Test Drive: 2014 Mazda6 with SkyActiv Technology (38 MPG on the highway)

2014 Mazda6
© Mazda

Ok, let's clear one thing up right at the start: The 2014 Mazda6 with SkyActiv Technology is not a hybrid. There is no electric motor powering the vehicle at low loads and no battery pack.

That was a common misconception when the first SkyActiv vehicles started hitting the roads—and started achieving impossibly high MPG for a "traditional" internal combustion engine. As high as the EPA estimated 38 MPG highway for the new Mazda6. So even though we normally reserve this space for greener vehicles of the hybrid and electric variety, I gave the new 6 a test run to see how "SkyActiv" works, how it affects the driving experience, and how it stacks up to the hybrid competition.

© Mazda

The "Sustainable Zoom-Zoom" Directive Behind SkyActiv

Back in 2007, Mazda gave its engineers a mission: Raise the average fuel economy of their vehicles a staggering 30%. Without dragging you through all the engineering details, they're achieving their goal using a combination of lighter bodies and chassis powered by lighter transmissions and engines—engines with optimized thermal efficiency, a compression ratio pushed to extremes, and lowered mechanical friction loss, among other factors, that contribute to the higher fuel efficiency. Basically they've done whatever they could to squeeze a mile here, another mile there, out of an engine without having to pair it with an electric motor.

A 2.5L, 16-valve 4-cylinder SkyActiv engine provides the juice to the new 6 and pushes a respectable 184 horsepower—giving this mid-sized sedan enough "Zoom-Zoom" to make you forget you're in a car made to be stingy on fuel.

Mazda made its bones on the racetrack, and they've made sure some of that speedy DNA remains, making for a car that's more fun to drive than your average eco auto. The week I was behind the wheel provided enough smiles, enough "get me to the twisties right now" driving fun, that the fact I was edging just over 36 MPG on the gauge was a welcome bonus. Know that in the new 6 you won't be trading performance for economy.

© Mazda

i-ELOOP Regenerative Braking

Who says hybrids have the lock on regen braking? The '14 Mazda6 is the first production vehicle to feature their new i-ELOOP technology. Also designed to help wring out more miles from a gallon of fuel, the i-ELOOP is the world’s first capacitor-based brake energy regeneration system to provide power to all the electrical mechanisms in the car, like the a/c and audio components, without the need for an electric motor or heavy batteries. Mazda says this makes the system more efficient, more compact and lighter than traditional systems, resulting in an improvement in fuel economy of up to 5% depending on road conditions and how heavy your right foot is.

A Facelift for 2014

When the Soul Red 6 was dropped in my driveway, my first reaction was this is not the usual boxy affair you picture when someone says "mid-size sedan." (I mean, I almost nodded off just typing the words "mid-size sedan.") The new-look 6 is the latest and sexiest vehicle to get the KODO "Soul of Motion" design makeover, with swooping lines and an elongated hood influenced by the Takeri concept vehicle, suggesting power and elegance just sitting still.

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A Lot of Techno Bang for the Buck

Slide into the driver's seat and take a look at what they've done on the inside—they've managed to pack a head-spinning array of toys into a package that starts at $20,880 and tops out at around $31,490 with everything you can imagine included. The loaded iGrand Touring model I tested came decked out with the usual new tech you'd expect: Tom Tom based navi, dual zone climate control, keyless entry, 11-speaker Bose Surround Sound system, power moonroof, power seats—but it also came equipped with some great-to-have safety technology you usually see in higher priced vehicles. Like the Smart City Brake Support (SCBS) system that helps you avoid front collisions in speeds under 19 mph, like in congested city driving or clogged highway traffic, by engaging the brakes when it senses you're too close to the car in front of you.

© Mazda

I also go to try out their new Mazda Radar Cruise Control (MRCC), an amazing piece of tech genius that lets you set a choice of distances from the car in front of you while the cruise control is activated. Get too close, and it decelerates or applies the brake as necessary. When the car in front speeds up, it'll hit the gas until you hit your preset cruise speed. My girlfriend loved this, because it prevented me from tailgating the "idiots" who drive too slow in the left lane. And while that did frustrate me, in regular traffic or on a long trip it's a great feature to have if you like hitting the cruise and resting your foot.

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Bottom Line

It's encouraging to see car manufacturers designing and building non hybrids that can come close to achieving the kind of MPG we've come to expect from hybrids—but without the heavy batteries (and the manufacturing and environmental issues that go along with them) and the added "hybrid premium" bump to the sticker price. Not just the Mazda6 and its EPA estimated 38 highway, but the Nissan Altima at 38MPG highway, the Honda Accord's 36 and the Toyota Camry's 35 as well.

The Mazda6 also offers a zippy ride, top handling and some serious gadgetry for a reasonable price. All in a pretty sexy package. So if your goal is to not only save fuel but have some fun while driving, this is your car.

See also: Tesla Model S gets highest safety score of any car ever tested by NHTSA (5.4 stars)

Tags: Transportation