Back in the early 19th century, a hack science called "phrenology" tried to measure a person’s mental capabilities by scrutinizing dimensions of the skull. The fad died after a couple of decades, and only appears today as pop-culture references in flicks like "Django Unchained." Midsize sedans experienced a similar dark age recently, with automakers obsessing over figures like hip room or shoulder space to gauge the worth of the car — and ignoring whether it’s even enjoyable to drive the thing.
Thankfully, increased competition in the segment forced the number-crunchers to think beyond how many grocery bags fit in the trunk. And the latest automaker to embrace a less empirical approach is Mazda and its 2014 Mazda6.
Design-wise, it’s a rare instance where the production version looks as sharp as the concept (as painfully evident with the transformation of the Subaru Impreza from concept)—and I’ve never got a thumbs up from onlookers on the street while driving a pedestrian midsize until now. The long hood and short overhang up front, coupled with the flared rear fenders give the illusion of the Mazda6 being an import Dodge Charger.
Plus, the interior sets the standard for the segment; the only way you can tell the “metallic touch” accents are fake is to feel they’re not cold. The cabin’s adorned like an executive office and is classier than the Ford Fusion, whose neon-hued dash looks like the bridge of the Star Trek Enterprise. With the top-of-the-line Grand Touring trim ($29,495), it even looks the part of a mid-range luxury car. Sure, the Mazda6 may lop an inch or two of room here and there from an Accord or Camry if you bring out the calipers, but unless you have pro basketballers for sons or daughters, it’s sufficiently practical.
And what really sets the Mazda6 apart from the rest isn’t its sporty curves, nor an award-winning interior—it’s how the sedan loves to be tossed around corners. Stiffer than the serenely cruising Honda Accord (yet almost as comfortable) and more composed than the Ford Fusion, it clings to the road with tenacity worthy of a Bavarian three-box. For kicks, I drove a Dodge Challenger SRT8 in lead through some twisty mountain roads in Monterey, while a fellow journalist chased in the Mazda6. Whereas the Dodge hobbled through bumpy corners like an aging runner with worn joints, the Mazda sailed through unfettered and tailing close by. Granted, the Mazda6 would quickly disappear from the Mopar muscle's rearview mirror when the road stretched out.
That's not to say the 184 hp inline four is sluggish, but the slightly hesitant throttle tip-in and a 0-60 mph in the high seven-second range mean you won’t beat a V-6 midsize in a drag race to the local Olive Garden. In contrast to its predecessor, a larger, beefier V-block engine isn’t available, but hopefully a turbocharged Mazdaspeed variant is in the works to give a little more kick to the front tires.
The modest power does come with respectable fuel economy though, which fell only a bit short of the EPA estimated 26/38 city/highway mpg. Although getting about 25 mpg in the city, that increased to 35 mpg when cruising above 70 mph. That’s still right in line with the four-cylinder Accords.
One area where Mazda excels is the base price, if you prefer rowing your own gears. At $20,880, it beats out all the major competitors, including the value-minded Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima. The Accord starts at $21,680, but you’d need to spend an additional $1,710 for the more engaging Sport trim.
And that means the Mazda6 is a winner—even when playing the numbers game.