Making a bigger splash in the midsize market.
by Sue Mead
LAGUNA, California - Many of today’s midsize sedans, whether German, Japanese or American, come with styling that doesn’t entice soccer moms and with performance that doesn’t entertain motorheads. And, with the redesigned 2000 626, Mazda hasn’t broken radically from this trend.
What the Asian automaker has done is create a series that promises with an outcome that could create a better brand. Although it is not poised to change the course of driving history and is unlikely to revolutionize automotive design, the new 626 series takes cues from standard sedan styling and adds a distinctive flavor, spiking midsize practicality with a bit of a performance buzz.
The overall look of the 626, Mazda’s only U.S.-built vehicle, is more elegant and refined than many others in its segment, such as the Ford Taurus, for example. That elegance, while a stylistic advantage, is also countered with a sporty element that breathes life into what could be simply another new offering. The redesigned front end, for instance, is both functional and appealing, with a sharp sloped hood tapering to a front bumper designed for lower air intake.
A low beltline imparts that semimuscular, sporty appearance that has become the norm in this segment, but stretches to a rear section that is somewhat surprising. Slightly raised in the now-typical wedge fashion, the rear of the 626 doesn’t rise too high, and thus keeps the car’s front and rear ends in balance with each other. Chrome accents, including a larger garnish around the license plate, dress up the outside of the new version, as do standard 15-inch steel wheels (15- and 16-inch alloy wheels are also available).
This remarkable (but not exceptional) shell houses an improved drivetrain with performance designed to impart the spirit of Mazda - demanding that drivers “be moved” behind the wheel. Four models cover all the bases: the LX in-line four and LX V 6 are the entry-level models in terms of options, but the V-6 version creates some flexibility for drivers seeking better performance without all the bells and whistles. The more upscale ES four-cylinder boasts leather and other trimmings, while the top-of-the-line ES V-6 includes the works, with the spicy sauce of V-6 power.
The 2.0-liter in-line four produces 130 bhp, while the 2.5-liter V-6 boosts power to 170 bhp. Despite increasingly stringent standards, the four-cylinder engine qualifies as an Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle (ULEV). A five-speed manual transmission is standard on all except the four-cylinder ES model; a four-speed electronic automatic transmission is optional. EPA estimates put the LX and ES fours variants at 26 mpg in the city, 33 mpg highway, and the V-6 at 21/27 mpg.
In motion, these engines are supported by improved steering, braking and overall feel. Power-assist rack-and-pinion steering is more precise than past models and that of many offerings in this segment. Larger wheels and a more rigid body structure add stability to improved steering, as does more assertive braking performance created by a reduction in pedal effort, improved front brake pads, and a larger master cylinder. A front disc/rear drum combination is standard on four-cylinder models; four-wheel disc brakes are available on V-6 models.
A stiffer overall body structure, with 24-percent greater torsional rigidity, is one of the most impressive improvements to the 626 series’ ride. Mazda believes this rigidity gives the sedan more “European” road manners and that these manners are complemented by the graciousness of a more comfortable ride for both drivers and passengers. Noise, vibration, harshness (NVH) has been reduced through a more careful engine design that uses steel instead of cast iron and more insulation in the cabin.
Mazda’s patented Twin-Trapezoidal Link (TTL) rear suspension, along with an independent front suspension, gives a comfortable ride while maintaining a respectable degree of performance and handling under rough road conditions. Although the company states that safety is a priority, those looking for standard ABS or side airbags will be disappointed However, side airbags are optional for the first time on a Mazda 626, and front dual de-powered airbags are standard equipment on all models, and ABS is optional. Safety under fire is augmented by an available traction-control system on all V-6 models.
As usual, Mazda claims “room for five” in the 626, with interior dimensions (97.1 cubic feet of passenger space; 39.2 inches of headroom; and 43.6 inches of legroom) that match the Toyota Camry and are greater than the Nissan Altima. The 14.2 cubic feet of trunk space bests both of these competitors as well as the Honda Accord. Beware, however, interior appointments, such as the convenient fold-down cupholder/armrest/storage compartment that splits the back seat compromises a fifth passenger.
The interior is appointed fairly well, with chrome accents that echo exterior trim of the car and add an upscale touch to door handles, courtesy lamps, handbrake lever, and the automatic transmission shift lever. Color coordination smoothes out some former rough transitions from steering wheel to dash and center console to shift lever. Keyless entry and map lights add convenience.
The 60/40-split fold-down rear seat garners big convenience points for Mazda designers, as does a standard driver’s seat lifter to accommodate a wide range of driver heights and widths. Comfort is accentuated by a standard AM/FM/CD audio system with four speakers (standard on LX, LX V-6 and ES models) or a BOSE AM/FW/CD/cassette four-speaker system (standard on the ES V-6).
This Japanese manufacturer is quick to point out that the five-point front grill prominently displays the large Mazda symbol. (For those who have had trouble keeping up with Mazda’s ongoing redefinition, it’s the silver oval containing a graceful "M” that resembles faraway birds in a landscape painting.) All flippant remarks aside, it’s an important part of Mazda’s attempt to reposition its brand - and its cars - as a name to be reckoned with in the merciless family-size sedan market. The 626 is Mazda’s second chance to make a first impression. That impression is worth noting.
© The Car Connection