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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

car company.

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

bill.

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

is.

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

wonderful.

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

V6.

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.

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