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For import buyers looking for a solid, reliable midsize family sedan, there are plenty of options to choose from. Yet only two cars seem to show up regularly on most shopping lists: the Toyota Camry and the Honda Accord.
If you had to pick just two, that's not a bad starting point. But why limit yourself? Accord and Camry are excellent choices, but they're not the most exciting cars in the world. There are plenty of other great options on the market these days, some of which are just as roomy, just as reliable, but far more fun to look at and drive. Mazda's 626 is a perennial also-ran that just never seems to get the amount of attention it deserves. The 1999 model should certainly find its way onto more shopping lists.
The fifth-generation Mazda 626 presents a crisp and formal appearance that's far more refined than the previous generation. It was stretched more than 2 inches when it was redesigned for 1998 and the interior is much roomier than before.
Mazda's 626 offers a stiff chassis and well-tuned suspension that gives it a sure-footed feel that'll encourage you to press down the accelerator pedal just a wee bit harder as you enter a tight corner. When you do, you'll appreciate the power Mazda engineers have coaxed out of the engine.
In short, the 626 is a more fun to drive than most mid-size sedans.
The Camry and Accord may sport Toyota and Honda badges, but the Mazda 626 is a lot more fun to drive. This car has as personality. The driver can sense the road. It steers so precise, so exactly where you want it to go, that each corner on the route home becomes remarkable. Downshift into a lower gear and the V6 growls to life.
More is better when it comes to the drivetrain. Mazda's 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine features twin-cams and 16 valves. It produces 125 horsepower at 5500 rpm and 127 foot-pounds of torque at 3000 rpm. It provides good performance and is rated by the EPA at 26 mpg City, 33 mpg Highway.
For an additional $1,400, however, you can move out of the LX and into the LX-V6. It comes with a smooth and gutsy 2.5-liter V6 that produces 170 horsepower and 163 foot-pounds of torque.
Those numbers may not sound like much compared to the new Accord V6, which delivers a full 200 horsepower, but as we've wisely learned over the years, raw numbers can be misleading. Our informal test suggests an impressive 0-to-60 mph acceleration time of around 7.5 seconds. That's fairly quick and more than enough to keep up with your friends in their Camrys and Accords. What they won't have is the 626's sweet exhaust note, which encourages you to keep your foot to the floor.
The suspension employs MacPherson struts up front and twin-trapezoidal links in the rear, plus big stabilizer bars at both ends. Steering is variable rate power-assisted rack-and-pinion. What you wind up with is the type of package that can absorb the little bumps on the everyday commute route, yet it just might make you wander the back roads looking for some tight corners to challenge.
Completing the performance picture is Mazda's crisp-shifting 5-speed manual transmission. In contrast to most other vehicles in this segment, Mazda makes the stick a standard feature on all 626 models. And with the V6, you'll find that traction control also comes standard. It's a useful compliment to the 626's front-wheel-drive powertrain, especially if you live in wet or snowy climes.
For those who'd prefer an automatic, Mazda has re-tuned its four-speed automatic to make it smoother and to reduce hunting between gears on uneven terrain.
Inside and out, the latest-generation Mazda 626 is a clear improvement when compared with the vehicle it replaced. It's got a lot of nice things going for it. It's handsome and roomy. It's quick. And it offers taut, precise handling. Depending on which model you opt for, you'll find plenty of desirable standard equipment, and the price tag makes this updated sedan more than competitive.
The big challenge for Mazda is to get on the shopping lists as it struggles to gain its share of attention from busy consumers. Don't overlook the Mazda 626 if you're shopping for a mid-size sedan. It's more fun to drive than some of the other cars in this class.