If Mazda can't figure out a way to sell its excellent all-new sedan — the 2014 Mazda6 — the automaker should just give up selling cars altogether.
Mazda has no problem building great vehicles. It just can't seem to sell them. The company has long failed to capitalize on critical acclaim and a track record for reliability with its mid-size sedan — a crucial segment for any automaker.
Part of the problem is of Mazda's own making, with its "Zoom-Zoom" marketing. The automaker has cast itself as the fun-to-drive brand in a family sedan segment in which buyers don't care much about fun. Mazda has acknowledged as much and will seek to appeal to a wider array of car buyers with a more aggressive national advertising campaign for the new 6.
The product should make the sales job easy. Starting at just $21,675, it can drive circles around competitors and look better doing it.
In many ways, the 2014 Mazda6 picks up where the previous generation left off. Though not as polished as the new car, the older 6 was a solid alternative to the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry and Ford Fusion.
The earlier version was also well-received by the press and commended for its reliability by Consumer Reports. But with little advertising support, the car never made it onto many shoppers' lists.
This fact has not gone unnoticed at Mazda.
"The previous generation was a great vehicle," said Russell Wager, Mazda's vice president of marketing. "But it didn't stand out, and we didn't do enough of an effort [selling it]. We were focused more on the Mazda3."
It showed. In 2012, Mazda6 ranked last among mainstream mid-size sedans, with just under 34,000 sold, according to Edmunds.com. The 2012 valedictorian was the Toyota Camry, with almost 405,000 cars sold.
Mazda's sporting character is an asset in the compact segment, where the 3 competes well. But buyers of mid-size sedans want more of an appliance. They care less about power and handling and more about safety, reliability and utility.
The 6 is a Dyson vacuum in a segment where most buyers just want a Hoover.
But would-be Camry (Hoover) buyers would do themselves a favor by checking out the all-new 6. It offers all the safety and fuel economy of competitors while retaining its fun-to-drive character.
The car is powered by a direct-injected 2.5-liter, inline four-cylinder making 184 horsepower and 185 pound-feet of torque. Later this year, a diesel engine will be offered. Though Mazda hasn't revealed official specifications for the U.S., a Mazda6 diesel already for sale in Europe has 173 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque.
Unlike past versions, the 6 will not offer a six-cylinder engine.
The current four-cylinder is quiet, reasonably powerful and sounds fantastic no matter how hard you push it — a rarity in this segment.
With a fuel economy rating of 26 in the city and 38 on the highway, the 6 is just a smidge less efficient than the class-leading Nissan Altima. In 400 miles of testing in mixed driving, we averaged 27 mpg.
The sedan's efficiency is notable because Mazda achieves it without a turbocharged engine or a continuously variable transmission.
Mazda calls this SkyActiv technology, which wrings as much efficiency as possible out of an otherwise traditional drivetrain. The engine is direct injected and uses a high compression ratio, two crucial elements in maintaining power with less fuel.
The 6 is the second new model designed from the ground up with this philosophy; the compact CX-5 crossover was the first. (The Mazda3 has a SkyActiv engine but is due for a complete redesign.) This approach also saves Mazda the research and development costs of developing entirely new transmissions or turbocharged engines. Mazda has also passed on building hybrids, at least for now.
The six-speed automatic transmission on our test car surely helped the 6's efficiency rating. The gearbox upshifted eagerly, searching for the highest possible gear. It does have a manual mode and paddle shifters, though the shifts in this setting lagged a bit.
But the car's crisp handling is what sets it apart. The 6 weighs about the same as its peers but carries it like a well-toned athlete. Family sedan buyers may not prioritize handling, but when it's paired so effectively with efficiency and safety, it never hurts.
That safety is handled by six air bags, stability control, traction control and anti-lock brakes. The loaded Grand Touring model we tested added blind-spot monitoring, adaptive cruise control and a rear traffic alert system. The 6 also garnered the coveted Top Safety Pick Plus designation from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
At $31,190, this version also represents a savvy investment. Mazda piled on amenities such as heated leather seats, a touch-screen navigation system, a Bose sound system, backup camera, 19-inch alloy wheels, LED daytime running lights and moon roof. And you can't put a price on the car's looks — sporty and elegant in a class full of wallflowers.
If this car had a Lexus badge on the front, you could add $15,000 to the price. Unfortunately, the sexy exterior comes at the expense of rear headroom and trunk space, which trails most competitors'.
Another mark against the 6 is its interior. The cabin lacks the refinement of competitors such as the Accord, Altima and Fusion. The navigation system, built by TomTom, proved slow and cumbersome, and the overall design of the cockpit rated a step below Mazda's peers.
Nitpicks aside, the 2014 Mazda6 shouldn't be hard to sell. Mazda's fortunes are already on the upswing. The automaker reported Friday that it had climbed back into the black from deep losses the previous year. Mazda Motor Corp. reported a profit of $347 million in the fiscal year that ended March 31 and expects a profit of $707 million in the next fiscal year.
But the company isn't taking any chances. In the coming months, consumers will see Mazda6 ads on, for instance, the season finale of "Grey's Anatomy," ESPN's "Sportscenter" and billboards in Times Square in New York and along Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. Print ads are planned for "Glamour," "Esquire" and "Money."
The company also has a tie-in for the Mazda6 with advertising for the upcoming "Star Trek" film. Meanwhile, Mazda is spending 40% more than last year on digital advertising.
"I'm just trying to make people a little more aware that they have an alternate choice," Mazda's Wager said.