Mazda is an easy car company to like.
If you're a car enthusiast, you'll enjoy the way Mazda's vehicles always feel a little more finely-honed than the class norm; the way all the controls work harmoniously; the lively feeling of its drivetrains. If you're not a car enthusiast and just want to move from A to B, you'll appreciate the cars' other aspects - practicality, reliability, ease of use.
Such a pity then that so few will experience a car like the Mazda 6 2.0 Skyactiv we've just spent a week with. As a petrol family saloon it's a dying breed - diesels and crossovers are where customers head these days. But by doing so, are they missing out on a car like the new 6?
There's certainly no crossover on sale quite as easy on the eye as the Mazda 6, that's for sure. While we're yet to see how the firm's 'Kodo' design language works on the upcoming new MX-5, it certainly sits well on the 6, the new Mazda 3 and indeed Mazda's own crossover, the CX-5.
The 6 is undoubtedly the most attractive. It's a car of long, flowing lines, attractive proportions and neat details. It's more elegant than its predecessor and while the 530 Blue Reflex paint isn't the colour to best show off its lines, the styling wouldn't look out of place on an Alfa Romeo.
Our test car's 19-inch wheels contribute to the lithe, dynamic look and while the front grille is relatively large, each detail on the car looks in proportion with every other. Like the Kia Optima we tested last year, Mazda has proven there's life in the old three-box saloon yet.
It's a large car though - not dissimilar in size to a BMW 5-Series. This we found to our cost when negotiating a tight 1960s-built multi-storey car park, where we thwacked a wheel against a down-ramp kerb. Sorry, Mazda...
Mazda has played it safe with the 6's innards. For some, the sight of uniform black plastic and leather trim may seem like an opportunity wasted; for others, the simple, uncomplicated layout with its near-perfect ergonomics will be a breath of fresh-air in a market of increasingly complicated cabins.
The seats, electrically-adjustable on this example, proved utterly comfortable during a trip from Yorkshire to London and back. The three-spoke wheel is nice to hold, the dials a paragon of clarity and the familiarity of the TomTom satnav a welcome change from proprietary navigation systems.
Visibility is more than acceptable and refinement better still - this is a genuinely quiet, relaxing car at speed. And solidly-built, as we've come to expect from cars built by Mazda. The back seats easily accommodate adults, while the 483-litre boot should take their luggage with little effort.
We'd love to know who specified the dashboard trim though. The dark metallic red plastic strip spanning the dashboard is one of the most incongruous strips of polycarbonate we've ever seen, and surely the result of an accidental mass-order of 1980s sci-fi plastic rather than any pre-meditated trim choice.
The 6 isn't a one-trick pony, but if it were, the way it drives would be that trick. It's far better to drive than any run-of-the-mill family saloon has a right to. While horrendously clichd to say so, Mazda's old Zoom-Zoom PR guff - likening every car to the MX-5 sports car - really isn't too far from the truth, here.
Most surprising is that this liveliness doesn't come at the expense of refinement. At motorway speeds the 6 is hushed and engine noise fades to a distant hum. It's quiet at lower speeds too, but the fizzy engine is just audible enough to provide some level of interaction.
It rides well too, despite those large-ish wheels. It could be softer, but at no point do you wish it actuallywas - the firm, sporty setup absorbs bumps yet allows for tenacious grip and surprising agility.
Coupled to quick steering you can thread the 6 down a country road as you might an MX-5. No, seriously. Okay, you may find those last few degrees of interaction lacking - where a 3-Series or Mondeo might deliver them - but the 6 is still up with the best in class for everyday driveability and fun.
The 2-litre, four cylinder engine under the 6's sculpted nose is one of Mazda's new generation of 'Skyactiv' units. We won't bore you with the technical details;all you need to know is that Mazda claims it offers a better mix of economy and performance without the complication of hybrid systems or turbochargers.
On the first count, it can be judged a success. Officially, the 165 PS model on test will do 47.9 mpg, with 135 g/km CO2 emissions and a tax bill of 125 a year. A diesel will use less fuel and be cheaper to tax, but we doubt it'd get as close to the official numbers - after a week with the 6, mainly on motorways but with a few B-road blasts here and there and a tedious schlep through London traffic, the trip computer showed a 45 mpg average.
Better still is that the engine isn't the soulless lump you might expect it to be in this class of car. Outright performance won't impress internet keyboard warriors - 0-60 in 9.1 seconds and 134 mph - but the responsive throttle, raspy exhaust note and snappy gearchange will make you glad you skipped the diesel.
The engine is smooth, soars to the red line without complaint and never intrudes more than you'd want it to. That it's as frugal as it is, is a real bonus.
Value for money
Opt for a basic petrol Mazda 6, with its lower 145 PS output and SE trim, and you'll pay 19,595. That's more than you'd pay for a similarly equipped and similarly brisk Mondeo, less than an equivalent Passat, and a great deal less than an equivalent BMW 3-Series.
Our own test car cost 24,195, with a sole option of Reflex Blue metallic paint at 530. At this point it's lifted above any petrol Mondeo available with matching equipment, but still in the Passat ballpark. It's not too vexing to tax though, it's certainly economical, and Mazda's reliability should ensure modest servicing costs.
For the record, a Mazda CX-5 in identical trimis similarly priced and matches most of the 6's vital statistics...
The Mazda 6 2.0 Skyactiv is a very good car that very few people will buy. And yes, those buyers really are missing out on a prime cut of saloon by engorging themselves from the crossover bowl.
There is no crossover on sale as fun to drive as the 6, nor as pretty, and it proves that there's still entertainment to be had in apparently mundane vehicles. In the past we've dismissed the claim that absolutely every car needsto be fun to drive, but the 6 is a compelling counterargument - it's nice when a carmaker puts in that little extra effort. You're not even missing out on comfort, refinement or economy either - each is present and correct here.
If there's one real fault it's that price parity with Mazda's own CX-5. Given the choice of semi-sporting sedan and fashionable pseudo off-roader in the same showroom, we can't see many modern buyers choosing the former.