Stylish 6 sedan follows current trend of high side window line; looks particularly attractive in this colour

Stylish 6 sedan follows current trend of high side window line; looks particularly attractive in this colour

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Mazda's 'Skyactiv' steamroller media campaign of the last few years largely left just-auto unscathed bar an ongoing onslaught of emailed press releases with the sub-brand mentioned in loud CAPITALS about every five words. Actual invitations to technology/product presentations: none. So I was long overdue to beat on the press office door, borrow a car and see what all the fuss has been about.

On arrival, the expected '2.2D 150PS Saloon Sport Nav Auto' had morphed into a six-speed manual version but no matter; the manual 'box is one of many components that genuinely entitles Mazda to bill the latest, 2013 Skyactiv 6 (officially the Mazda6) as 'all-new'.

The words 'sky' and 'Mazda' in the same sentence started back around September 2009 when the automaker said it would launch new petrol and diesel engines and an automatic transmission at the Tokyo motor show the following month.

The 'Sky-G' petrol and 'Sky-D clean diesel' units have lower CO2 emissions, reduced fuel consumption and increased torque due to optimised combustion efficiency with the direct injection in the petrol engine optimising air fuel mix. Improved economy and performance also comes from the better thermal efficiency of the redesigned cylinder block with lower mechanical friction.

Fuel economy and torque were improved by about 15% compared with the outgoing two litre engine due to new fuel injectors and variable valve timing. Mazda claimed at the time economy equivalent to the then current 2 (Demio in Japan) could be achieved in a larger vehicle the size of a 3 (Axela).

Opting for a diesel also brought mechanical friction reduced to the level of a petrol engine with tricks such as optimising the pressure and temperature in the cylinders, the shape of combustion chambers, and the fuel injection rate so combustion is best timed for thermal efficiency. Piezo injectors, a two stage turbocharger and other technologies improve fuel economy by about 20% over the old 2.2-litre unit, Mazda claimed, adding the new engine gives fuel economy equivalent to the 2 in a larger vehicle the size of the 6 (Atenza) and meets global emissions regulations without NOx aftertreatment, urea selective catalytic reduction (SCR) or a lean NOx trap (LNT) — thanks to a claimed industry lowest compression ratio of 14:1.

Fast forward to the latest 6 saloon, redesigned for the 2013 model year, and that new diesel in 150PS tune, bolted to the six-speed manual, is good for 0-100km/h acceleration in nine seconds but, far more important, meets Euro VI emissons laws and emits just 108g of CO2/km. Here in the UK, that drops the test car nicely into annual vehicle tax band B, costing GBP20 a year plus a zero first-year hit. It's not that long ago that 6 emissions put the various models in the range into much higher bands which now cost GBP200-280 with a first year charge of GBP335-620 so the benefits are obvious.

Mazda has recently started to target UK fleet buyers and company car driving 'user-choosers' more aggressively (the 6 range is currently offered to fleets with the optional GBP700 navigator included free) and CO2 output and, increasingly, engine size, are the first thing buyers look at as they are used to calculate another fine English tax, benefit in kind (BIK). Low CO2; low(er) tax, simple as that.

Opt for the more powerful 175PS diesel manual and CO2s rise to 119g and the annual tax bill to a whole GBP30; tick the box for optional six-speed automatic and it's 127g a kilometre and GBP105 for the taxman, still without additional first registration charge.

Diesel fuel economy? I tend to go with the official EU 'urban' figure as closest to real world and the 6s range from around 47mpg to 55mpg for the manuals and also 47 for the auto; my unscientifically analysed 150 mile test drive returned just over 50mpg on the trip computer. That'll do. At GBP1.41 per gallon currently in Middle England.

In October 2010, Mazda introduced the auto world to new sub branding including 'Skyactiv-Drive' - an automatic transmission with more efficient  torque transfer through a wider lock up range said to combine all the advantages of conventional automatic transmissions, continuously variable transmissions, and dual clutch transmissions while delivering a driving feel equivalent to a manual transmission, along with a 4% to 7% improvement in fuel economy. Mazda UK permitting, I hope to try that later this year in the just redesigned 3 with the petrol engine. 

Meanwhile, I found the Skyactiv-MT six-speeder - described at launch as a light and compact manual transmission to live up to its maker's claims of "crisp and light shift feel like that of a sports car, optimised for a front-engined front-wheel-drive layout". It's smaller and lighter than predecessors due to a revised structure which gives more efficient packaging and improved fuel economy due to reduced internal friction. The lever has lovely short throws and a light but positive action and snicks from one ratio to another in the same way as the lever in the original MX-5 roadster. The engine itself has bags of torque across a wide range and will pull like a train from as low as 1,200rpm meaning it has plenty in reserve, even in sixth, should you need extra steam when encountering gradients during a typical 60mph or 70mph UK cruise.

Skyactiv also includes a lightweight and highly rigid body with claimed outstanding crash safety performance. It includes a 'straight structure' in which each part of the frame is configured to be as straight as possible. Additionally, a 'continuous framework' approach was adopted in which each section functions in a coordinated manner with the other connecting sections. Weight was reduced weight through optimised bonding methods and expanded use of high-tensile steel.

And there's new suspension, too - the Skyactiv cars have specially developed front struts and rear multilinks for high rigidity and lightness and weight reduced 14%. I thought the power steering a little light but handling is good. Ride is variable. On the 19-inch wheels of the test car it is too firm over the river beds my local council calls roads in my suburb and you feel every bump and ridge; it smooths out a bit on better main road surfaces though there is considerable tyre roar on coarse chip seal. The ride also improves noticeably when you add ballast in the form of mum, kids and stuff.

Parallel to developing Skyactive technology for the oily bits, Mazda also worked on snaring potential buyers with attractive new styling. This so-called 'design language' Kodo (translates as 'soul of motion')  first appeared on the Takari concept at the 2011 Tokyo show which was all but a production-ready 2013 6.

However the uber-trendy, designer brand-clad styling chiefs may explain it, Kodo has given the latest Mazdas a distinctive new, range-wide face - headlights, grille, etc, - that clearly distinguishes them on the road.

In sedan form (there is also a wagon; the five-door hatchback is no more), the 6 has a beautiful side profile (reminiscent of Jaguar's XF) with the shallow side window glass now common on the latest sedans and numerous attractive curves and creases. In the bright crimson 'soul red' metallic of the test car, it makes a great first impression in showroom or driveway. The cabin is also good. After the CX-5 was criticised for being rather drab, especially in all black, Mazda have the 6 cabin better materials and some flashes of contrasting colour (silver plus a glossy, deep red, full width dashboard finisher) and the test car had the standard leather upholstery finished in cream wearing surfaces with black contrast panels, adding to the visual appeal. There's plenty of seat and steering wheel adjustment and passenger room and, in this top model, lots of comfort and convenience goodies such as power adjusted and heated seats, rear view camera and allround parking aids.

The only real gripe came from Miss Three in back in her booster seat - the high waistline underlining the rear door windows blocked most of her view out though the deep tinted glass also standard on the Sport did go down well.

Mazda sells the 6 in the UK (and Europe) with a relatively simple menu of two body styles, one petrol engine, two diesels, two transmissions and three trim levels starting at GBP19,595. Other markets also get a larger 2.5-litre petrol engine. Navigation, courtesy Mr TomTom, is well integrated into the dashboard and effectively the only option at GBP700. This system also includes radio, CD and MP3 player and Bluetooth handsfree phone and can be operated by touchscreen buttons, steering wheel controls or a central wheel/button combo. It worked very well (anyone familiar with a recent portable TomTom will have directions to the pub sorted in minutes) but was prone to the occasional lockup; a minor problem already identified by a few early buyers but easily fixed with a reboot.

Mazda is already working on second generation Skyactiv technology which will double the efficiency achieved by the first CX-5, 6 and, soon, 3 model lines.

All Mazdas should have the technology by 2015 (the Japanese market Demio/2 has a 1.3-litre Skyactiv engine), making the cars a claimed 23% more efficient. Then, between 2016 and 2020, the next generation will reduce emissions by the same amount again. This will be achieved with lean-burn plus ongoing vehicle weight reductions (100kg for generation one with another 100kg off to come) and further improved transmissions.

Mazda argues its approach is better than adding hybrids to the mix - though they can reduce emissions by between 40-45%, Skyactiv is applied to all models in the range so all customers benefit.

The automaker has been rewarded with numerous awards from various magazines and organisations for Skyactiv models - best engine, best interior, best family car; you get the idea.

And volumes are going up. In the critical US market, where a special larger version of the 6 was once built in the Flat Rock joint venture plant with Ford (the default size for all markets is now 'large), Mazda's July sales were up a healthy 29.4% year on year to 24,977, according to just-auto data. Year to date? Up 4.2% to 169,920. Here in the UK, Mazda, a minnow in a pond full of VW, GM and Ford sharks with just 1.27% of market share, boosted July sales just over 20% to 2,196 cars. Year to date share was 1.35% with volume up 5.8% to 17,838 units.

The brand shifts far more cars in some other markets - in Australia, for example, the 3 for a time earlier this year pushed Toyota's Corolla off the top perch in the sales charts. Even better, after making losses for four years during a period when Ford reduced its shareholding and control, and the global economy tanked, Mazda has been back in the black for operating profit the last two quarters and this is expected to continue.

It will double domestic production of Skyactiv engines by fiscal 2015, taking output to between 800,000 and nearly 1m of the engines annually, up from 400,000, and plans to boost capacity to 1.5m units as it ramps up production in a new plant in Mexico, for which an adjacent engine factory has just been announced, and China. It will also have a new automatic transmission plant making another 400,000 units a year in Thailand by mid-2015. Manual and automatic transmission production capacity at the Hofu Plant in Japan, currently 750,000 units a year, will be increased to 1.14m units in July 2014 in response to the growing global sales.

So. Skyactiv. Truly unique? Or is a modular platform with carefully engineered suspension and super efficient powertrain something every automaker is working flat out on, as global fuel economy and emissions regulations continue to tighten?Whatever, the answer, it sure seems that Skyactiv has worked a treat both for Mazda's product line and the bottom line.

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