This car should be on any mid-size shopping list.
by Mitch McCullough
Base Price (MSRP) $18,735
As Tested (MSRP) $24,365
Mazda's 626 is a sporty alternative to the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. V6-powered Mazda 626 models cost less than the hot Nissan Maxima, while four-cylinder 626s compare well with the Nissan Altima. So consider Mazda when shopping for mid-size import. Be different.
Extensively redesigned last year, the Mazda 626 is an attractive sedan, though, like the Camry and Accord, won't attract a lot of attention. More important, it comes with a much stiffer body structure than pre-2000 models, so it rides, handles, and stops better than ever. Its stiff chassis and well-tuned suspension give it a sure-footed feel that'll encourage you to press down the accelerator pedal as you exit a tight corner. And when you do, you'll appreciate the power Mazda engineers have coaxed out of the optional V6 engine. In short, the 626 is more fun to drive than most of the mid-size competition.
Further refinements for 2001 include a new, modular audio system. Like all Mazda products, the 626 comes with three years of free roadside assistance and slightly longer warranty coverage (to 50,000 miles); Mazda says its dealers will even provide a free loaner when and if your 626 requires warranty repairs.
Two trim levels are available: basic LX and the leather-trimmed ES.
Buyers can mix and match these trim levels with two different engines: a 2.0-liter inline-four rated 125 horsepower, and a 2.5-liter V6 rated 165 horsepower. Both engines feature dual overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder.
Mazda supplies any combination of the above with a five-speed manual transmission, except for the four-cylinder ES, which comes only with a four-speed automatic. The autobox is an $800 option on the other models. (It is worth noting that Honda does not offer the Accord V6 with a manual transmission, and Toyota will build a five-speed Camry V6 only one mid-range trim level.)
In addition to its leather interior, the 626 ES-V6 comes with an eight-way power driver's seat and a power glass moonroof. Dual airbags, remote keyless entry, cruise control, and EZ Kool tinted glass are standard on all 626 variants.
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. Though it's no real head-turner, either, the 626 at least looks both functional 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 see its Mazda-hallmark five-point grille and tasteful brightwork. Overall, Mazda has chosen to tone down the chrome, and this has resulted in a cleaner, more elegant look.
Mazda designed the 626 for optimum interior space efficiency. The space devoted to mechanicals was minimized, while the room afforded to passengers and cargo was maximized. Still, the 626 isn't quite as roomy as the Camry.
Overall, though, its interior design emphasizes quality, comfort and ergonomics. It is an attractive space, with a good choice of materials and an aesthetic sense of color balance.
The front bucket seats in the 626 are excellent. They provide long-distance driving comfort, with plenty of shoulder space and superb lateral support, both important on winding mountain roads. The rear seats are comfortable also, again with good shoulder space, but knee room is a bit short for tall passengers.
The trunk is spacious and well-shaped, a rectangular bin without obstructions. The trunk lid includes the panel between the tail lights, so you won't have to lift any higher than the bumper 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 as well, 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 fiddle with the power mirrors 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, but chief among them are their smooth ride, quiet operation, and solid-gold reputation for reliability. As transportation appliances, they are the leaders.
The Mazda 626 is a lot more fun to drive. This car has a personality. It provides excellent communication between the driver and the road. It steers so precisely, so exactly where you want it to go, that each corner on the route home becomes a stimulating experience.
Downshift into a lower gear, and the V6 growls to life. Smooth and gutsy, it produces 165 horsepower and 161 pound-feet of torque. That doesn't quite measure up to Honda's superb VTEC V6, which delivers a full 200 horsepower, but the 626 should have no trouble keeping up. More importantly, the 626 delivers a sporty exhaust note that is pleasing to the ear; making it fun to rev.
Mazda's 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine rates 125 horsepower at 5500 rpm, and 127 pound-feet at 3000. It provides good performance and is rated by the EPA at 26 mpg City/32 mpg Highway.
Completing the performance picture is Mazda's crisp-shifting five-speed manual transmission. The four-speed automatic transmission also shifts smoothly, with minimal hunting between gears on uneven terrain.
The highly rigid chassis of the 626 provides a stable platform for excellent handling and 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 dampened well, while noise is held in check through careful application of sound deadening insulation. Steering is variable-rate power-assisted rack-and-pinion. On V6 models, four-wheel disc brakes are complemented with optional ABS and traction control. ABS allows the driver to maintain steering control in emergency braking maneuvers, while traction control reduces front wheel spin in slippery conditions.
The Mazda 626 is handsome and roomy. It offers taut, precise handling. And it's quick when fitted with the V6 engine. No matter which model you choose, you'll find plenty of desirable standard equipment, and the price tag makes this mid-size sedan more than competitive.
Because it has fewer dealers and a smaller advertising budget than Honda and Toyota, Mazda doesn't always find its way onto the shopping lists of busy consumers. But if you want a practical mid-size sedan that's also fun to drive, you can't afford to overlook the Mazda 626.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.