Not your neighbor's mid-size car. by Paul A. Eisenstein
Base Price $23,445
As Tested $24,595
Completely redesigned and re-engineered for 1998, the Mazda 626 shows why it's a good idea to shop around.
Mazda's 626 is often overlooked. Though it is Mazda's top seller, the 626 is a perennial also-ran in the incredibly competitive midsize segment sweepstakes. It's a solid and reliable sedan that's fun to drive, but it just never seems to get the amount of attention it deserves.
There's an old rule of thumb that suggests new car buyers will only take a close look at the top three vehicles on their shopping list. So when it comes to family sedans, that means most people will test drive the nation's three best-selling passenger cars, the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Ford Taurus. But the fifth-generation Mazda 626 is a good reason to break that rule.
With some styling cues lifted from the luxurious Mazda Millenia, the all-new 626 presents a crisp and formal appearance. Its elegant exterior has been stretched more than two inches and houses a roomy, refined interior.
But the changes reach well beneath the surface. The new body is stiffer, and the suspension is more sure-footed in a way that's likely to encourage you to press down the accelerator pedal just a wee bit harder as you exit a tight corner. When you do, you'll appreciate the extra power Mazda engineers have coaxed out of both the 2.0-liter twin-cam four-cylinder engine, and the smooth 2.5-liter double overhead-cam V-6.
Those who bother to check the window sticker, will discover the 626 is American-made. It's assembled at the Flat Rock, Michigan, plant Mazda shares with Ford and uses enough locally sourced components to count under government rules as a domestic model.
There's something about this segment that convinces manufacturers it's best to play it safe on styling and the 626 is no exception. It's a handsome vehicle, stylish, but not showy, with a subtle wedge shape and clear hints of the elegant Mazda Millenia. That's most apparent from the frontal view, adorned with a new grille and tasteful brightwork. Elsewhere, Mazda has chosen to tone down the use of chrome.
Take out a tape measure and you'll discover that overall body length is up 2.4 inches, while the wheelbase has been stretched 2.3 inches. Its a smart move in an era when bigger is better, and gives the 626 a more solid, luxurious appearance. It seems that some of the extra length has been used for purely cosmetic purposes, but Mazda did boost interior room and trunk space.
There's a reason why cars like Camry and Accord dominate the market. They're dependable, solid and provide an assuring sense of stability. (They also have many more dealerships and much larger advertising budgets.)
Mazda has clearly taken aim at these benchmarks, and you can get a measure of its success when you learn that the body has 43 percent more torsional rigidity than the previous 626 generation. Along with other improvements made by Mazda engineers, that translates into improved ride and handling, as well as lower levels of noise, vibration and harshness.
Our 626 came with a respectable complement of standard equipment, including a power moonroof, dual power mirrors, leather trimmed interior and a six-way power driver's seat. Safety and security features added dual airbags, remote keyless entry and an anti-theft engine immobilizer to the list.
The Inside Story
We're always baffled by designers who forget the basic purpose of an automotive interior. The key words here are supposed to be quality, comfort and ergonomics. Mazda stylists apparently have that message emblazoned on the walls of their studios.
The 626 interior is attractive with a good choice of materials and an aesthetic sense of color balance. More important, you'll find that the layout of this year's model, with its all-new instrument panel has been markedly improved to make gauges easier to read and put controls and switches more comfortably within reach. You won't have to take your eyes off the road to find the remote mirror controls or to turn on the rear defroster.
Mazda's engineers made optimum use of interior space, by reducing the space devoted to mechanicals and increasing room for passengers and cargo. A full inch of shoulder space has been added to both the front and rear seats without increasing the width of the car. The rear seats are comfortable, but could still use a tad more knee room.
Mazda has found a few extra inches for in-cabin storage, so there's more space available for stashing everything from cassette tapes to handheld cellular telephones. And trunk space has grown from 13.8 cubic feet to 14.2.
Seating has been noticeably improved. The front bucket seats provide comfort for long-distance travel with superb lateral support for short jaunts down curvy roads. You'll discover just how useful that is when you put the car through its paces.
Along with the stiffer body, it appears Mazda engineers have paid a lot of attention to reducing noise levels, another benefit of benchmarking against the quiet-as-a-tomb Camry.
Ride and Drive
A bigger and better 626 means more than just length and roominess. When it comes to the drivetrain, Mazda has coaxed an extra 11 horsepower out of the 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, boosting output to 125 horsepower. Torque, that force that propels you from intersections and up steep hills, rises from 124 to 127 pound-feet. This engine is inexpensive and fuel efficient.
Our Mazda 626 was equipped with the 2.5-liter V-6 engine. For 1998, the output was increased from 164 to 170 horsepower, with torque up slightly to 163 pound-feet. This little V-6 is extremely smooth and powerful and adds greatly to the enjoyment of driving the 626. It's capable of propelling the 626 from 0 to 60 mph in the mid-seven-second range, which is more than enough to keep up with the competition.
Adding further to the enjoyment of driving the 626 is a stiffer chassis. A rigid chassis allows engineers to more precisely tune the suspension for improved handling and ride quality. MacPherson struts up front and Mazda's twin-trapezoidal links in the rear add to the driving fun along with larger stabilizer bars at both ends to reduce body lean in corners. Steering is power-assisted rack-and-pinion. This setup absorbs highway ripples and bumps on the everyday commute route, yet it offers the sort of control that will lead some driver to wander down the back roads looking for some tight corners.
Completing the performance picture is Mazda's crisp-shifting five-speed manual transmission. In contrast to most other vehicles in this segment, Mazda makes the stick a standard feature on all 626 models; that's another tip-off that this car has some sporting tendencies.
Mazda has re-tuned its four-speed electronically controlled transmission to make it even smoother than before and to reduce hunting among gears on uneven terrain or stop-and-go driving.
Traction control comes standard on all V-6 models. It's a useful complement to a front-wheel-drive platform with a powerful engine as it reduces wheelspin under hard acceleration or on slippery surfaces.
Inside and out, the 1998 Mazda 626 is a clear improvement when compared with the vehicle it replaces. It's handsome and roomy and it offers precise handling and quick acceleration performance. A high level of standard equipment along with a competitive price makes the 626 an excellent candidate for that shopping list.
Mazda is unlikely to ever challenge Honda, Toyota and Ford for the top of the sales charts, but a lot of folks don't want to look exactly like their neighbors.
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