About a month ago, I had dinner with a friend. I told her I was going to Paris to drive a car. That's not something you hear in every conversation, so she was interested.
"What kind of car?" she asked.
"A Mazda," I said.
She nearly spit out her beer.
"A MAZDA?" she said. "I figured if you were going to Paris, you'd be driving an Aston Martin, or at least a BMW or something. But a Mazda?"
I assured her that I would, in fact, be driving a Mazda, and that it would be fine. But her reaction speaks to Mazda's problem. It's an unglamorous brand struggling to survive in the second tier of car companies. Though 2012 looks a bit brighter, largely because of a successful rollout of its new CX-5 crossover, Mazda has spent several years operating in the red, trying to find a formula that will help it to overcome flat sales and the challenges from larger automakers.
Enter the new 2014 Mazda6, the company's refresh of a product that long ago lost any luster it may have once possessed. The Mazda6 falls into the mid-sized family sedan category, placing it in the industry equivalent of a soccer tournament's Group Of Death. Its direct competitors—the Honda Accord, the Toyota Camry, the Hyundai Sonata, the Nissan Altima, the Ford Fusion, and so on--aren't always the world's greatest cars, and certainly aren't the most glamorous, but many of them sell in vast numbers, have incredible name recognition, and run forever without breaking down. They all possess weaknesses, but this mix of established names and strong up-and-comers make it a steep task for Mazda to establish any kind of leadership in the category.
Let's examine the evidence. The Mazda6 was designed using something known as "KODO-Soul Of Motion," which sounds like the title of an early '90s direct-to-video action flick, but it actually seems to work as a design philosophy. The result is something reasonably slim and aerodynamic-looking, with a strong stance, clear lines, and an overall appearance that's sportier than average for the category. That may have had to do with the fact that Mazda presented it to us in the brightly lit courtyard of a 14th century French chateau, an environment that could make Chris Christie in a prom dress look good.
The inside is equally unfussy, with comfortable leather seats that have great lumbar support, a reasonably roomy rear cabin, and a gimmick-free, mostly analog instrument panel that may owe its existence to Mazda's money troubles rather than some kind of desire to create a throwback to counter the current techno-spread that plagues contemporary vehicles. That said, Mazda hasn't skimped on the safety tech. The car has all kinds of advanced systems — lane departure warnings, automatic braking, even rain sensors — and they were all fully operational and working well. It also had a really nice Bose sound system.
I drove the Mazda6 in, or at least near, Paris, spending six largely flat hours across dull suburban secondary highways, over semi-narrow farm roads, and through featureless suburban towns. That's probably the test that the Mazda6, and most family sedans, deserve. You wouldn't want to tackle Mont Blanc in this thing.
My drive partner and I got a 2.5-liter, 189-hp four-cylinder engine with a six-speed automatic transmission. It was very responsive, with excellent steering and decent power. On the rare occasions that we got to try it around tight corners, it handled its challenges with style. The Mazda6 provided a pleasant ride, even a fun one. When my partner, who has nearly 20 years in the car game on me, tried a few hard stops, he pronounced the brakes "good enough." Overall, the car had a bit more than that.
Throughout the trip, our Mazda minders kept feeding us a couple of phrases: "It's not a beige Camry," and "it's the most driver's car in its category." The first one was demonstrably true, the other one purely subjective. For me, at least, the Mazda6 was a strangely personal drive, a car that felt more intimate the longer I sat behind the wheel. Most cars, even the good ones, aren't very likeable. This one was.
But even as I enjoyed myself, I wondered how Mazda would position this car in the market. It's too zippy to be a real family sedan, and not really roomy and relaxed enough. In general, the whole 6 rollout feels like an exercise in managed expectations. Mazda told us it estimates that the 6 will sell about 40,000 units in the United States, which isn't bad if it happens, but it's also not really going to move the needle.
Then there's the fact that the car we drove in France isn't the car that's going to arrive on North American shores early next year. At a casual dinner on a Saturday night, after four days of pure Mazda immersion, the company let it slip: The U.S. version of the 6 would have different tires, different wheels, a different suspension, and a different compression ratio in the engine. When the overstuffed, slightly drunk press corps at the table began to shuffle restlessly, a spokesman assured us it would be "98 percent the same car." Fair enough, but the pieces that comprise the two percent are pretty important to a car's performance. They'd been foisting foie gras down our gullets all weekend, but that revelation left a bitter taste.
In other words, when it comes to the U.S. Mazda6, my guess is only slightly more informed than yours. Still, I can say with 98 percent assurance that it's a reasonably interesting car that's fun to drive. The unknown variables, which include, by the way, price and fuel economy, remain a bit troubling. But I'll always have Paris.