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It almost goes without saying that there are a lot of similarities among midsize sedans. With few exceptions, each offers at least two engine choices. Al-so, each has a base model followed at a minimum by an upgraded version. And most are priced, model for model, within striking distance of their major competitors.
The similarities don't end there. Dimensionally, most midsize sedans occupy about the same amount of space, deliver comparable performance and gas mileage, and are, at least superficially, more than slightly similar in their appearance.
So what makes the Mazda 626 special in its class? Why choose it instead of, say, a Toyota Camry, Honda Accord or Mitsubishi Galant? We would say that the answer can only come from your own personal acquaintance - in other words, a firsthand test drive of the car.
The Mazda does everything well, whether it's being judged by class norms or by even higher standards. The 626 is finished to near-perfection and is a delight to drive.
On paper, this Mazda stands up to the competition, but that something extra that makes the 626 a little more attractive than some other cars goes well beyond written descriptions.
Visually, the 626 provides no surprises. Though built in the United States, it follows the near-universal Japanese sedan design theme: In profile, it has a subtle wedge shape, a rising line that extends from rounded nose to rounded tail.
The roofline is a cross between formal and rounded aerodynamic. In the front, headlights are faired in and, in combination with parking and turn-indicator lights, flow into the front fender.
Between the lamp units is a small grille, large enough to hold a badge, while the primary air intake is integrated into the front bumper face.
In back, simple taillights flank the license plate. A low coefficient of drag reduces wind noise and aids fuel economy at higher speeds.
The most striking aspect of the 626's appearance is its simplicity. Trim is minimal, and there are no indentations, lines or other unnecessary styling gimmicks added for the sake of dressing up the car. Nor are these things missed. This is a quality design that looks good, is assembled well, and is topped by a paint job worthy of a car with a price tag double that of the 626.
Few visual clues are provided to differentiate the base DX model from its progressively upgraded LX, LX-V6 and ES siblings. The latter pair have larger wheels (15-in. diameter vs. 14-in.), the top three have body-color rearview mirrors (the DX mirrors are black), and the ES model has foglamps installed in its front bumper.
All 626s share a stylish and roomy interior. They're capable of carrying five adults in reasonable comfort, but for maximum luxury you should keep the occupants to four or fewer.
Dual airbags and height-adjustable front seat-belt anchors are standard regardless of model, as are well-shaped front bucket seats.
The rear seat has a 60/40 split that allows one side of the seatback to be folded, increasing luggage space while still accommodating a passenger.
In all 626s, a tilt steering wheel and inside releases for the trunk and fuel-filler door are supplied.
Upgrade models build on this satisfactory basic cabin layout. Air conditioning is standard on all models except the DX, which gets air as part of a convenience package that also adds an AM/FM/cassette stereo and carpeted floormats.
Also standard on the LX, LX-V6 and ES models are cruise control and power windows/door locks. Cloth upholstery (DX) can be replaced by velour (LX and LX-V6) or leather (ES). Power front-seat adjustments are standard on the ES, but even lesser models' front seats have a wide range of adjustability, and the manual controls are simple to use.
Despite the high amenity count, the 626 interior is simple yet functional, stylish without being ornate.
The only complex item is the optional sound system, a 6-speaker unit (with dealer-installed CD changer) that has an inordinate number of small push buttons to deal with. That's not an unusual feature, but is nonetheless a distraction to the driver.
The primary difference between plain and fancy 626s is apparent from the first turn of the ignition key. The DX and LX are powered by a 118-hp
4-cylinder engine, while LX-V6 and ES get a 164-hp V6. Choosing one powerplant over the other is a matter of economy: The base engine is miserly; the V6 uses more fuel and, naturally, adds more to the price tag.
There's nothing wrong with the smaller engine. It provides acceptable performance with either a 5-speed manual or a
4-speed automatic transmission, and it's reasonably refined.
But the V6 is a treat for anyone who enjoys driving and thus comes highly recommended. It is smooth and quiet, and it gives the 626 a sporty feel the standard 4-cylinder simply can't match.
The top V6 model also gets standard 4-wheel disc brakes and anti-lock brakes. We're pleased to report that the brakes on our test ES endured lots of hard use without any problems.
Regardless of model, the 626 has a sophisticated and well-developed suspension, capable of soaking up bumps while delivering a smooth ride. Road noise and harshness are filtered out instead of transmitted to the interior.
There is some body roll during cornering, but this is more noticeable from outside the car. Some of our test drivers would have preferred a little less power assist to the steering, but all gave it high marks for precision.
The typical 626 buyer will probably choose to have the automatic transmission, an electronically controlled unit that is well matched to the V6 engine.
However, we tested the crisp-shifting 5-speed and deemed it a good alternative, though perhaps out of character for a family sedan.
This dual-purpose nature is part of the 626's appeal. A more than competent small luxury sedan, it is also at home on winding roads and responds just as well to the enthusiastic driver as it does to someone only concerned with getting from point A to point B. Happily, there are no compromises; each type of driver is served well by the Mazda 626.
In one word, the Mazda 626's key attribute is balance. This car's appeal is strong throughout a wide range of driving conditions and styles, whether the order of the day is commuting through a busy city, taking a long trip across the country or enjoying a romp through the mountains.
If the Mazda 626's more expensive models are most desirable, that doesn't make this car different from any competitor. You get what you pay for in this class.
Which brings us back to our earlier suggestion: Spend some time behind the wheel of a variety of cars before cracking open your checkbook. There are no losers among midsize sedans, and no cars that are clearly superior.
In the final analysis, the difference between buying brand X or brand Y can be something simple, such as the proximity
of a dealership to your home or how willing the dealer is to offer an especially friendly price on the car you want.
Those considerations aside, the Mazda 626 makes a strong case for itself. It looks good, and its impressive appearance is backed by comfort, performance and a high level of fit-and-finish.