1996 Mazda 626 Cronos
Mazda has been going through a bit of a rough patch recently.
Not just in Canada, but worldwide.
Most of its cars, notably sports machines like the Miata and
RX7, are critical hits.
But the company hasn't been able to turn this positive image
into commercial success.
Ford, Mazda's corporate part owner, recently increased its
stake to 33.4 per cent (from 25) and installed one of its own,
Henry Wallace, as president.
The Scot (not American, as was reported in these pages a few
weeks ago) is the first gaijin (foreigner) to run a Japanese
The theory is to apply some of Ford's acknowledged marketing
skill to move more Mazda iron.
It is too early to credit the new regime for Mazda's recent
modest profit. Nor will we soon see much evidence of any new
approach in Canada, either with respect to product or marketing.
For the moment, Mazda Canada will soldier on with lightly
seasoned current offerings such as today's subject, the 626
Cronos midsize sedan.
Like most cars in this segment, the Cronos suffered from the
impact of the current-generation Toyota Camry, which really
leap-frogged the competition four years ago.
For 1996, Cronos has been nicely updated, with a new front end
featuring a chromed grille designed to suggest the more
expensive Mazda Millenia, but which to me suggests a hawk's
Gorgeous spoked alloy wheels remind me of the famous and still
unsurpassed Minilite design from the 1960s.
The curvaceous body is otherwise unchanged. It's a handsome
piece, but looks smaller than it really is, one of the
challenges it faces against Camry, which looks bigger than it
Still, there's decent room inside the Cronos, although both
Lady Leadfoot and your obedient and average-sized servant (moi)
had difficulty getting comfortable in the driver's seat, thanks
to insufficient lumbar support.
I moved the seat closer to the wheel and reclined the seatback
more than I usually do, which helped. The diminutive Lady
already had the seat as far forward as it would go, so she
couldn't avail herself of this remedy. The Cronos is one of very
few Mazdas that don't fit her perfectly.
The dash and all controls are nicely laid out, and the U.S.
work force at Mazda's Flat Rock, Mich., assembly plant did a
nice job screwing it all together.
Included is Mazda's cute, oscillating centre vent; I'm not
sure how much good it does, but it looks like it's working extra
hard to make you feel refreshed.
Not all of Mazda's competitors in this class offer a V6
engine with a five-speed manual transmission. That may be
because few if any of them have a powertrain as nice as this.
The 2.5 litre, fourcam, 24-valve V6 is a delight. It asks a
question I've often posed — why did Ford spent billions on its
Duratec V6 for the Contour and Mystique when this lovely unit
was already in the corporate parts bin?
The Mazda mill's 160 horsepower at 5,800 r.p.m. and 156
poundfeet of torque at 4800 r.p.m. are no more than competitive,
but it's the way the engine delivers its performance that will
delight the enthusiast.
Throttle response is crisp, low-end torque is definitely
stouter than average and the throaty exhaust note is just
The manual gearbox can on occasion hang up slightly on the
five-to-four downshift, but otherwise it swaps cogs smoothly and
precisely. Clutch takeup is beyond reproach.
If the powertrain appears aimed at Jacques Villeneuve
wannabes, the chassis is calibrated more for the boulevardier.
Handling is actually pretty good, with direct, well weighted
steering, and crisp turnin on corners.
But the springs and shocks are ultimately too soft, leading to
considerable body roll. While suspension tuning like this is
supposed to aid ride comfort, it does so only on good roads,
where even rock-hard tuning does a decent job.
When the road gets rougher, the soft underpinnings can't cope.
Tiny perfect Patrick actually approached car sickness at one
stage on a twisty, bumpy, country road.
If the engine and steering weren't so eager, the soggy chassis
wouldn't be such a concern. The car otherwise begs to be driven
briskly, but in the final analysis doesn't really enjoy it.
My test car was the midlevel LX, with the optional V6
package, which is good value. Included are four-wheel disc
anti-lock brakes and some additional luxury equipment as well as
the mightier motor, all for $3,765 more than a four-cylinder LX.
At just over $26,000, a thus-equipped Cronos looks pretty
good, priced against the Camry, Nissan Maxima or Honda Accord
The Mazda 626 Cronos sedan is a pleasant, competent car, but
one which may not have found its true niche. Personally, I think
Mazda should forget the customer who wants a soft, quiet family
sedan — they're going to buy a Camry anyway.
Tighten up the Cronos chassis, dial in more aggressive tires,
install a pair of cloth-covered sports seats (with adjustable
lumbar support, please) and create a poorman's BMW.
That would be a sports sedan consistent with Mazda's corporate
"Passion for the Road" ad campaign.
Then turn the newly energized marketing guys loose.
Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie prepared this report
based on driving experiences with a vehicle provided
by the automaker.