The Sea-to-Sky highway in British Columbia, Canada, carves a winding route from the gorgeous – and occasionally riotous – city of Vancouver to the world-class ski resort of Whistler. Its looping curves were rebuilt to make it a high-speed corridor for tourists and athletes during the last Winter Olympics, and as a result, it’s probably one of the top five roads in this country. Mind you, it’s also a favourite hang-out for the local constabulary.
So here I am then, at the wheel of a priceless prototype, sitting on the wrong side of the car next to an emeritus journalist, on a blind on-ramp to one of the most highly-patrolled roads in Canada. What’s called for here is a little decorum, a careful merge, some light throttle application, a few gentle gear-changes and so on. Anything else would be at-worst dangerous and at-best unseemly.
By a curious co-incidence, “unseemly” is my middle name. So I floor it.
But first, a little background on the rare beast to which I have been (somewhat irresponsibly) handed the reins. Essentially a Mazda6 in guise, this prototype boasts all four of Mazda’s SKYACTIV technologies: chassis, suspension, transmission and twin-turbo diesel engine.
More on that mill later, but the important thing to note is that this is a true full-SKYACTIV vehicle. When the next-gen Mazda3 drops later this year, the mid-level trim will be sporting SKYACTIV transmissions and the new gas engine, but it will be a full year before the first vehicle – the CX-5 – arrives with a full complement of Mazda’s new tech. Additionally, it’s going to take even longer for North Americans to have access to a manual-transmission diesel mid-size sedan that doesn’t have a German-Mexican accent.
So this Mazda6 is something quite special. It’s also a bit of a hack-job.
Nagare styling doesn’t work range-wide for Mazda, but the ’6 was always quite a handsome car. Here though it’s been chopped apart and pop-riveted back together, and somebody’s painted its ears yellow. Obviously, these aren’t styling cues that have any shot at making it into production, but they’re worth mentioning to give an idea of how unique the car is. It also looks great, in a dystopian-future kinda way.
Dr. Frankenstein has been at work in the interior too. Exposed screws. Deactivated airbags. There appears to be an inner-tube wrapped around the steering column. The horn is a button marked “horn” and the turn signals don’t self-cancel.
It’s quite a lot for the mind to process: the last time I was in a car this duct-taped together, it was a Ford Escort GT I’d bought for a hundred-and-fifty bucks. That car should have sucked, but funnily enough, it had a Mazda BP power-plant, and what with the chopped coils and zero-interior treatment, it felt incredibly raw and interesting to drive.
Mazda’s probably going to be extremely annoyed I’m comparing their prototype to a hunk of early-90′s Ford flotsam, but it’s important for everyone to be on the same page here. This car boasts no new fancy touch-screens or intelligent voice-activated massaging seats. This is an engineering pin-up; this is an enthusiast-minded company showing us how they’re trying to keep building driver’s cars in an increasingly technology- and efficiency-obsessed market.
Back on the on-ramp, the SKYACTIV mule responds with a kick like a – er – mule. The first of the sequential turbos is a tiny hairdryer that you could spool with a sneeze. Peak torque of 310 lb/ft comes at a low 2000 rpm, but it was already cresting into the 200s at a little over half the revs.
But so what? Diesels have always been about low-range grunt: high-gear highway pulls sans downshifting make driving easy, but lack the fun-factor of a gas engine. Or rather, that’s usually the case.
Here though, the low-compression SKYACTIV-D pulls a neat trick: revs to match the shove. A 5200rpm ceiling would be laughable in a gasoline engine, but in a diesel it’s excellent. There’s no need to ping it off the rev-limiter, but the Mazda’s diesel is flexible and revs up surprisingly quickly, and that big secondary turbo doesn’t appear to lose steam until the very upper reaches.
That and a six-speed manual transmission make this car fun. Lots of fun. I forgot to look at the taped-in speedometer when we hit the bottom of the on-ramp, but we were clipping along very nicely.
Hitting the well-cambered curves of the Sea-to-Sky at speed also shows off the ’6s chassis and steering refinements. Rigidity and weight-loss are welcome but incremental; the real progress has been made with the way the steering feel is enhanced by a significantly quickened ratio and an aggressive amount of caster for a front-driver. It’s not quite Miata (sorry: MX-5) territory yet, but the DNA is there.
There was apparently a little Lost In Translation confusion when journos came back from driving the SKYACTIV-D mule. “I don’t need to drive anything else today!” can be interpreted more than one way, and it caused quite the consternation when overheard by Mazda’s Japanese engineers.
I’ll try to be more clear. This isn’t a real car you can buy yet, but depending on what the fuel figures look like, it’s going to be a great one. If they bring their SKYACTIV-D technology to the North American market, Mazda has a real opportunity to eat Volkswagen’s lunch.