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car review

2014 Mazda6

The Mazda people tiptoe around the notion that they are taking the brand upmarket, yet from time to time they let slip their thinking.

In one instance, Mazda just delivered a tidy little comparison of safety technologies and, in one slide, the mid-size 2014 Mazda6 stood head-to-head against the usual suspects – Volkswagen Passat, Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, Toyota Camry and Hyundai Sonata. Then, in the next slide, up popped a comparison of the Mazda6 GT loaded up with i-Activsense technologies versus a few luxury players – Acura TL, Acura TSX, Audi A4 and, most importantly, the BMW 3-Series.

Presumptuous? I'd say subtle. In a 25-slide overview of i-Activsense, just the one luxury comparison. But it was there.

Now a fully loaded, 184-horsepower Mazda6 GT lists for $34,195 and that includes the safety gear that Mazda subtly points out you cannot get from the competition. Not all of it, anyway, and that competition includes some of the most popular premium cars, including similar-sized sedans from the Bavarians, Audi and BMW. Clever.

You're head-scratching over this term "i-Activsense." Mazda loves these sorts of terms to describe a suite or a collection of technologies. SkyActiv is the umbrella term for fuel-savings stuff; i-Activsense covers eight safety technologies, none of which you can get in the TSX, three of which are available in the A4 and just five of which are offered in the 3-Series.

We're talking about gizmos that recognize and warn you about potential hazards and pre-crash gadgets designed to help you avert collisions or reduce their severity. They come with labels like Blind Spot Monitoring, Smart City Brake Support, Adaptive Cruise Control and High Beam Control. Altogether, what you have here is a package of electronic aids designed to keep you safe in the city, on the highway, around the parking lot, in heavy traffic and everywhere else.

It's almost enough to make you forget the car itself, which starts at $24,495. This should not happen. The 6 is one of the two best-looking mid-size cars you can get from a mainstream manufacturer, the other being the 2013 Ford Fusion. In the Mazda, the design is all curves and shapes and angles and it is a standout.

The 6 is a looker and you hear about it every time you exit the car. Strangers offer a lot of, "What's that?" and "That's a Mazda?" – which suggests two things: Mazda is still in need of getting its design message into the brains of the buying public and the 6 is a startling sharp design.

The car is also well-equipped, should be reliable if you believe the latest quality studies and will hold its resale value well, based on the latest residual value studies. That starting sticker price is higher than many rivals, but every Mazda6 comes with a lot of stuff: keyless entry and push-button start, rain-sensing wipers, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, a 5.8-inch colour touch screen audio display, 17-inch alloy wheels, LED taillights, and heated exterior mirrors that light and flash your turn signals.

The only engine for now is the four-cylinder gas engine (a diesel-powered Mazda6 is coming at the end of the year) and to underscore the car's sporting bona-fides, a six-speed manual transmission is standard equipment, which you can get even in the most expensive Mazda6. Fuel economy? The numbers read 5.1 litres/100 km highway and 7.6 city with the six-speed automatic gearbox, 5.3 highway/8.1 city for the manual.

Of course, Mazda would like to sell only the most expensive GT versions, such as the one I tested with a very user-friendly manual gearbox. From leather upholstery to dual-zone automatic climate control, rear-view camera to 19-inch alloy wheels with low-profile 225/45R19 tires, HID xenon headlamps – the car is loaded for thousands less than, well, a basic 3-Series.

Okay, the TomTom navigation system screams "budget item" and it does not provide the detail of so many other and more expensive navi systems. And the cabin has some hard-ish materials that seem out of place in a car with such a daring exterior. And frankly, the four-banger under the hood will come off to many as a bit underpowered in a sedan with room inside for four adults, five in a pinch.

As a whole, though, Mazda has delivered on that "zoom-zoom" promise. The car holds a flat line in long, sweeping corners and the steering reacts quickly and precisely as if in a slalom, even one in a crowded parking lot. The manual gearbox is buttery and excellent. Most people – 95 per cent of the population – have given up on manual shifters, but there is a sliver of driving enthusiasts who crave do-it-yourself gear changing. They'll applaud the Mazda for what its engineers have accomplished.

This is a good sedan all around, marked by a thoroughly striking design. And, at least on the safety front, sold with more technologies than pricey luxury cars of the same size. Mazda types are reluctant to brag, but if you ask …

Tech specs

2014 Mazda6 GT

Type: Mid-size sedan

Price: $32,195; $1,645 freight and PDI

Engine: 2.5-litre, four-cylinder

Horsepower/torque: 184 hp/185 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed manual

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 8.1 city/5.3 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Volkswagen Passat, Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, Toyota Camry, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima, Chevrolet Malibu