First Drive: Mazda6 saloon

NOW in its third generation, Mazda's 6 saloon and Tourer - that's estate to you and me - model line-up has been developed with low fuel consumption and greater driver enjoyment in mind. Given the competitive nature of the medium-size car market, such claims are nothing new. What's different is the way Mazda has approached the subject.

Starting with its CX-5 SUV, Mazda sought to reduce fuel consumption and emissions to levels of a car from the class below in a bid to square the 'large car, big fuel bill' circle. By building a lighter but stronger car weight was reduced. The inclusion of lighter and more efficient engines and transmissions further contributed to Mazda's goal. Factor in a different take on suspension set-up and you've got the double bonus of something that's both responsive and frugal. Give the concept a fancy name - Skyactiv - and you've got yourself a plan for a range of future models.

Predictably the 6 continues this tradition. Its predecessor's already handsome exterior has been taken to the next logical level; witness the car's muscular front wheel arches and the Tourer's streamlined profile. Many of the details have been borrowed from the CX-5, which has resulted in a bold nose and intricate details.

Also new is an increase in size. It's incremental but both saloon and estate are a little bigger inside and out. The extended wheelbase helps to boost occupant space, while the Tourer offers a competitive level of versatility thanks in part to its easy fold rear seats and a parcel shelf that moves with the tailgate to act as a wind deflector when the tailgate is open.

Inside you're presented with a tastefully updated cabin, complete with premium-looking switchgear and instrumentation. The central display is of the touchscreen variety and is supplemented by a BMW-style rotary controller located near the handbrake. Overall, the choice of materials and general ambience reinforce Mazda's desire to produce a high quality cabin space.

The really big strides have, however, been made in the engine, transmission and chassis departments. Mazda's bold approach to the former has resulted in unusually high and low compression ratios for its small range of petrol and diesel engines. This, coupled with the focus on reducing weight, enhancing engine responsiveness and improving its already good stop-start energy regeneration technology, has led to a 150 horsepower diesel delivering 67.3mpg and 108g/km CO2 in saloon form with a manual gearbox. Even the higher 175 horsepower variant comes in at a respectable 119g/km. As such it's no surprise that Mazda is focusing considerable attention on the company car market.

Factor in the advances made in Mazda's in-house gearbox designs plus a slightly different take on suspension geometry and you've got a range of cars capable of putting a smile on your face. Ride comfort and bump absorption is very good, as is the lack of road and engine noise reaching the cabin, while the car's accurate and weighty steering plus agile handling puts many of its immediate rivals to shame. In fact, the car's polished performance could easily give more expensive German alternatives a run for their money.

It's clear from only a few miles behind the wheel that Mazda's engineers have nailed it in terms of the often elusive combination of driver enjoyment and comfort. Supportive seats -cloth or leather - combine with the car's reluctance to adversely pitch and roll when driven enthusiastically to produce an experience that makes you wonder exactly how other manufacturers are spending their time. Mazda has form when it comes to dreaming up gimmicky names to describe various company activities - ‘Zoom-Zoom’ anyone? - but there's real substance to its Skyactiv engineering philosophy.

Previous examples of the Mazda 6 have always been held in high regard by owners and the media, and this version is on track to continue this trend. The firm's attention to detail and engineering innovations are proof that it's no accident, either. And, thanks to the new car's bold appearance, it possesses the visual appeal to confidently stand shoulder to shoulder with the competition.

FACTS AT A GLANCE

Model: Mazda6 2.2 150PS SE-L saloon, from £22,595. Mazda6 range from £19,595 to £28,045

Engine: 2.2-litre diesel unit developing 150bhp.Transmission: 6-speed manual transmission as standard, driving the front wheels.Performance: Maximum speed 131mph, 0-62mph 9.0seconds.Economy: 67.3mpg.CO2 Rating: 108g/km.

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