2014 Mazda 6 Grand Touring Grand Style

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A car’s looks count for a lot when it comes time to write a check. On this basis alone, the new Mazda6 ought to succeed. Mazda photo

The enormous mid-size sedan market has been dominated for geologic ages by Toyota (Camry) and Honda (Accord), with Hyundai, Kia, Ford, Chevy, Nissan and VW chipping off their own pieces.

The rewards of success are high here, so Mazda is taking another run at the category with a brand-new Skyactiv Mazda6. There is much to like about this car.

We understood Mazda’s previous mantra, Zoom-Zoom, but “Skyactiv”? Better to focus on the goals—fuel efficiency and driving harmony—than the technology. Skyactiv is a massively complicated integration of engines, transmissions, chassis and climate-control systems to squeeze the best out of the whole car without resorting to expensive hybrid drive, carbon fiber or unobtanium. Skyactiv even includes shutters that close behind the grille, to reduce power-robbing air turbulence at speed. Our car also had i-ELOOP, Mazda’s new, and absolutely undetectable, brake-energy-recapture system.

As a result, this Mazda6 Grand Touring was rated at 32/28/40—combined/city/highway—MPG. We got nowhere near 40 on the interstate, but nailed the 32 overall figure, and without feeling like we were trading performance for economy. (A turbodiesel Mazda6, due next spring, should do even better.)

With 184 horsepower and 185 lb-ft of torque, the engine can pull hard, and forcing the pedal past its detent spurs the 6-speed automatic to greater efforts. There’s a Sport setting in the transmission that holds each gear for more acceleration, or it can be shifted by hand with the console lever or paddles behind the steering wheel. A nicely honed 6-speed manual gearbox is a no-cost option.

Steering effort is higher than the norm, but not unpleasantly so. Same goes for road noise. The ride inspires confidence. The front-wheel drive becomes more noticeable as cornering speeds build, but there’s no denying its value to most drivers most of the time.

The heart of the Mazda6 is this 2.5-liter, 184HP double-overhead-cam four that is integral to the Skyactiv system. Mazda photo

Our Mazda6 GT’s $32,845 sticker was 10 grand more than the base car’s, but it had about every add-on, including one of the smoothest and best self-adjusting cruise-control systems out there. “Best” because its radar lets the Six get fairly close to the car ahead before slowing down. It’s still not the “tailgate” setting we need to push daydreamers out of the left lane, but almost.

Our car also came with sensors that keep an eye on the driver’s blind spots—on each side and to the rear—plus all the latest alpha-bits: FOW (Forward Obstruction Warning), SCBS (Smart City Braking Support) and LDW. Above 40 MPH, Lane Departure Warning dings loudly if the car drifts toward a dividing line without benefit of a turn signal. LDW doesn’t yet take control of the steering wheel and, yes, it can be turned off.

Then there’s HBC. However, High Beam Control hasn’t gotten much better since Cadillac introduced it in the 1960s. Just the reflection from a sign, for example, will kill the brights even if there isn’t another car for miles. Finally, here’s something a driver can still do better than a microprocessor.

Inside the car there’s more space, including headroom, than the Six’s sleek contours hint at, and the cockpit has many of the screens, buttons, knobs and toys that have flowed downstream from luxury cars in recent years. But the computer screen is small and low-res, and the telematics are at least a generation out of date. The high point is Pandora, the Internet music service that’s been around so long that I know how to use it.

It’s a different story on the outside. Mazda calls its fresh, flowing-yet-sculpted styling KODO, for “soul of motion.” Designer Derek Jenkins has referred to the new Six, with some relish, as “slightly sinister-looking,” but to me the Mazda6 is Christina Aguilera to the Accord’s Jennifer Garner and the Camry’s Meryl Streep. (My passenger-in-chief says this is sexist and rude. But she agreed.)

Like Saab (RIP), Mazda has always gone its own way, with rotary engines, odd numbers of doors and mystical concepts. The marque’s current standouts include the near-wonderful Mazda5 mini-minivan and hot-hatch MazdaSpeed3, and the long-running smash-hit Miata, a 1960s British sports car that works. This new Mazda6 also seems to be hearing its own beguiling music.