Sometimes, being different doesn’t mean getting a lot of attention.
Mazda views itself as a car company that likes to shake up the status quo, bringing everything from the MX-5 Miata roadster to the Wankel rotary-powered RX-7 to production. So what did Mazda do when its competitors turned to exotic turbocharged engines and hybrids to increase their products’ fuel economy?
Mazda’s answer isn’t a radically new type of engine, but they did create the “SkyActiv” system. Flashy name aside, Mazda’s Skyactiv powertrains and chassis rely on fairly conventional technologies, and a fair bit of technology. Skyactiv uses average-sized, naturally aspirated four-cylinder engines at its heart, without a battery, turbocharger, supercharger or electric motor in sight.
Can Skyactiv’s old-school engine and new-school tech approach offer the power and fuel economy of its competitors? We put a 2014 Mazda6 i Touring through its paces to find out.
What is Skyactiv?
Skyactiv is a comprehensive suite of changes that is hard to explain in one word, which might explain why Mazda felt the need to invent a new word to brand it.
Starting with the bare bones, Mazda says it’s increased the car’s rigidity and lowered the weight compared to previous models, thanks to increased use of high-tensile steel, revised manufacturing processes, and a redesigned suspension system.
The Skyactiv-MT (six-speed manual) and Skyactiv-Drive (automatic) transmissions have also been reworked in a way that defines the term “neurotic.” Have you ever looked at your stick shift and thought “Hmm, if only the shifter throw was 5mm shorter”? Mazda did.
Topping it all off is the 2.5-liter Skyactiv-G four-cylinder engine. To make the most of its small size, Mazda gave it a high 13:1 compression ratio and variable dual sequential valve timing. The engine itself also weighs less and has less internal friction than previous iterations, the folks from Hiroshima say.
The result of all of that cleverness is 184 horsepower and 185 pound/feet of torque. That’s perfectly adequate for a bread-and-butter midsize sedan, but this engine is currently the only choice. Competitors offer more powerful turbocharged (Ford, Hyundai, Kia) or V6 (Honda, Nissan, Toyota, Volkswagen) upgrades.
The Mazda6 had a prominent advertising connection with Star Trek: Into Darkness. Was Mazda just setting itself up for jokes involving that famous line from Montgomery Scott about the need for more power?
On the road
Slip into the nicely bolstered driver’s seat and give the four-banger a few revs, though, and all thoughts of power inadequacy disappear.
It’s combination of fuel economy and sportiness proves that there’s still life left in conventional internal combustion.
The eager engine is matched by a well-tuned chassis. The steering is quick and provides plenty of two-way communication between the driver and the road. Steering inputs are following quickly by results, and there’s a decent amount of feedback from the road surface.
The 6 is still a midsize sedan of course, but its peppiness and character mean you won’t feel like you’ve failed at life if you buy one. Mazda is not along in this engine choice. Basic four-cylinder engines provide adequate power in the majority of midsize sedans on the road. Mazda’s just gives those same buyers a little extra without going overboard.
Our review car’s Skyactiv-G engine was teamed with the Skyactiv-MT six-speed manual transmission. It did its job perfectly well, aside from somewhat abrupt clutch takeup.
Shades of green
Turning the morning commute into a race is fun, but what about fuel economy? Should Mazda have shrunk the engine, or added an electric motor? The EPA rates our mid-range Touring model ($23,445 MSRP) at 25 mpg city, 37 mpg highway, and 29 mpg combined. Cars with an automatic return 26 mpg city, 38 mpg highway, and 30 mpg combined.
During our week with the Mazda6, we averaged 27.5 mpg in mixed driving, including some around-town puttering and a race to the local premiere of Pacific Rim. None of this involved any particular care regarding mpg, so it seems Mazda6 buyers can expect good fuel economy in real world driving, and even better results if they actually try to go light on the pedal.
However, the story doesn’t end there. While there isn’t a more powerful engine option, there are technology options than can further increase fuel economy.
Upgrading to the top Grand Touring model ($29,695) with the GT Technology Package ($2,080) nets Mazda’s i-eLoop regenerative braking system. The system, which stores energy recovered from braking in large capacitors to run the car’s electrical accessories, boosts fuel economy to 28 mpg city, 40 mpg highway, and 32 mpg combined since the engine has to work less to spin the alternator. Clever.
Mazda will also offer a 2.2-liter diesel four, called Skyactiv-D, later this year. Like most diesels, it will probably offer a fuel economy advantage over its gasoline counterpart but won’t outperform it.
Sweet styling, sour tech
The Skyactiv powertrain is coupled to a capable midsize sedan, although it will probably appeal more to car enthusiasts looking for a sporty ride than techies looking for ultimate connectivity. We’re blessed to live in an age where many average cars look fantastic, and the Mazda6’s Kodo design theme, also seen on the CX-5 and the newly redesigned Mazda3, is a case in point.
The look is not as dramatic as the Ford Fusion or Hyundai Sonata, but the 6’s more elegant lines work just as well.
Underneath the skin, the cockpit is basic black with some shiny plastic trim that was already smudged on our barely broken-in sample. We found it delightfully understated although some buyers might wish for more flash or a more premium feel.
The front seats were very comfortable and their ample bolstering kept bodies in place during vigorous cornering. The rear seating area felt a little smaller than those of comparable cars, but there was still a decent amount of head and legroom.
The major fault lies with the tech. Mazda drivers will have to rely on a combination of buttons, a touch screen, and a rotary control knob to control audio and navigation functions; it can be a bit challenging while slicing through traffic. The 6’s iPod integration was also decidedly clunky. There was significant lag when reading a device plugged into the car’s onboard USB port, and more lag any time driver or passenger tried to call up a song or switch menus.
Today’s car buyers demand a lot from their cars, and Mazda has provided a decent compromise between several of those demands with the 6. People want a car that sips fuel, but won’t be a slug on the road.
The 2014 Mazda6 pulls off that compromise nicely. For a car that competes with the Toyota Camry, it’s remarkably sporty. It also delivers respectable fuel economy. If you strongly value performance or fuel economy, the Mazda6 isn’t for you. There are plenty of purpose-built sports sedans and sports cars, hybrids and EVs that can do either or. Few cars do both.
For most people, though, Skyactiv works as advertised. It’s combination of fuel economy and sportiness proves that there’s still life left in conventional internal combustion.
- Fun to drive
- Good fuel economy
- Great to look at
- Clunky iPod integration
- Chintzy interior materials
- Many fuel-saving features are optional