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Smart Energy Car of the Year: Mazda 6 SKYACTIV makes being environmental sexy — and affordable

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2013 Mazda 6
2013 Mazda 6 SKYACTIV with i-ELOOP is the CultureMap Smart Energy Car of the Year. Photo by Kevin McCauley
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With its sexy silhouette, the Mazda 6 is a stunning form in the otherwise bland sedan category. Photo by Kevin McCauley
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Light or dark are the only interior options; we say go light. Photo by Kevin McCauley
2014 Mazda i-ELOOP Technology
Mazda's SKYACTIV technology with its revolutionary i-ELOOP energy storage recovers and stores energy unlike any other hybrid. Courtesy of Mazda
2013 VW Jetta Hybrid
2013 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid is CultureMap's Smart Energy Car of the Year runner-up. Courtesy of Volkswagen of America
2013 VW Jetta Hybrid
Jetta Hybrid combines a 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder gasoline engine with a 27- horsepower electric motor. Courtesy of Volkswagen of America
2013 VW Jetta Hybrid
Jetta Hybrid’s unique gauge cluster replaces the tachometer with a "power meter." Courtesy of Volkswagen of America
2013 VW Jetta Hybrid
With EPA estimated fuel economy ratings of 42 mpg city, 48 mpg highway and 45 mpg combined, the Jetta Hybrid is currently the most fuel-efficient Volkswagen. Courtesy of Volkswagen of America
2013 Mazda 6
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News_Jun13_Mazda6
2014 Mazda i-ELOOP Technology
2013 VW Jetta Hybrid
2013 VW Jetta Hybrid
2013 VW Jetta Hybrid
2013 VW Jetta Hybrid

Editor's note: In the second annual CultureMap Auto Awards, our automotive correspondents Nic Phillips and Kevin McCauley bestow honors in 10 categories for the top cars and trucks of 2013/2014. Next up:

Smart Energy Vehicle of the Year: 2014 Mazda 6 SKYACTIV with i-ELOOP

Sometimes making what is "old" new again while getting back to basics yields the greatest innovations, and that's precisely what Mazda has done with its Mazda 6 midsize sedan. The sexy-shaped 6 isn't an electric or a hybrid; there is no plug, and its engine runs on regular, not premium, gas.

Yet at its top-level trim, the car delivers downright diesel-like economy of 28 mpg city/40 highway. That's with an automatic transmission; the manual actually gets slightly lower ratings.

Sometimes making what is "old" new again while getting back to basics yields the greatest innovations, and that's precisely what Mazda has done.

Wait. That all seems backward. A true midsize car running regular gas in an engine mated to an automatic in its most luxurious trim getting the best efficiency? That's SKYACTIV — Mazda's brand that squeezes out every ounce of efficiency without sacrificing the drive or design.

It's a philosophy in which the chassis, engine, transmission and the recovery of otherwise wasted energy are designed in harmony to deliver near-hybrid efficiency without electrification, complex battery systems and boring dynamics.

Although not a hybrid per say, the Mazda 6's i-ELOOP technology is sort of like a hybrid in that it captures electric energy from the brakes. Rather than store that energy in a battery, i-ELOOP very quickly charges a capacitor bank. That energy is used to power the electric systems that normally tax the gas engine. The result is more horsepower to move the wheels and less fuel used for the lights and steering. That's SKYACTIV.

Mazda 6 is smart energy and smart value too, with the highest priced Grand Touring trim, including the all-in GT Technology Package, coming in at $32,570. That includes luxury and safety features like radar cruise control, active collision alert and Smart City Braking, lane departure warning and automatic high-beam HID headlights — features not found on many cars costing twice the price.

Smart Energy Vehicle Runner-up: 2014 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid

VW has a reputation for being different, and the Jetta Hybrid doesn't disappoint. Whereas most sub-$30K hybrids have puny engines augmented by weak electric motors and transmissions with no speeds, the Jetta has a turbo and a 7-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission — the first in a hybrid.

The DSG® Transmission is simply marvelous, delivering precise, manual-like shifts nearly instantaneously. When coupled with its innovative hybrid module — a single, integrated unit that incorporates both the electric motor and a clutch that connects it to the engine — acceleration is smooth and torque constant.

Several drive modes allow for all-electric drive up to 44 mph, and an "active boost" mode gives full turbo-engine and electric assist for more spirited performance. All of this efficiency intelligence is presented to the driver by way of special power gauge that replaces what is normally the tachometer, making for the most clear and concise status display of any hybrid out there.

So why is the Jetta Hybrid not an overall winner? Price.

It's about $4,000 more than the already fuel frugal Jetta TDI Clean Diesel, and although the hybrid is the most fuel-efficient VW, with an EPA estimated 42 mpg city/48 highway rating, it requires premium gas, making for a longish return on investment.

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