Mazda's 626 is a sporty alternative to the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. Think of it as an opportunity to break from the herd, to put a little personality in your drive. Mazda will put you into a V6 version about $2000 sooner than Accord, Camry, or the Nissan Altima. Compared to Nissan's Maxima, the 626 looks like a serious bargain. Four-cylinder 626s are priced comparably to their competition.
The current-generation 626 is due for replacement at the end of the season, and that may give dealers an incentive to deal.
But don't think for a minute that the 626 is obsolete. The current model dates from 1998, but received major engineering revisions for model-year 2000, when both its interior and exterior appearance was freshened. For 2001, the 626 was re-tuned for an NLEV emission rating. It returns with minimal change for 2002.
The 626's stiff chassis and well-tuned suspension give it a sure-footed feel, encouraging you to press down the accelerator as you exit a tight corner. And when you do, you'll appreciate the power Mazda engineers have coaxed out of the optional V6 engine. Even in its twilight year, the 626 is more fun to drive than most of its mid-size competition.
Like all Mazda products, the 626 comes with three years of free roadside assistance and slightly longer warranty coverage (to 50,000 miles); Mazda says its dealers will provide a free loaner if your 626 should require warranty repairs.
LX ($18,735); LX-V6 ($19,935); ES-V6 ($21,635)
Mid-size cars are popular because they excel at moving passengers with performance, comfort and efficiency. Most, however, are clothed in conservative designs, which is a nice way of saying they are bland. Though it's no real head-turner, either, the Mazda 626 at least looks both functional and sporty.
Its subtle wedge shape bears a family resemblance to the more upscale Mazda Millenia. That's most apparent when viewed from the front, which features Mazda's hallmark five-point grille and tasteful brightwork. Overall, Mazda has chosen to tone down the chrome, and this has resulted in a cleaner, more elegant look.
Mazda designed the 626 for optimum interior space efficiency. The space devoted to the greasy parts was minimized, while the room afforded to passengers and cargo was maximized. Still, the 626 isn't quite as roomy as the Toyota Camry.
Overall, though, its interior design emphasizes quality, comfort and ergonomics. It is an attractive space, with a good choice of materials and an aesthetic sense of color balance.
The front bucket seats in the 626 are excellent. They provide long-distance driving comfort, with plenty of shoulder room and superb lateral support, both important on winding mountain roads. The rear seats are comfortable also, again with good shoulder space, although knee room is a bit short for tall passengers.
The trunk is large and well-shaped, a rectangular bin without obstructions. The trunk lid includes the panel between the tail lights, so you won't have to lift any higher than the bumper when hefting groceries or baggage. The rear seats fold down for additional cargo capacity, or to carry longer items. There's plenty of in-cabin storage as well, allowing motorists to stash everything from cassette tapes to hand-held cellular phones.
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 fiddle with the power mirrors or to turn on the rear defroster. Switches and knobs have a refined feel that bespeaks luxury.
There are several reasons why the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord dominate the market, but chief among them are their smooth ride, quiet operation, and solid-gold reputation for reliability. As transportation appliances, they are the leaders.
The Mazda 626 is more fun to drive, however. This car has a personality. It provides excellent communication between the driver and the road. It steers so precisely, so exactly where you want it to go, that each corner on the route home becomes a stimulating experience.
It's most fun when equipped with the V6 engine. Downshift into a lower gear, and the V6 growls to life. Smooth and gutsy, it produces 165 horsepower and 161 pound-feet of torque. That does not measure up to the impressive power of Honda's or Nissan's V6 engines. However, the nimble 626 is considerably lighter than comparably equipped versions of the Honda Accord or Toyota Camry. Mazda's V6 sings with a sporty exhaust note that is pleasing to the ear. It's fun to rev.
Mazda's 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine rates 125 horsepower at 5500 rpm, and 127 pound-feet at 3000. It delivers good performance and is rated by the EPA at 26 mpg City/32 mpg Highway.
Mazda's five-speed manual transmission offers crisp shifting and makes the 626 feel more like a sports sedan. The optional four-speed automatic transmission shifts smoothly with minimal hunting between gears on uneven terrain.
Excellent handling and a smooth ride quality are benefits of the 626's highly rigid chassis. The suspension employs MacPherson struts up front and Mazda's twin-trapezoidal links in the rear, plus big stabilizer bars at both ends. Potholes and road vibrations are dampened effectively, while noise is held in check through careful application of sound-deadening insulation. Steering is variable-rate power-assisted rack-and-pinion. This car is very stable at speed.
Four-wheel disc brakes provide the stopping power for the V6 models. Anti-lock brakes (ABS) and traction control are available only with an automatic transmission. ABS allows the driver to maintain steering control in emergency braking maneuvers, while traction control reduces front wheel spin in slippery conditions.
The Mazda 626 is handsome and roomy. It offers taut, precise handling. And it's quick when fitted with the V6 engine. No matter which model you choose, you'll find plenty of desirable standard equipment, and the price makes this mid-size sedan more than competitive.
Because it has fewer dealers and a smaller advertising budget than Honda and Toyota, Mazda doesn't always find its way onto the shopping lists of busy consumers. But if you want a practical mid-size sedan that's also fun to drive, you can't afford to overlook the Mazda 626.
Paul Eisenstein contributed to this article.