From a company that once took a near-fatal flier on the revolutionary rotary engine, Mazda is winning kudos for the down-to-the-minutia modifications it's making to the conventional reciprocating piston-based technology that powers models such as the new 2014 Mazda6.
And, also for adding unconventional new features, such as a clever new take on meeting today's vehicle's increasing electrical demands while improving fuel economy, with i-ELOOP, a technological alley-oop into the future.
To the too-bold visionaries at Mazda in the late 1960s – just as it was making its debut in Canada and then the United States – the compact, lightweight rotary seemed like just the thing to power their company into the future. But, within a few years, the engine' too-thirsty and unreliable revolving rotors almost augured Mazda into a fiscal spin from which it barely recovered.
Mazda went on to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans with a rotary racer, and created one of the world's great sports cars in the RX-7. But since the early 1970s, it has focused on piston power to propel a succession of models that have won it a reputation as a maker of cars enjoyed by people who take their motoring more seriously than most.
The immediate and mid-term future for Mazda – now going it alone again after a long alliance with Ford – isn't conducive to technological adventuring, dictating continued reliance on the piston engine. But with ever-increasing emission and fuel economy demands being mandated, the company, and the industry at large, has been working hard to squeeze as much "goodness" as possible from this 150-year-old form of engine.
Mazda has dubbed its effort SkyActiv technology, taking a broad-brush approach that involves not only engines, but transmissions, ancillaries, safety, body and chassis.
The latest-generation Mazda6, which debuted earlier this year carrying a 2014 model year, is the mid-size sedan poster-car for SkyActiv. Along with new approaches to safer and lighter weight body design, and a driving experience-enhancing chassis, it is powered by a new, optimized-for-efficiency, 2.5-litre gasoline engine, with advanced six-speed manual or automatic transmissions. A super-efficient, turbocharged, 2.2-litre diesel is due to arrive in the second half of this year.
It also features the aforementioned i-ELOOP system, which generates electricity when the car is coasting or under braking. Mazda says it can improve fuel economy by up to 10 per cent in stop-and-go traffic, although 5 per cent is a more realistic figure. Mazda also claims using it to power all the Mazda6's electrical systems as a first for this type of technology. It is initially only available on the $34,195 GT with technology package.
It works by reducing the overall engine power consumed to generate electricity, and employs a variable voltage alternator that harvests the energy produced while the car is decelerating. This charges a capacitor, a temporary electricity storage device that charges and discharges in seconds, and powers electrical components in the car, or charges the larger-capacity battery.
The Mazda6 range starts with a manual GX at $24,495 ($25,695 with automatic), followed by the manual or automatic-equipped GS at $28,395, then the GT (also with either transmission) at $32,195. The car I tested was an automatic GS with $1,800 luxury package and $200 Snowflake White Pearl paint.
The starter Mazda6 offers about all you require in the way of equipment, with the GS boasting a more comprehensive tally. Features include push-button start, rear-view camera, moonroof, Bluetooth, a good audio system, fog lamps, heated front seats (six-way power on the driver's side), dual-zone climate control and a blind-spot monitoring system with rear cross-traffic alert. The luxury package has an eight-way adjustable driver's seat, leather upholstery and "leather-like" door trim, plus navigation.
All this is packaged in a spacious, quiet interior that holds four comfortably – front seats are sporty looking and supportive – with 419 litres of trunk space behind. Red stitching on the seat leather and armrests, soft-touch materials, polished aluminum-look trim pieces, an easy-to-view nav screen, well-laid-out controls and effective climate control add up to a cabin you'll be happy to spend time in.
The 2.5-litre, direct-injection, gas engine benefits from a microscopic-level evaluation of literally every component to optimize its performance, and generates 184 hp and 185 lb-ft of torque. If you're used to V-6 power in your mid-size car, this engine won't cut it. But with the six-speed automatic – which selects gears perceptively, and changes them quickly and almost imperceptibly – initial acceleration and around-town driveability are fine, and passing or merging managed with reasonable alacrity. All the performance required to make you feel content driving it, in other words.
All the hype being generated about its SkyActiv-ness isn't misplaced. Fuel economy by the numbers is 7.6 litres/100 km city and 5.1 highway. By comparison, ratings for the four-cylinder automatic Honda Accord are 8.7 city/5.7 highway, the Hyundai Sonata 8.7 city/5.8 highway and Ford's 1.6-litre Fusion 8.7 city/5.5 highway. Only the CVT-equipped Nissan Altima's 7.4 city/5.0 highway betters it. After a week of use, it was showing average usage of 8.3 litres/100 km and, on a hilly four-lane highway trip, it averaged an excellent 6.1 litres/100 km.
The Mazda6 also lives up to its reputation for delivering decent handling and ride. The GS is set up for comfort rather than sports-sedan handling with bushing, damper and spring rates that deal compliantly with impacts at the expense of less-sharp steering response and some body roll in quick transitions.
It is fitted with P225/55R17 all-season tires, which help take the sting out of bumps, but don't provide exactly crisp response (the GT's tires are P225/45R19, and likely improve front-end feel).
Overall, though, there's nothing to find fault with. As with the available power, there's all the handling performance required to make it pleasant and safe to drive.
This Mazda6 is a good-looking, well-appointed car that handles and goes well, all the things a competitive mid-sizer should offer.
2014 Mazda6 GS
Type: Mid-size sedan
Base Price: $24,495; as tested, $32,090
Engine: 2.5-litre, DOHC, inline-four
Horsepower/torque: 184 hp/185 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 7.6 city/5.1 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Ford Fusion, Nissan Altima, Hyundai Sonata, Honda Accord, Buick Regal, Chevrolet Malibu