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.
With rare exception-the Ford Taurus and Chrysler Cirrus come to mind-the midsize segment seems to encourage manufacturers to take the safe, conservative road on styling. That's all the more true among Japanese brands. The Toyota Camry is the automotive equivalent of plain vanilla.
We're pleased to see Mazda buck that trend with a shape that's both elegant and sporty. The 626's subtle wedge shape bears a family resemblance to its upscale cousin, the Mazda Millenia. That's most apparent nose on, where you get a good look at the grille and tasteful brightwork. Overall, Mazda has wisely chosen to tone down the use of chrome.
There are several reasons why the Camry and Accord dominate the market. A reputation for reliability is one. Low levels of noise, vibration and harshness is another. The 626's greater torsional rigidity helps take some of the slam and bang out of the potholes that are part of the landscape in Michigan where I drove this car. Mazda has reduced noise, vibration and harshness through careful application of sound deadening insulation.
Four trim levels make up the Mazda 626 line: $18,115 LX, $19,995 ES, $19,515 LX-V6 and $22,695 ES-V6.
The LX and ES come with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine rated at 125 horsepower. The other two models come with a 2.5-liter V6 rated at 170 horsepower.
All come standard with a 5-speed manual transmission -- except the ES, which comes standard with a 4-speed automatic. An automatic is an $800 option on the other models.
Our 626 ES V-6 came with a high level of standard equipment, including a power moonroof, dual power mirrors, leather trimmed interior and a six-way power driver's seat. Safety and security features added dual airbags, remote keyless entry and an anti-theft engine immobilizer to the list.
Mazda designed the 626 for optimum interior space efficiency. The space devoted to mechanicals was minimized, while the room offered to passengers and cargo was maximized. Still, the 626 isn't quite as roomy as the Camry. The rear seat could use a tad more knee room, though there's plenty of shoulder space front and back.
There's plenty of in-cabin storage allowing motorists to stash everything from cassette tapes to handheld cellular phones. There's also a roomy back seat. It feels more comfortable than the back seats in most of the other cars in this class.
The trunk is spacious and can take up to 14.2 cubic feet of cargo. More important than a number, it is shaped well, a rectangular shape without obstructions. The trunk lid opens low so you won't have to lift high when hefting groceries or baggage. The rear seats fold down for additional cargo capacity or to carry longer items.
The front seats in the 626 are excellent. The buckets not only provide long-distance driving comfort but superb lateral support. You'll discover just how useful that is when you put the car through its paces. The rear seats are a little less satisfactory. We'd expect to be a bit stiff after a long trip, especially if we were stuck in the middle seat.
Overall, the interior design emphasizes quality, comfort and ergonomics. The 626 interior is attractive with a good choice of materials and an aesthetic sense of color balance.
The layout of the instrument panel makes the gauges easy to read. Controls and switches more located comfortably within reach. You won't have to take your eyes off the road to find the remote mirror controls or to turn on the rear defroster. Switches and knobs have a refined feel that bespeaks luxury.
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.
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