MERY-SUR-OISE, France– Mazda is looking to muscle in on a bigger stake in the midsize car market with its all-new Mazda6, which hits U.S. dealer showrooms early next year.

With styling derived from the auto maker’s “Kodo soul of motion” design language, the model is meant to embody “beauty, strength and the motion of animals,” Chief Designer Akira Tamatani says, and it sure looks like the new Mazda6 is ready to pounce on the first Toyota Camry or Honda Accord it sees.

The restyling job doesn’t mark as big a departure from its previous-generation roots as the current Hyundai Sonata or the upcoming Ford Fusion, but it is a more dramatic re-do than the new Camry or Accord.

Whether viewed as conservative or daring, one thing is clear: It looks good.

The revamped Mazda6, which will be designated a ’14 model when it bows in the U.S., features a rising front-to-rear profile, bulging fenders and sinewy character lines that indeed make the car look like a cheetah on the prowl.

The hood is chiseled around the car’s large light-emitting-diode headlamps (a first for Mazda) and flows into the brand’s signature grille that continues to smile but now is more Mona Lisa than a full funhouse grin.

“Mature” is a word executives use over and over to describe the design philosophy, and it’s true. The ’14 Mazda6 looks more grown up, including on the inside where wood and chrome-type accents and softer materials take some of the edge off the car’s sport-sedan DNA, making passengers feel a little more welcome inside the cabin.

Two body styles will be offered. But the U.S. will get only the sedan, not the wagon that is the model of choice here in Europe.

Mazda has readied five fuel-efficient Skyactiv engines for the new car, with availability depending on market.

First up is the 2.0L 4-cyl. turned out in either 143-hp or 162-hp dress. Topping the line is the 2.5L engine that delivers 189 hp at 5,700 rpm and 189 lb.-ft. (256 Nm) of torque at 3,250 rpm. It is the only engine confirmed for the U.S. market.

The auto maker also will drop its new 2.2L 4-cyl. turbodiesel under the hood of the new Mazda6, where it is expected to account for upwards of 70% of sales in the European market. Two renditions will be offered, one rated at 147 hp and 280 lb.-ft. (380 Nm) of torque and a high-output version listed at 173 hp and 309 lb.-ft. (420 Nm).

Both 6-speed manual and automatic Skyactiv transmissions are available with all engines.

Mazda bills the whole fuel-economy-focused lineup as “sustainable zoom-zoom,” with the 2.0L engines boasting maximum combined mileage of 42.7 mpg (5.5 L/100 km) and the 2.5L rated at 37.3 mpg (6.3 L/100 km) in European-cycle driving.

Fuel-economy bogeys aren’t available yet for the U.S., but the auto maker says its goal with the 2.5L is to be best-in-class, meaning it will have to improve a bit on its European score to match the Nissan Altima’s listed 38 mpg (6.2 L/100) overall average.

Our test drive here is limited to a couple of Euro-spec sedans with the high-output diesel/manual transmission combination and 2.5L/automatic powertrain. Cars are preproduction units, but it is hard to tell. Fit and finish appear impeccable inside and out.

Although its chances for the U.S. remain uncertain, the compression-ignition engine is the clear winner here. It is unusually high-revving for a diesel, which helps the car retain its sport-sedan personality, and its low-end torque delivery gets the Mazda6 moving quickly.

Yes, there’s a bit of diesel chatter and shake at idle, but that goes away at speed. The Skyactiv manual is a smooth shifter that helps sell the notion a diesel-powered car can be fun to drive, too.

The test model is fitted with Mazda’s i-STOP stop/start system and its new i-ELOOP power-storage technology, which help deliver 36 mpg (6.5 L/100 km) in a 66-mile (109-km) circuit of mixed driving here along motorways and through tiny, speed-limited rural burgs.

I-STOP could benefit from a little more refinement. But i-ELOOP, which grabs energy normally wasted during deceleration, stores it in a capacitor and then uses it to power accessories, works seamlessly. Brakes aren’t too grabby, and the coast down to zero goes smoothly.

The 2.5L/automatic combo also works well, but the powertrain skews more toward competitive than exceptional, particularly considering some cars in the segment have V-6 options to offer. Paddle shifters give the driver a little more control, but the transmission is plenty responsive if left on its own.

A kick-down switch increases accelerator-pedal resistance if a downshift is imminent, providing more control over the transmission in automatic mode. When resistance is felt, the driver either can back off the throttle to prevent the downshift and force the transmission to use up all available torque first or apply more pressure to deliver an immediate kick-down. It’s a nice performance touch that separates the car from its more mundane brethren.

A big emphasis was placed on reducing weight in the new Mazda6, and it shows. The car feels nimble on the road. The electric power steering is direct and responsive, not over-boosted like some cars in this segment.

Wander outside the lines, however, and the lane-departure warning system emits an annoying, low-frequency sound that will make you want to steer more accurately – or simply shut the device off.

Inside, drivers will find supportive seats, sport-styled instrumentation and a nicely weighted, perfectly sized steering wheel. Test cars featured up-level trim, which includes a so-so TomTom navigation system with console-mounted controls. Soft materials abound in strategic places, such as along the door panels, and the available 2-tone color treatment adds to the luxury feel.

There are plenty of buttons and dials on the steering wheel, dash and console that put accessories within easy reach. If anything, there are too many redundancies, with identical switches surrounding the infotainment system as on the center console, both controlling many of the same functions available through the touchscreen. It doesn’t look bad, but it may not be the best use of space.

Mazda gets extra points for the cool gauges that show the state of charge for the i-ELOOP system and how much time the engine has been shut down by i-STOP over the car’s lifetime.

There’s plenty of rear-seat room, and the trunk appears to easily have enough space for a couple of golf bags, even without the back seats folded down.

Overall, the ride is smooth and quiet, with slight wind noise near the A-pillar the only real disturbance in the preproduction test cars.

There’s a host of safety equipment available, from radar-based cruise control, smart-brake assist, rearview monitoring, adaptive front lighting, automatic high-beam control and antilock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution. Not everything will be available in every market, though.

Pricing and specific details about the U.S.-market cars will come closer to sales launch, but there will be some changes in suspension tuning, wheels and trim made for American buyers.

A-, B- and C-pillar exterior panels will be finished in glossy black, rather than flat black, for instance. Still being debated, but appearing unlikely, is whether i-STOP will be offered, though i-ELOOP will be standard on some models.

Overall, the Mazda6 is a solid entry that doesn’t disappoint. Getting noticed in the crowded, highly competitive U.S. midsize-car market will be the challenge for the Japanese auto maker, which still doesn’t show up on the radar screens of many shoppers.

Hey, Mazda: Offering that diesel might be one way to make the car stand out from the fray.

dzoia@wardsauto.com

 

’14 Mazda6 Sedan
Vehicle type 4-door, 5-passenger, front-wheel-drive car
Engine 2.5L DOHC gasoline 4-cyl.
Power (SAE net) 189 hp @ 5,700 rpm
Torque 189 lb.-ft. (256 Nm) at 3,250 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 89.0 x 100.0
Compression ratio 13:1
Transmission 6-speed manual/6-speed automatic
Wheelbase 111.4 ins. (283.0 cm)
Overall length 191.7 ins. (487.0 cm)
Overall width 72.4 ins. (184.0 cm)
Overall height 57.1 ins. (145.0 cm)
Curb weight 2,998 lbs. (1,360 kg)
Base price N.A.
Fuel economy 37.2 mpg combined (Euro cycle)
Competition Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima, Nissan Altima, Toyota Camry
Pros Cons
Strong profile Too many buttons
Clever i-ELOOP Lane-departure signal grates
Diesel engine Diesel uncertain for U.S.