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Every time we drive a V6-powered Mazda 626 we emerge pleased and bewildered. The pleasure comes from the driving. The bewilderment concerns this car's relatively modest performance on the sales charts.
Though it's neither the roomiest nor the most distinctive member of the vast midsize class, the 626 is one of the most gratifying to drive.
It has the reflexes of a gunfighter, and Mazda's 160-hp 2.5-liter V6 engine--the same engine used in the Ford Probe GT sport coupe--lends real zeal to forward progress, especially when it's allied with the precise 5-speed manual transmission.
But as hot as it is on the street, the 626's showroom performance qualifies as lukewarm. So what's the problem? Subdued styling? Sticker shock?
To renew our acquaintance with this nifty middleweight contender, we selected an LX model, which falls in the middle of the 626 model range, with the V6 engine and standard 5-speed transmission.
As noted, the 626 has been spruced up a little for 1996. The front end treatment now bears a close family resemblance to the more expensive Mazda Millenia--no bad thing--while the rear has been given a couple of small detail changes. The overall design is tidy, smooth and nicely proportioned, but it still shades toward the anonymous, and the shape has the additional drawback of familiarity. It's been with us since the 1993 model year.
On the other hand, a no-chances exterior design doesn't seem to hurt the Toyota Camry, a mainstream middie that's more expensive and not as entertaining to drive.
There's also an ongoing perception that the 626 is a little pricey, something that was true when it was launched. But Mazda has addressed this problem by holding back on annual price hikes. At $15,495, a basic 626 DX sedan costs a tad more than a Honda Accord DX ($15,100) but considerably less than a Camry DX ($16,758).
Stir V6 power into the mix, and Mazda's competitive position improves considerably.
A Camry LE V6 starts at $22,448, an Accord LX V6 at $22,500, both with automatic transmissions as standard equipment.
Our 626 LX V6 test car stickered out at $19,895, almost squarely on the average price for a new car these days in this country, and a whole bunch less than its prime competitors from Toyota and Honda.
True, an automatic transmission would have bumped the price $800 closer to the Camry and Accord. But you'd still drive home with a lot more money in your pocket. And anyway, the combination of the V6 and 5-speed transmission is a natural in a car with this kind of sporting spirit. It's also a combination that's simply not available in Camry and Accord V6 models.
Power talk: Mazda's 2.5-liter dual overhead cam 24-valve V6 is one of the absolute best in the business, overshadowed only slightly by Ford's new 2.5-liter Duratec V6.
At 160 horsepower, it doesn't have quite as much absolute output as the bigger Camry and Accord V6 engines, but it doesn't have as much mass to drag around, either.
A V6-powered 626 weighs in at 2899 lbs., compared to 3241 lbs. for the Camry and 3219 for the Accord.
Less is invariably better when it comes to vehicle curb weights. It adds up to better handling--less mass to shift back and forth in quick maneuvers--as well as better straight ahead performance and shorter stopping distances.
Stamp on the gas pedal and the 626 hustles to 60 mph in a smidge over seven seconds, emitting a refined snarl in the process.
Why all the emphasis on power?
Well, for one thing, besides enhancing the fun-to-drive quotient, power can legitimately be viewed as a safety feature.
It's always nice to have a little extra when you pull out to pass on a country back road and a 10-ton truck suddenly materializes in the oncoming lane. But in the case of the 626, the car doesn't really show to good advantage without the V6.
The standard 114-hp 2.0-liter 4-cyl. engine is strictly ho-hum compared to the basic 4-cyl. powerplants in the Accord and Camry, as well as the Ford Contour, Nissan Altima and a good many others.
It seems clear that tepid base-engine performance is one of the key elements holding the 626 back in the sales department.
The 626's modest makeover carries into the cabin with a better grade of upholstery. Although it's functional and elegantly simple, the 626 interior--like the exterior--is a little low on pizzazz. The color scheme in our test car was a bit drab, although the quality of the materials and assembly was as good as the best.
There are, however, a couple of elements that could stand improvement. The audio and climate controls, for example, are set a trifle low in the center of the dashboard and the various pushbuttons involved in both could be a little bigger.
Adjustment controls for the power-operated side mirrors are combined in a single switch that's set low in the dashboard to the left of the steering wheel. The function of the switch is fine, but it's eclipsed by the wheel and it's not easy to use when the car is moving.
Although the major instruments--speedo, tach, fuel and temp gauges--are easy to see through the wheel, they could be a tad larger. And rear seat legroom isn't what you'd call plentiful, although there's a little more of it here than there is in an Accord. Call it average for a car in the smaller end of the midsize class.
The seats, however, are very good, particularly up front. These are nicely bolstered, well-padded buckets designed to keep the driver and front seat passenger firmly anchored during hard cornering.
Hard cornering is something this car does very well--better, in fact, than most in its class.
The 626 chassis is shared by Mazda's MX-6 sport coupe as well as the Ford Probe and it's got the kind of rigidity that makes it easy for the suspension engineers to create the "right" kind of ride and handling traits.
For the 626 sedan, this translates as slightly softer than the coupes, but still firm and responsive. If your priority is cushy ride quality, this probably isn't the car for you. Camry intenders need not apply.
But if you like exceptionally quick, precise steering combined with minimal body roll and right-now responses to your commands, the 626 LX V6 has few equals in its competitive realm. About the only one that comes readily to mind at this end of the size spectrum is the Ford Contour SE.
If you've got more money to spend--say $2500 or so--the slightly larger and substantially more potent Nissan Maxima SE is a good bet. But $2500 is a pretty good-sized jump.
At its price, the 626 LX V6 stacks up as a lively sport sedan that's very tough to beat. So let's dissect that price a little bit.
The basic 626 DX is indeed basic--any frills like a radio or air conditioning cost extra.
Our LX V6, which was devoid of options, included air conditioning, an AM/FM/cassette sound system, power windows, power locks, power mirrors, cruise control, dual vanity mirrors and racy-looking 15-in. alloy wheels--not exactly rolling hedonism, but all the basic amenities.
Missing, however, was an antilock brake system. The LX V6 does have disc brakes on all four wheels, and braking performance on dry pavement is distinctly above average. But we think ABS is an important safety feature in real four-season climates, and the 626 value story would be enhanced if it were standard equipment, rather than an $800 extra.
Nevertheless, thanks to Mazda's efforts in the pricing realm the 626 LX V6 does represent a good value in a delightful small sport sedan.
Its performance makes it a joy to drive, long hauls or short, back roads or mere commuting. The quality of its assembly and finish, handled right here in the USA, measure up well against benchmark cars like the Accord and Camry.
And if it's not exactly a head-turner in the looks department, a test drive will reveal something that's already endeared a good many owners. It's a joy to drive. And if fun-to-drive is high on your list of priorities, we'll bet you'll want to take this one home with you.