Auto review: Mazda finally finds its midsize groove with stylish 6

Back in the day, Mazda gave us the odd-boy RX-8, a discordant little sports coupe that looked like it got caught in a bad divorce.

Somebody stretched the sportster here, squashed it there and then punched and jerked it all over.

Then we got the Mazda5, a crossover/mini-minivan that rolled off the assembly line looking as if it got hit by a fully loaded shopping cart at Trader Joe’s.

Stylized door gouges came standard, along with a grille inspired by either the Joker or Alfred E. Neuman.

Both vehicles, by the way, drove and handled great. They just lacked touch, springing from the more-is-never-enough, scoops-and-wings school of design.

So how could we possibly anticipate the 2014 Mazda6, a runway dazzler in a segment once defined by the utilitarian Toyota Camry?

We couldn’t. And few of us foresaw the recent infusion of new style from midsize sedans like the 6, the Ford Fusion, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima and even the restyled Honda Accord.

Mazda found some really fine lines when it completely restyled the 6.

The metallic-white Grand Touring model I had recently wore a big, bold blacked-out grille carrying an enormous black Mazda emblem in the middle.

Though its main mission in life is to haul people to soccer fields and grocery stores and office buildings, its windshield was shoved back rakishly — like something hammered out for the Autobahn.

Unlike most front-wheel-drive cars, the 6 also had a long, broad hood and sensuously curved top that gave it the aggressive proportions of an upscale rear-wheel-drive sedan.

And while the car sported large, practical doors, the sides carried three finely etched character lines that gave the 6 some lean, defined muscle.

The 6 that I tested rode on good-looking 10-spoke alloy wheels shod with fairly serious 225/45-19-inch tires, further embellishing its sport-sedan veneer.

If you’ve grown weary of busy interiors with large, over-the-top center stacks, you would have appreciated the unusual black and off-white duds in mine.

The black dashboard was old-school flat on top, curving down to a sleek, high-mounted navigation screen, subtle center stack and large instrument panel.

That instrument panel, combined with the car’s graceful three-spoke Mazda steering wheel, says: “Let’s find a curvy two-lane country road.”

Before we get too carried away, though, the car also has a back seat that’s easily big enough to transport your moody 14-year-old and two of his large, sullen friends – plus all of their digital devices and giant clothes.

Mazda, however, worked pretty hard to keep the family-friendly 6 playful. Plopped down in the midst of well-designed, highly functional interior pieces were black and off-white seats that looked to have been lifted from Jerry Lee Lewis’ ‘58 Caddy.

I only wish Mazda had injected a bit more zest into the engine compartment.

One of Mazda’s weapons to deal with ever-increasing federal fuel-economy standards is its new “Skyactiv” four-cylinder engines.

On paper, they look pretty darn formidable, employing direct fuel injection, tuned exhaust manifolds, good breathing and massive 13:1 compression.

But in reality, the motors tend to be soft andw kind of gutless down low, delivering far better miles per gallon than miles per hour.

(One rumor I’ve read on the Internet is that the engines were designed to have even higher compression, but Mazda decreased it in U.S. cars, feeling that we cheap Americans wouldn’t spring for the premium fuel the engines really need.)

Whatever happened, the 2.5-liter Skyactiv four in the 6, while hardly an enthusiast’s motor, is better than the 2-liter version in the Mazda3.

Smooth and refined, the 2.5 is as sleepy down low as the 2-liter version, so don’t expect to wow the boys and girls at the Dairy Queen with smoky burnouts.

Prod it hard, though, and the engine slowly awakens, pulling pretty well above 4,000 rpm. Its co-conspirator in these little bursts of speed is a solid six-speed automatic.

Sixty miles per hour takes nearly 8 seconds to arrive. Nonetheless, the 6 feels reasonably quick and gets 26 miles per gallon in the city and 38 on the highway, pretty impressive numbers for a 3,200-pound sedan.

And for many buyers in the midsize segment, fuel economy always trumps performance.

Still, one reason the 6 feels kind of special is its firm, almost German-like ride and decent handling.

While it may be a bit too sporting for some, the suspension on the 6 keeps body motions in control and is a willing accomplice if you get a sudden attack of Speed Racer.

Turn-in to corners is competent, though not especially crisp, and the 6 struggles a bit to find a line through curves.

But the car maintains its balance and grip admirably while being subjected to abuses most midsize sedans would avoid.

Likewise, the steering is quick and well-weighted for a front-wheel-drive grocery-getter, occasionally tempting you to do things that will draw sharp rebukes from your partner in the passenger seat.

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2014 Mazda6 Grand Touring

Type of vehicle: Five-passenger, front-wheel-drive midsize sedan

Fuel economy: 26 miles per gallon city, 38 highway

Weight: About 3,200 pounds

Engine: 2.5-liter four-cylinder with 184 horsepower and 185 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Performance: 0 to 60 mph in 7.9 seconds

Base price, excluding destination charge: $20,880

Price as tested, including destination charge: $31,390

SOURCES: Mazda North America; Car and Driver

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