Sporty handling in a mid-size sedan.
by Paul A. Eisenstein
Base Price $18,445
As Tested $24,045
For import buyers looking for a solid, reliable midsize family sedan, there are plenty of options to choose from. Yet only two cars dominate most shopping lists: the Toyota Camry and the Honda Accord.
If you had to pick just two, that's not a bad starting point. But why limit yourself? Accord and Camry are excellent choices, but they're not the most exciting cars in the world. There are plenty of other great options on the market these days, some of which are just as roomy, just as reliable, but far more fun to look at and drive. Mazda's 626 is a perennial also-ran that just never seems to get the amount of attention it deserves. It should be on more shopping lists.
This fifth-generation Mazda 626 presents a crisp and formal appearance that's far more refined than the previous generation. It was stretched more than 2 inches when it was redesigned for 1998 and the interior is much roomier than before.
Mazda's 626 offers a stiff chassis and well-tuned suspension that gives it a sure-footed feel that'll 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 power Mazda engineers have coaxed out of the engine. In short, the 626 is a more fun to drive than most mid-size sedans.
Two trim levels, LX and ES, are available.
Buyers can also choose between two engines: LX and ES come with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine rated at 125 horsepower. LX-V6 and ES-V6 come, as their nomenclature suggests, with a 2.5-liter V6 rated at 170 horsepower.
All come standard with a 5-speed manual transmission except the ES, which comes standard with a 4-speed automatic. An automatic is an $800 option on the other models.
626 ES-V6 comes with a high level of standard equipment, including a leather trimmed interior, a six-way power driver's seat and power moonroof. Dual airbags, remote keyless entry and an anti-theft engine immobilizer are standard.
Retail prices: LX ($18,445); ES ($20,645); LX-V6 ($19,645); ES-V6 ($22,645).
Mid-size cars are popular because they excel at moving passengers with speed, comfort and efficiency. Most, however, are clothed in conservative designs, which is a nice way of saying they are bland. That's especially true among Japanese brands. The Toyota Camry is the automotive equivalent of plain vanilla.
Though it isn't a real head-turner, the Mazda 626 features styling that's both elegant and sporty. Its subtle wedge shape bears a family resemblance to the more upscale Mazda Millenia. That's most apparent when viewed from the front, where you get a good look at the grille and tasteful brightwork. Overall, Mazda has chosen to tone down its use of chrome and this has resulted in a cleaner, more elegant look.
Overall, the interior design emphasizes quality, comfort and ergonomics. The 626 interior is attractive with a good choice of materials and an aesthetic sense of color balance.
Mazda designed the 626 for optimum interior space efficiency. The space devoted to mechanicals was minimized, while the room offered to passengers and cargo was maximized. Still, the 626 isn't quite as roomy as the Camry.
The front bucket seats in the 626 are excellent. They provide long-distance driving comfort with plenty of shoulder space and superb lateral support, important on winding mountain roads. The rear seats are comfortable with good shoulder space, but knee room is a bit short for tall passengers.
The trunk is spacious and is shaped well, a rectangular shape without obstructions. The trunk lid opens low so you won't have to lift high when hefting groceries or baggage. The rear seats fold down for additional cargo capacity or to carry longer items. There's plenty of in-cabin storage allowing motorists to stash everything from cassette tapes to handheld cellular phones.
The layout of the instrument panel makes the gauges easy to read. Controls and switches more located comfortably within reach. You won't have to take your eyes off the road to find the power mirror controls or to turn on the rear defroster. Switches and knobs have a refined feel that bespeaks luxury.
There are several reasons why the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord dominate the market: reputations for reliability, smooth ride, quiet operation. As transportation appliances, they are the leaders.
The Mazda 626 is a lot more fun to drive, however. This car has a personality. It provides excellent communication between the driver and the road. It steers so precise, so exactly where you want it to go, that each corner on the route home becomes remarkable.
Downshift into a lower gear and the V6 growls to life. That V6 is a smooth and gutsy 2.5-liter engine that produces 170 horsepower and 163 foot-pounds of torque. That doesn't quite measure up to Honda's superb VTEC V6, which delivers a full 200 horsepower, but the 626 driver should have no trouble keeping up with Accords and Camrys. More important, the 626 delivers a sporty exhaust note that is pleasing to the ear; the Mazda is fun to rev.
Mazda's 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine features twin-cams and 16 valves rated at 125 horsepower at 5500 rpm and 127 foot-pounds of torque at 3000 rpm. It provides good performance and is rated by the EPA at 26 mpg City/33 mpg Highway.
Completing the performance picture is Mazda's crisp-shifting 5-speed manual transmission. In contrast to most other vehicles in this segment, Mazda makes the stick a standard feature on all 626 models. The four-speed automatic transmission, on the other hand, shifts smoothly and there is minimal hunting between gears on uneven terrain.
The Mazda 626 is built on a highly rigid chassis, which provides a platform capable of delivering excellent handling and a smooth ride quality. The suspension employs MacPherson struts up front and Mazda's twin-trapezoidal links in the rear, plus big stabilizer bars at both ends. Potholes and road vibration are damped well, while noise is held in check through careful application of sound deadening insulation. Steering is variable-rate power-assisted rack-and-pinion. Four-wheel disc brakes are complemented with optional ABS and traction control. Anti-lock brakes allow the driver to maintain steering control in emergency braking maneuvers, while traction control reduces front wheel spin in slippery conditions.
Inside and out, the Mazda 626 is handsome and roomy. It offers taut, precise handling. And it's quick when fitted with the V6 engine. Depending on which model you opt for, you'll find plenty of desirable standard equipment, and the price tag makes this updated sedan more than competitive.
Mazda doesn't always get on the shopping lists of busy consumers because it has fewer dealers and a smaller advertising budget than Honda and Toyota. But don't overlook the Mazda 626 if you're shopping for a mid-size sedan, particularly if you want a car that's fun to drive.
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