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Completely redesigned and re-engineered for 1998, the Mazda 626 shows why it's a good idea to shop around.
Mazda's 626 is often overlooked. Though it is Mazda's top seller, the 626 is a perennial also-ran in the incredibly competitive midsize segment sweepstakes. It's a solid and reliable sedan that's fun to drive, but it just never seems to get the amount of attention it deserves.
There's an old rule of thumb that suggests new car buyers will only take a close look at the top three vehicles on their shopping list. So when it comes to family sedans, that means most people will test drive the nation's three best-selling passenger cars, the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Ford Taurus. But the fifth-generation Mazda 626 is a good reason to break that rule.
With some styling cues lifted from the luxurious Mazda Millenia, the all-new 626 presents a crisp and formal appearance. Its elegant exterior has been stretched more than two inches and houses a roomy, refined interior.
But the changes reach well beneath the surface. The new body is stiffer, and the suspension is more sure-footed in a way that's likely to encourage you to press down the accelerator pedal just a wee bit harder as you exit a tight corner. When you do, you'll appreciate the extra power Mazda engineers have coaxed out of both the 2.0-liter twin-cam four-cylinder engine, and the smooth 2.5-liter double overhead-cam V6.
Those who bother to check the window sticker, will discover the 626 is American-made. It's assembled at the Flat Rock, Michigan, plant Mazda shares with Ford and uses enough locally sourced components to count under government rules as a domestic model.
A bigger and better 626 means more than just length and roominess. When it comes to the drivetrain, Mazda has coaxed an extra 11 horsepower out of the 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, boosting output to 125 horsepower. Torque, that force that propels you from intersections and up steep hills, rises from 124 to 127 pound-feet. This engine is inexpensive and fuel efficient.
Our Mazda 626 was equipped with the 2.5-liter V6 engine. For 1998, the output was increased from 164 to 170 horsepower, with torque up slightly to 163 pound-feet. This little V6 is extremely smooth and powerful and adds greatly to the enjoyment of driving the 626. It's capable of propelling the 626 from 0-60 mph in the mid 7-second range, which is more than enough to keep up with the competition.
Adding further to the enjoyment of driving the 626 is a stiffer chassis. A rigid chassis allows engineers to more precisely tune the suspension for improved handling and ride quality. MacPherson struts up front and Mazda's twin-trapezoidal links in the rear add to the driving fun along with larger stabilizer bars at both ends to reduce body lean in corners. Steering is power-assisted rack-and-pinion. This setup absorbs highway ripples and bumps on the everyday commute route, yet it offers the sort of control that will lead some driver to wander down the back roads looking for some tight corners.
Completing the performance picture is Mazda's crisp-shifting five-speed manual transmission. In contrast to most other vehicles in this segment, Mazda makes the stick a standard feature on all 626 models; that's another tip-off that this car has some sporting tendencies.
Mazda has re-tuned its four-speed electronically controlled transmission to make it even smoother than before and to reduce hunting among gears on uneven terrain or stop-and-go driving.
Traction control comes standard on all V6 models. It's a useful complement to a front-wheel-drive platform with a powerful engine as it reduces wheelspin under hard acceleration or on slippery surfaces.
Inside and out, the 1998 Mazda 626 is a clear improvement when compared with the vehicle it replaces. It's handsome and roomy and it offers precise handling and quick acceleration performance. A high level of standard equipment along with a competitive price makes the 626 an excellent candidate for that shopping list.
Mazda is unlikely to ever challenge Honda, Toyota and Ford for the top of the sales charts, but a lot of folks don't want to look exactly like their neighbors.
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