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car review

2014 Mazda6

Jim O'Sullivan, head of Mazda's U.S. operation, won't say outright what he and the world knows is the obvious future for his company: Mazda plans to become the Japanese BMW AG.

"Premium doesn't mean luxury," he warned me last month's Los Angeles Auto Show. Mazda has no interest in being a luxury brand. But a little ride upmarket? Oh, yes.

Mazda, then, is chasing people willing to spend a little extra on cars that entertain them from behind the wheel. What's that strategy look like in the showroom? The 2014 Mazda6.

It will hit dealerships next month with an eye-popping design and a new, fuel-efficient, nicely responsive 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine (189 horsepower). What makes Mazda more interesting than BMW, though, is that later next year Mazda will stuff a diesel under the hood and it will sell for much less than $50,000.

The 2.2-litre diesel, with a whopping 310 lb-ft of torque (estimated) will surely be a hit. Because rest assured, O'Sullivan and his gang know that Mazdas can't command BMW prices. So look for the diesel to come in less than $30,000, right there with the rival Volkswagen Passat TDI diesel base price.

What we know now is that the design of Mazda's newest mid-size sedan is shockingly good. Mazda has no future playing Toyota's game, so in the Mazda6 we get the dramatic Kodo "Soul of Motion" design language: big, sculpted wheel arches, strong haunches, a sharp character line down the side that creates a kind of scooped-out effect, all finished with a built-in trunklid spoiler at the tail.

And, of course, the car itself drives so well.

"The first 100 metres will be enough" to demonstrate just exactly what this all-new sedan is all about, says Hiroshi Kajiyami, the program manager. My first 100 metres were quite enough, though I had plenty more seat time. In a day's drive, I was impressed by the active and accurate steering and the overall responses. This 6 feels solid, rigid and responsive – all things you want in a wannabe BMW.

And let's not overlook the excellent six-speed automatic transmission. The new six-speed is a cog in Mazda's big SkyActiv wheel of good fortune for drivers. We'll skip the engineering blather and instead say this: the responses are sharp and almost intuitive for a long list of reasons, not least of which is an ingenious approach to the lock-up clutch, a lightweight design and really smart electronic controls. There's a do-it-yourself shift mode, of course, but if you just let this gearbox figure out how you drive, it will find the right gear for you.

I know that sounds simplistic, but the smartest things always seem simple. The point is, if you're carving corners, working the steering and brakes, the tranny smoothly shifts to the gear you want. You can try for the same via the paddle shifters, but my bet is you won't be smarter than the electronic brain. Pay your money and take your choice.

Now here's the warning: as O'Sullivan explained in L.A., Mazdas are not for everyone, especially these new ones. The company wants people who consider driving a gift and an entertainment, not a chore. If driving is a variation on taking out the garbage, don't bother with Mazda. The dampers are tuned on the firm side to please your inner Sebastian Vettel. If you want to channel Oprah, get a Toyota Camry.

I can't tell you much about pricing and packaging yet, either. Mazda is going to wait until the new year for that. But company types insist on saying things like "consumers can anticipate Mazda's current slew of performance-inspired, design-engineered amenities, such as aggressively styled large-size alloy wheels, expressive LED lights, supportively bolstered seats and high-quality interior materials as well as premium technology offerings in a TomTom-based in-dash navigation system, Bose premium audio, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, audio menu voice command capability, to name a few."

Whew! Look, Mazda knows it needs to come armed for a fight. The marketplace is absolutely stuffed with good mid-size cars in this price range, several of them all-new – including the Nissan Altima, Honda Accord, Fusion and Chevrolet Malibu. To borrow a somewhat tired cliché, Mazda won't bring a knife to a gunfight.

Guns and knives have me thinking about safety, so a few words. You'll be able to buy something called Smart City Brake Support (SCBS) to help avoid front collisions using laser sensors that apply braking in dangerous situations where you don't. Something else called i-ELOO is Mazda's own brake energy regeneration system and improves fuel economy. And there's more.

Meanwhile, the cabin is stylish but not as luxurious as the exterior design suggests it might be. It's nice, but not over the moon and that's perhaps the car's weak point. Mazda does fine in quality reports – No. 4 of 28 brands in Consumer Reports' predicted-reliability study, just behind Scion, Toyota and Lexus – but others in this segment have richer interiors.

Then again, BMW's interior are nice but not delicious and no one complains about it, do they?

Tech specs

2014 Mazda6

Type: Mid-size sedan

Estimated base price: $24,500 (freight $1,695)

Engine: 2.5-litre four-cylinder

Horsepower/torque: 189 hp/181 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 6.4 litres combined city/highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Chevrolet Malibu, Volkswagen Passat, Dodge Avenger/Chrysler 200, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima, Nissan Altima, Subaru Legacy