The 2014 Mazda6 is a very important car for Mazda and for anyone looking at midsize sedans. The Mazda6 is the company's version of more popular cars like the Honda Accord and Ford Fusion. It's also the third generation of a model that's trying to combine the enthusiast appeal of the first Mazda6 with Mazda's need to appeal more to the mainstream. 

Targeting driving enthusiasts

Mazda doesn't intend for the Mazda6 to go head-to-head with the Camry or Accord in terms of sheer popularity. Instead, Mazda is focused on just one portion of the enormous midsize sedan market: primarily, younger drivers who like cars, value styling, appreciate gadgets -- and, above all, love to drive.

If that sounds like you, chances are good that you'll like the Mazda6. On the road, the sedan drives like few of its rivals. Handling is Miata-sharp on even the most challenging twists and turns, and the steering avoids the numbness found in most midsize sedans -- including the previous Mazda6. There's very little lean when cornering, and there's little sign of the understeer common in front-wheel drive cars. We think Mazda6 drivers will regularly be pleasantly surprised by the realization that they're actually behind the wheel of a four-door sedan.

Unfortunately, they they may be less enthusiastic when they press the acceleratior pedal. While the Mazda6's 2.5-liter Skyactiv 4-cylinder engine is adequate, it's hardly spry. At 184 horsepower, it's on par with the base engines offered in other midsize sedans -- which is fine, except it's the currently the only engine available in the Mazda6. Most competitors offer V6 or turbo options for those who want extra power.

Mazda hasn't revealed plans for more performance, but promises a slightly punchier 2.2-liter Skyactiv-D diesel engine later this year. Still, the "zoom zoom" brand can't match rivals like the Hyundai Sonata 2.0T and Toyota Camry V6, both of which offer around 270 hp.

But Mazda balances the lack of power in two ways. First is great fuel economy. Mazda ignored complicated and expensive hybrid and electric powertrains to focus on fine-tuning the traditional gas engine with its "Skyactiv" technology. The result is up to 26 mpg city and 38 mpg highway -- class-leading figures for non-hybrids.

The Mazda6 also features a great automatic transmission. Dubbed Skyactiv-Drive and planned for 90 percent of sales (the rest get a slick-shifting 6-speed manual), Mazda says it shifts quicker than the dual-clutch gearboxes offered by some rivals. On the road, it didn't feel quite that fast -- but it's no slouch, either. And its smooth shifts are much better than the jerkiness of some dual-clutch boxes. Best of all, it's a fuel economy champ: it's the automatic rather than the manual transmission that provides the best fuel economy in the Mazda6.

High-tech for everyone

Of course, the 2014 Mazda6 offers more than just a new look, engine and transmission. We're especially impressed by the variety of gadgets, which range from common items like navigation to more cutting-edge features such as blind spot detection and adaptive cruise control.

While the TomTom-based navigation system felt a bit clunky, the blind spot system worked exactly as it should. A light in the side mirror indicates when a car is in your blind spot, and an alarm sounds if you signal in the direction of the occupied blind spot. Simple but practical. The same goes for the adaptive cruise control, which maintains a safe distance from the car in front of you, even if they slow down. The system required no instruction to use and performed its job effortlessly for many miles.

Most of the gadgets are reserved for the upscale Grand Touring trim, with a starting price just below $30,000. Even without the extra technology, the Mazda6's interior is a nice place to be, with comfortable, well-bolstered seats, a thick-rimmed steering wheel, and high-quality materials on virtually every surface. That's even true in base-level Sport models, which start at $20,880 with cloth upholstery and no center touchscreen. Passenger room is generous in all dimensions, and we were especially impressed by the sedan's rear headroom, which is surprisingly ample considering the sedan's sloping roofline.

That rakish roof is part of the Mazda6's handsome exterior styling that sets it apart from the notoriously humdrum midsize sedan crowd. Other notable design touches include sculpted shoulder lines, aggressive headlights with LEDs and bold front and rear fascias that were inspired by luxury sedans like the Audi A4, BMW 5 Series and Lexus GS. From the outside, it's definitely not your typical family sedan.

Popularity potential

For all its positive attributes, the Mazda6 faces an uphill battle in winning over new buyers. We think young drivers will be attracted by its handsome looks, sporty character, and available gadgets. But for others, affinity for Honda and Toyota may be too strong, the Mazda6 may be too sporty, or Mazda just might not have enough brand cachet.

To us, that's a shame. Buyers who pass up the Mazda6 are missing out on a well-rounded package balancing fuel economy and performance, style and substance. Put simply, we don't think Mazda will be facing an identity crisis any time soon.

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Doug DeMuro has a wide range of automotive industry experience, from work at a Ferrari dealership to a manager for Porsche North America. A lifelong car enthusiast, Doug's eclectic vehicle purchases include a Porsche 911 Turbo, an E63 AMG wagon, an old Range Rover and a Mercedes Benz G-wagen.

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