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Japanese global giants Toyota and Honda still dwarf Mazda in terms of market share, but the Hiroshima-based maker has long had the knack of coming up with stylish motors. The MX-5 is an acknowledged classic and the RX-8 drew the sort of admiration that would never be aimed at a Jazz or an Avensis.

The new Mazda 6 continues to keep that lineage alive with its striking looks, but does this D class car do enough to stand out from some very tough competition?

As the recession still bites, these large cars aimed at the family market have suffered. Cars in the 6’s segment shifted nearly half-a-million models in 2000; last year it was fewer than quarter-of-a-million.

Despite the nearly 50% drop off, there’s still plenty of money to be had from this market and the Mazda has to beat off established competitors such as the Mondeo from Ford (ironically, based on an old Mazda design), the VW Passat and Vauxhall’s Insignia to take the cake.

Good Looks in the blood

First, the looks are great. It has a sporty front face that will play well with company car drivers who don’t feel ready for middle age yet. There’s a real élan to the design, and no wonder. Mazda need this car to do well and this could be their unique selling point. Walking around it doesn’t reveal any hidden ugliness either, the profile is good and the rounded rear is neat and tidy, completing a sporty feeling look. Many people will think it more striking than the Audi A4 and BMW 3 Series, which seem to have this market sewn up.

Inside is an improvement too, remembering that these cars have to be practical as well as fun. There’s lots of room for legs and overhead. The boot, with folding rear seats allowing expansion, is nearly 500-litres, which is generous.

The driver sees a nice familiar control panel, which turns its back on some of its forebears technology overload. That’s not to say there aren’t smart systems on board. Radars warn of vehicles closing to the rear, you’ll get a warning if you’re about to leave your lane, and the tyre pressures are monitored in some set ups.

A good value drive with bite

Mazda are pinning great hopes on the 2.2-litre diesel, with its mix of 175bhp oomph and great fuel economy. Those worried about petrol prices can snap up a 150bhp model. Even the more powerful of the two manages an impressive 65mpg or thereabouts, dipping to 45mpg when given a tougher workout.

A clever system which charges the stop and start system as the car slows is part of an energy regeneration package which is reckoned to shave another 10 per cent or so off fuel consumption.

Despite its size, the Mazda is quick off the mark, completing its 0-62mph in around eight seconds.

Most of these motors will see long hard service up and down Britain’s motorways and it performs well at high speed. The six gear box shifts smoothly and the steering responds well. However, the suspension is a little harsh, and away from the smoothest of roads will not give the best ride in this class.

It’s green though, which will help keep costs down for fleet managers car-leasing firms and contract hire companies. Mazda call their light construction system SkyActiv, and it’s this which means the 6 matches superminis for CO2 emissions and scoots down the tax bands. It has to in order to offer value; a starting price of nearly £20,000 isn’t cheap.

Cormac Reynolds writes for UK car leasing company First Vehicle Leasing and has written numerous articles for the motor trade.