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1998 Mazda 626

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — Is the 1998 Mazda 626 the car to bring

Mazda out of its worldwide doldrums?

The company's cars and trucks are typically critical

successes, but that hasn't always translated into showroom

sales, witness the brilliant but now-discontinued twin-turbo

RX7 sports car.

Even the equally brilliant Miata has only accomplished half

its assigned task. It has sold well, but doesn't seem to have

convinced happy owners to pony up for a 323, 626 or MPV.

This suggests either that critical opinion doesn't matter

(we'll dismiss that notion out of hand) or that Mazda's

marketers haven't been as clever as its engineers and designers.

Mazda says the new 626 has been designed expressly for the

North American market, being larger than either the European and

Japanese versions. (The three look awfully alike in photos.) It

will also be built in North America, at the Auto Alliance plant

in Flat Rock, Michigan.

At first glance, the new 626 looks too much like the old one

to have much impact in light of such tough competition as the

new-last-year Toyota Camry, the new-this-fall Honda Accord or

the Chevrolet Malibu, which has put the domestic industry

squarely into this mid-size sedan game. We were halfway through

the "styling walk-around" on the Seascape Resort's lawn before I

realized the red car before us was a '97, and the black one a

'98.

The hood is now an 'inny' rather than an 'outy' — the creases

dip inward rather than bulge outward. The rear roof pillar is

wider, and differs in detail. The larger taillights are dead

ringers for the Toyota Avalon's. The flying-M badge, Mazda's new

corporate logo, replaces the stylized flame, Mazda's new

corporate logo from a couple of years back. (Do car buyers

really care about these things?)

Mazda says the new 626 bears family resemblance to the upscale

Millenia and to the Miata. Right. I doubt 10 per cent of

Canadian car buyers would know a Millenia if it ran them over,

and only the Miata's mother would notice any similarity.

In what sounds like a stock chunk of text lifted from every

import-brand sedan review of the past five years, the 1998 626

is a handsome but hardly remarkable-looking car. That said, it

does have a nice stance on the road, and is perhaps more

noteworthy in motion than when parked.

The new 626 the Cronos nameplate, formerly used in Canada

and Japan but not in the U.S., was dumped a year or so ago is

usefully but not radically larger in all dimensions, which

translates into an interior that's grander in most directions by

the low tens of millimetres.

Consistent with both current trends and diligent engineering,

the body is also stiffer, by 32 per cent in bending ,1,0 and 43

per cent in torsion. Ride, handling, durability and noise

suppression all benefit.

The roomier interior sports nice comfortable seats whose only

flaw is a too-flat cushion. The power seat on the range-topping

ES model overcomes this, but drivers of baselevel cars may find

themselves sliding off the seat when braking.

Mazda's unique 'swing' center vents push a button and the

vanes pivot back and forth, reminding me of those

Crosby-Hope-Lamour movies where the stars are fanned by lovely palm

fronds.

This gadget, first introduced in the late-'80s 626, has been

steadfastly ignored by the rest of the industry, but it never

fails to arouse interest in those who've never seen it before.

An AM/FM stereo with singleCD player is standard on all 626s,

while a full-zoot Bose system graces the ES. A cassette player

is an option a sign of the times, I guess.

A larger glove box and centre console, plus a covered cubby at

the base of the centre stack, harbor the flotsam and jetsam of

daily driving.

The 626's mechanical bits are carried over, with refinements.

The base 125-horsepower twin-cam 16-valve 2.0-litre

four-cylinder and optional 170-horsepower four-cam 24-valve

2.5-litre V6 are more powerful than before. But they still give

away substantial amounts of displacement and power to most of

the competition.

Mazda says the 626's lower weight and beefier torque curves

compensate; they may, but only to a point.

The base DX trim level comes only with the four. The LX can be

had with either engine, while the V6 is standard in the sporty

ES.

A particularly nice five-speed manual and an improved

four-speed electronicallycontrolled automatic overdrive are

available with either engine — the 626 being among the few in

this class to offer the five-speed-V6 combo.

An engine-power-reducing traction control system is a new

standard feature on ES.

The MacPherson strut front and twin-trapezoidal independent

rear suspensions have been Mazda mainstays for years.

Detail refinements, notably to bushings, are aimed at a

smoother, quieter ride. Thicker antiroll bars stabilize

handling.

Engine-speed-sensitive power-assisted rack and pinion steering

is standard across the board.

Sadly, anti-lock brakes aren't; they're optional on the LX V6,

standard on ES, and not available with the four-cylinder engine

at all.

If there are any bad roads in California, I've not found many.

The 626 acquitted itself well on the twisties, reinforcing its

position among the sportier of the mid-size family sedans.

"Bott's dots," those lane-dividing cat'seyes that California

road builders love and which provide the only deviation from

billiard-table smoothness set up some bump-thump in the

suspension. This seemed worse in one four-cylinder automatic

test car, but our mounts were early-production vehicles, which

may not have reflected final suspension calibrations

accounting for variance between specific cars.

The four cylinder is a smooth runner, and will return

excellent fuel economy. But with the automatic transaxle, hilly

roads and the a/c on full, the car was hard-pressed to maintain

headway.

Consider the type of driving you do, and the amount of

elevation change you encounter, before picking this powertrain

combo.

I've always wondered why Mazda's parent Ford spent millions on

Contour's Duratec V6 when they already had the 626's V6 on the

shelf. It's a lovely motor, with fine throttle response and a

distinctive exhaust note. Its limited displacement is

reflected in fairly short gearing and a need for frequent

downshifts, with either the manual or the autobox.

So, is the new 626 car enough to do the job?

Tom Matano, executive director of Mazda's California design

centre, notes that the styling is deliberately conservative. "We

designers would of course like to break the envelope, it's our

nature. But we as a company don't have the marketing strength

right now to drive this market segment with a radical style.

"Unlike Toyota's Avalon or Ford's Crown Victoria, we don't

have a larger, more cautious car to move the more conservative,

usually older, customers up to; we have to cover both

subsegments with the same product. Maybe on the next goround,

we'll be a bit more adventurous."

Mazda Canada officials point out that the 626 doesn't have to

put the Camry et al "on the trailer," as racers would say.

It simply has to make Mazda a player again.

"The current 626 has sold in the 6,000 unit range in Canada

for the past few years," says Peter Whaley, sales and marketing

supremo for Mazda Canada. "We're projecting 6,500 units for it

in 1997, as it benefits from the overall upturn in the market.

We're very excited about the 1998 car, and expect it'll achieve

7,500 units."

Prices won't be announced until closer to the car's

late-September intro date, so I'll guess: a base-level DX

four-cylinder five-speed just under $20,000; a well-equipped LX

four-cylinder automatic, the 'volume' model, around $24,000; and

a full-boat ES V6 auto with leather around $30,000.

If this sounds like every other import-brand mid-size sedan,

you're getting the picture.

Mazda is a follower, not a leader. If Toyota, Honda and Nissan

price this way and they do — Mazda has no choice.

The 626 has always been a very pleasant automobile. I'm

certain the new one will more than satisfy its owners. Mazda's

challenge, in light of the fact that there are plenty of more

obvious choices in this segment, is simply to create more of

them. Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie, among a group of auto

writers invited to California, prepared this report based on

sessions arranged and paid for by Mazda. You can catch Kenzie

each Saturday on Talk 640 Radio at 4 p.m.

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