This midsize four-door looks and feels more upscale than its $20,880 starting price would imply. But that alone is not the essence of its appeal. There are, after all, many new sedans on the market that offer top quality and features for the money, such as the recently redesigned Honda Accord and Nissan Altima.

But the 2014 Mazda 6 blends those elements into a package that is more stylish than most of its competitors. It's neither as flashy as a Kia Optima, nor as plain as a Toyota Camry. It has a timeless quality typical of luxury cars.

The proportions help make it so, with its long hood and cabin pushed to the rear. The shape is similar to a BMW and other premium European sedans.

Subtle details help lend a high-end feel too, such as a silver contrast trim below the front grille, the intricate headlight design, an uncluttered dashboard, and stitched leather or leatherette seats, depending on the level of trim chosen.

But the underlying substance of the Mazda 6 is equally important, if not more so. Every piece of technology, from the bones of the frame to the pistons in the engine to the lightweight steel body panels, is totally new. All of it has been redone with the goal of improving quality and efficiency.

The car's new 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine accounts for most of the gain in fuel economy. It gets an estimated 30 miles per gallon overall, versus 25 miles per gallon for the engine it replaces.

With 184 horsepower on tap, it doesn't lack for power, either. The Mazda 6 sprints effortlessly up hills and around slow-moving traffic. It is also smooth and refined, with a pleasing rasp as it revs during hard acceleration. A taut suspension and sharp steering complement the willing engine and make the Mazda 6 more fun to drive than many of its competitors. The trade-off is that the ride can get a bit harsh on broken pavement.

The new six-speed transmission is a big contributor to the car's improved fuel economy and snappier acceleration. It combines the best of two different types of transmissions, offering the efficiency and lightning-quick shifts of so-called dual-clutch transmissions, which are similar to those in race cars, and the smoothness of a conventional automatic.

The interior is impressive with its comfortable seats, pleasing design, uncluttered dash, and intuitive controls. Details like the quietness even on the highway, and the pleasing shape of the steering wheel, which looks good and feels nice in the hand, are above the norm for a car in this price range.

The only letdown during our test drive was not being able to try out Mazda's all-new diesel four-cylinder engine, which will become available toward the end of the year.

The gasoline version of the 2014 Mazda 6 is on sale now, though, and it's definitely worth considering for those looking to buy a midsize family sedan. [mazdausa.com]