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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Consider the type of driving you do, and the amount of
elevation change you encounter, before picking this powertrain
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
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.