game."
Conventional wisdom: A co-worker expressed surprise at my delight in testing this car. "Aren't Mazdas all just cheap, tinny things?" I guess the zoomzoom marketing pitch has not reached everyone.
Reality: Lots of products say they change the game. This one really does.
Something new: I'm still a little boy at heart. The first car from a new model year? Whee! Now the Lovely Mrs. Passenger's Seat's 2013 Kia Soul feels like, well, an old Soul. Yesterday's news. Alas, there are several (dozen) more payments to be sent to the bank.
Outside: Sure, it's a pretty sedan from Mazda -- curvily, thoughtfully shaped. But I passed one on the highway recently and first thought I was looking at an Oldsmobile Alero. Not a bad design gene pool to swim in, but you probably want the similarities to end there.
Inside: Sliding into a Mazda is like going home again. (I'm proud owner of a Protege5 and MPV). The company has eschewed most of the gimmickry other automakers have come to rely on, stuff that runs the gamut from "ever so cool" to "inadvisably advanced."
On the road: Every time I get into a Mazda, I can't wait to get it moving. The 2014 Mazda6 was no different, and the reward was immediate.
The handling is superb. The steering feedback is clear. Twists and turns offer a real treat, as you can push the car to its limits and feel the G-forces pulling you from side to side.
And the Mazda6's 2.5-liter four-cylinder was the first SkyActiv model I've driven that didn't feel a touch underpowered. But this engine was bigger than the 2.0-liter four I experienced in the CX-5 Sport or the Mazda3. (The 2.5 is available on more expensive CX-5s.)
Geared up: A six-speed manual further livened my eight days with the 6. The gearbox offers shifting nirvana. The gears sit so closely together that several times I almost picked fourth instead of sixth, and I don't find that a bad thing.
The clutch sits just right: My legs never felt tired, and Mr. Driver's Seat's seat suffered no twinges in the making of this review. (Compare this to an upcoming Volkswagen Beetle review, where my ankle swelled for a week after I gave it back.)
Staying apprised: The gauges rest in my sight line and are clear and easy to read.
Twists and turns: Winding roads deliver even greater joy through the comfortable steering wheel, and the wheel-mounted buttons are easy to follow. The seats are comfortable and contoured, and hold people in place on the hard corners. Covered in black cloth, they do pick up everything but money. I'd probably spring for the leather.
A touch of nostalgia: The black dashboard with nickel finish trim is not the most modern looking but is certainly serviceable -- on par with most Mazda dashes.
Keeping cool and warm: The central heater vents blow a little too low and don't adjust as well as one might hope. But the three-knob setup dispenses with any need for consulting the owner's manual just to change the temperature.
Friends and stuff: The rear seat is comfortable. Headroom is a little on the tight side, as is legroom. The center has a fairly large hump for a front-wheel-drive car. But the seat is comfy.
The CD tray in the armrest holds several CDs, and is big for a midsize car. Phone holders lie in front of the gearshift and behind.
Trunk space is nice -- we hauled tomato frames in it and they fit in just fine, without folding the seat down.
Night shift: The interior lights -- two over the visor, two in the middle of the ceiling -- add to the evening ambiance, neither bright nor too dim.
Turn on, tune in: The CD player is old-fashioned -- no XM, no nav -- but like the heater, the simple stereo set-up operates without a trip through the owner's manual, unlike many of fancier competitors' models. Technophiles can just delight in the excellent sound that Mazda has made a habit of providing.
One down side: Mazda says there is no temperature gauge in SkyActiv vehicles, which makes me a little hot. A blue light comes on until the engine warms up, and a red one will shine (presumably) if the engine gets too hot. Personally, I'd forgo all price negotiations with the dealer if they'd install an aftermarket temperature gauge.
Fuel economy: This is where the larger engine and solid power curve exact their toll. I got just under 30 mpg in this vehicle, while I got 32 in a Mazda CX-5 crossover with the 2.0, which I just thought was a phenomenal feat.
I'm really looking forward to a diesel SkyActiv version expected to be available later this year on the Mazda6.
Where it's built: Hofu, Japan.
How it's built: It's a new model, so it's hard to judge, but Consumer Reports gave the 2013 model a pretty solid predicted reliability score, just under the Toyota Camry V6.
In the end: Building a great car must not be as easy as it appears. Sharp handling, good economy, good design, attention to the driver, reasonable price: You'd think every car would offer this.
Alas, since they don't, I'd say buy the Mazda6.
Scott Sturgis, a freelance auto writer, can be reached at email@example.com.