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1998 Mazda 626

  • Driver

If you're going to compete in the midsize import brand family sedan segment, you may have to give prospective customers a compelling reason not to buy a Toyota Camry or Honda Accord.

Mazda is reentering the fray with a mostly new, U.S built, exclusive to North America 626 (the Canada only Cronos name plate experiment, an attempt to play on the success of Miata, was dropped last year).

The body and platform are about as all-new as cars get these days. Mazda chose not to go out on a limb styling wise. Tom Matano, Executive Director of Mazda's styling studio in Irvine,

Calif. says that when a company is striving to establish itself as a serious player in a market segment like this, it doesn't pay to be too radical.

Mazda would like you to think Mazda Millenia, their luxury sedan, when you see the new 626. Sorry; my mind keeps coming back to Toyota's Avalon, especially from the rear. This is not

an all bad thing, since Avalon is a much more expensive car than 626.

As I must say with so many new cars these days, the 626 is a handsome, inoffensive if not particularly enthralling design.

The new car looks considerably larger than before, and that's no illusion. Wheelbase and length are both up by 60 mm, while width is a scant 10 mm greater.

But inside, it's the width you'll notice the door panels seem a long reach away thanks to Mazda's so called Opti Space design approach that extracts the maximum passenger and cargo

room from a given volume.

The interior is well laid out and nicely finished, if not notably different from what you'll find in several cars in this class.

One unique feature that 626 introduced in 1988 is the "swing" centre vents, which waft gently back and forth, distributing cool air across the entire expanse of the car. A neat party

trick, standard on all but the base DX trim level.

The seats are large and comfortable. In DX models, the seat cushion is quite low. On upscale variants, there's lots of adjustment to counter this.

The 626 also features a three-point safety belt in the centre rear seating position.

Reflecting current trends in sound systems, even base 626s get a standard AM/FM radio with a singleshot CD player. For those of you, er, us, whose music library is still mostly on tape, a

cassette player is available as an accessory.

The power trains in the 626 qualify as "modified carryover."

Both the 2.0 L twincam 16-valve inline four (the only engine available on DX; standard on LX) and 2.5 L four-cam 24-valve V6 (optional on LX; standard on ES) give away displacement and

power to most of their direct competitors, but neither feels undergunned in real world driving at least not when equipped with the five-speed manual transmission. (The four cylinder

automatic may be another story.) The 626's relatively low weight, 40 to 100 kg less than Accord or Camry, depending on model, surely helps here.

The four gets a 10 per cent power boost to 125 horses, and is a very pleasant motor, spinning smoothly throughout the rev range, and carrying the car to superlegal speeds so effortlessly you'd better keep an eye on the speedo.

I've always like Mazda's V6. It's smoother still, punchy at low revs, and has a neat exhaust note when you lean on it a little. A higher compression ratio and revised intake plumbing

for the new model bump output to 170 hp. This sweetheart is proof that you don't need to be the biggest or the most powerful to be competitive.

Mazda makes a point that the 626 is one of the few cars in its class to offer a five-speed with the V6, implying that this is the sports sedan of family sedans.

While the five-speed is the tranny of choice, especially with the four, it can't be rushed in its operation, or you'll crunch the cogs. Well, I did anyway, a couple of times. Clutch takeup

is smooth and precise.

The 626's front-wheel drive chassis stays with Mazda's traditional MacStrut front end and "twin trapezoidal" multilink design at the rear. The company claims it's been "thoroughly

reworked for reduced transmission of noise, vibration and harshness into the cabin." All well and good, but that usually translates into more rubber in the mounting points.

While ultimate handling is good, all the 626s I drove exhibited a little quirk: a slight lag between the turning of the wheel and the reaction of the car.

Could this be the noise reducing rubber? It's not a safety concern; more a bit of background noise. Also, nobody but me was really able to feel this, so it's obviously not a big deal.

I also encountered strong crosswinds during my test drive, and the car was blown around a bit. Without a competitive car to try in the same circumstances it's hard to say whether this is an

issue, but I'm suspicious it might be related to the rubbery feel in the steering response.

The ride is generally good, although the low profile 60 series tires fitted on V6 equipped cars introduce a touch of harshness on sharp-edged pavement.

From a design, engineering and performance perspective, the new 626 is a competent package. If that sounds like damning with faint praise, so be it ; not even Mazda will claim this is a

landmark car in the annals of midsize family sedans.

Long-time Mazda fans, notably satisfied Protege owners, will surely feel comfortable moving up. What Mazda is aiming for is to be mentioned in the same breath by shoppers looking at other brands.

A full boat 626 ES V6 lists at $30,930, so close it doesn't matter to Accord's EXV6 at $30,800 and Camry's XLE V6 at $30,918 (although the latter two both come with automatic

transmission).

At the other end of the scale, the 626 DX starts at $20,140, giving it a $1200 to $1900 advantage over the other two's lowest suggested list prices. (A microscopic examination of the

respective equipment lists of three may turn up an extra trinket here, a missing toy there.)

At the bottom end of the bottom line, then, would the 626's price advantage be a compelling enough reason to choose it over the others?

Only a test drive and perhaps your bank manager can answer that question.

Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie prepared this report based on driving experiences with 626s provided by Mazda Canada. You can catch Kenzie each Saturday on Talk 640 Radio at noon.

Email: jbkenzie@interhop.net

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