LAGUNA BEACH, CA – Mazda North American Operations has had a string of good luck since it launched its Mazda6 midsize car lineup three years ago.

The successful Mazda6 now comes in three variants (a sedan, wagon, and 5-door hatchback) and has helped make the niche Japanese auto maker a serious contender in one of the market's most scrutinized segments – not to mention injected a vital sales boost.

The not-so-stodgy sedan is the best-seller of the three variants. It is a vehicle tailor-made for the car buyer who needs a sedan but doesn't want to sacrifice style or performance by buying the typical box-on-wheels.

Mazda improves on 6's looks.

For parents who want to be the coolest in the carpool group, Mazda now unleashes the Mazdaspeed6, bridging its best-selling midsize car with its Mazdaspeed performance brand.

Mazda has modest expectations for the Mazdaspeed6, which comes only in the sedan body style. Just 5,000 annual sales in the U.S. are expected out of the 12,000-unit worldwide run.

The auto maker says buyers will be loyalists, but it also is hoping to redirect those pondering a base model BMW 3-Series or Mercedes-Benz C-Class.

Mazda likely will not emerge as a “destination” brand that competes with the high-line Europeans, so the new Mazdaspeed6 comes up short on its mission. Still, the Mazdaspeed6 is a good car that deserves more attention than the mere 5,000 buyers Mazda hopes to snag.

Realistically, the 4-cyl. Mazdaspeed6's likely competition is other racing-inspired offerings, such as the Subaru WRX STi and Mitsubishi Evolution.

But these cars lack the basic refinement and creature comforts found in the Mazdaspeed6. Like many Mazda models, the new Mazdaspeed6 appears to be in a segment by itself.

The car is noteworthy in many ways, one of which is the long-promised inclusion of all-wheel drive to the Mazda6 architecture, which required significant packaging changes.

Mazda is not able to equip standard 4-cyl.-powered Mazda6 variants with AWD due to lack of horsepower, and the unique instrument panel in V-6 Mazda6 models prevents an AWD application.

The system in the Mazdaspeed6 is an active torque split design, with a center differential that distributes power to the front and rear axles in a front/rear range from a 100/0 to 50/50.

The driver feels the rear wheels accepting drive torque when entering a sharp turn at high speeds.

Mazda has beefed up the existing Mazda6 chassis – double wishbones up front and advanced multilink setup in the vehicle's rear – to support the AWD system, using new crossmembers that add stiffness and hefty anti-roll bars for steadiness.

The other noteworthy hardware upgrade for the Mazdaspeed6 is its turbocharged 2.3L DOHC I-4 featuring direct-injection gasoline (DIG) technology.

The DIG system and turbocharging hikes the power of this engine (a global architecture used extensively by Mazda and parent Ford Motor Co.) from the 160 hp and 155 lb.-ft. (210 Nm) of torque it makes in normally aspirated, port-injected configuration to a whopping 274 hp and 280 lb.-ft. (380 Nm) of torque. The one and only transmission is a 6-speed manual.

Mazda's Direct Injection Spark Ignition system (DISI), one of the first to combine DIG with turbocharging, primarily improves low and mid-range torque, Mazda says.

For comparison purposes, a base 3-Series uses a 3L I-6 that makes 215 hp and 185 lb.-ft. (251 Nm) of torque, and the C-Class entry engine is a 2.5L V-6 producing 201 hp and 181 lb.-ft. (245 Nm) of torque.

One has to move up to the upper-specification levels in these premium-badge cars to even approach the Mazdaspeed6's power and torque.

Mazda engineers say the DISI system also improves emissions and fuel economy. The Mazdaspeed6, despite its impressive engine output, is rated at a respectable 20 mpg (11.8 L/100 km) city and 26 mpg (9 L/100 km) highway.

Good quality materials found inside.

The vehicle's interior employs soft-touch materials for the IP and good-looking metallic finishes on knobs, pedals and door handles. The headliner material is a sporty and appealing woven mesh.

Exterior styling cues differentiate the Mazdaspeed6 from a standard Mazda6 with new front and rear fascias, a bulged hood to accommodate the engine's intercooler, flared front fenders and a thankfully restrained lip spoiler for the trunk.

All interior and exterior styling cues make an already good-looking vehicle even better.

Mazdaspeed6 pricing begins at $27,995 for a fully equipped base model. Only one option package is available, the Grand Touring, which includes Xenon headlights; heated front seats and door mirrors; 8-way power adjustable driver's seat; black leather-trimmed seats; and Mazda's Advanced Keyless Entry and Start System.

A black and white leather-seat scheme is available in the first year. The Grand Touring package adds $1,930 to the base model's price. Destination and handling charges are $560.

After a self-imposed delay to enable some last-minute tweaking, the Mazdaspeed6 arrived at the 300-odd U.S. Mazdaspeed dealers certified to sell the special car in mid-November.

The Mazdaspeed6 is an intriguing addition to the existing Mazda6 lineup. But buyers intent on a premium badge likely will not consider it, despite its formidable performance advantages.

Mazda is no luxury brand. But that isn't necessarily a bad thing – as those who buy the Mazdaspeed6, a “sleeper” if ever there was one, will discover to their delight.