Sporty, fuel-efficient, great looking and a terrific value, the four-star Mazda 6i Grand Touring is a virtual lock to be around when automotive awards are announced at the end of this year.

The midsize sedan is a stunning turnaround for a company that recently seemed to have lost its way. It's the second vehicle to flow from an engineering program Mazda launched after its alliance with Ford ended in 2010.

Mazda had relied on Ford for hybrid technology. It needed a new approach to fuel economy it could fund without Dearborn's deep pockets. Mazda executives threw all their resources into new engines and transmissions and developed a new lightweight architecture for its vehicles.

Mazda stumbled out of the gate with the underpowered 2.0-liter 2013 CX-5 SUV, but the 2014 Mazda 6 is a triumph. It combines high fuel economy with sporty character that sets Mazda apart from its bigger Japanese rivals: Toyota, Nissan and Honda.

Prices for the 2014 Mazda 6 start at $20,880 for a Sport model with a six-speed manual transmission. All Mazda 6s have a 184-horsepower 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. A six-speed automatic gearbox raises the Sport's price to $22,495, a fairly hefty increase versus other midsize sedans. Mazda adds standard equipment for the Touring — $23,445 manual; $24,495 automatic. The extremely well-equipped Grand Touring starts at $29,495 and is only available with the automatic.

I tested a Mazda 6i Grand Touring that bristled with features, including Bose audio, a navigation system, adaptive cruise control and smart city brakes that work automatically to prevent low-speed collisions.

It stickered at $30,695, thousands of dollars less than comparably equipped midsize sedans. All prices exclude destination charges.

The Mazda 6's competition includes some of the best, and best-selling, cars on the market: Chevrolet Malibu, Chrysler 200, Dodge Avenger, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima, Nissan Altima, Toyota Camry and Volkswagen Passat.

Many of them offer an array of powertrains, including hybrids, high-performance turbos, all-wheel-drive and battery-powered electrics. Mazda concentrated on making a few excellent models that cover the heart of the midsize sedan market.

The 6's EPA fuel economy rating of 26 m.p.g. in the city, 38 on the highway and 30 combined beats nonhybrid versions of all the competition except the Altima, which scored a 31-m.p.g. combined rating.

Mazda has two higher-m.p.g. models in the wings. A regenerative braking system called i-Eloop should score EPA ratings of 28 city, 40 highway and 32 m.p.g. combined. It will be part of an option package that adds $2,080 to the price of a Grand Touring model.

A 2.2-liter diesel that should boost highway fuel economy considerably is also coming. Mazda hasn't announced its price yet. Both systems should go on sale this year.

The base engine provides more horsepower and torque than most competitors. Combined with a light curb weight and excellent automatic transmission, they gave the car I tested good throttle response and plenty of zip for highway cruising and fast passes.

The adaptive cruise control operates smoothly, applying the brakes or accelerator as needed to maintain speed and distance from the next vehicle. I'm happy to say I didn't have the opportunity to test the collision-avoiding automatic brakes. The steering is responsive, with good on-center feel. The suspension keeps the car planted and stable in quick maneuvers. The 6 encourages enthusiastic driving.

The passenger compartment and trunk are both on the small end among midsize sedans. Efficient design makes them comfortable and useful.

The 6's interior has already won awards for its good looks and high-end materials. But the interior suffers from small storage pockets in the doors, and below-average touch screen and iPod operation. The 5.8-inch touch screen is smaller and less sensitive than those in other leading midsize sedans, and even some compacts. The iPod integration for devices connected through the USB port was poor. The audio system took more than 90 seconds reading my iPod Classic every time I started the car.

The Bluetooth system for streaming audio and hands-free phone calls worked fine, however. The voice-recognition system understood commands well and operated reasonably quickly.

There won't be five better-looking cars that go on sale this year. The 6's flared fenders and sleek profile would be at home on a sports car. The new design theme, which Mazda calls "the soul of motion," also tones down the grille, ending the unfortunate clown's mouth look of previous Mazdas.

The 2014 Mazda 6's exceptional value, comfort, performance and fuel economy combine with those looks to create one of the best new cars of the year.