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Expert Reviews 1 of 5
By Tom Strongman
July 28, 1998
Mazda's familiar 626 underwent a complete redesign last fall, but it takes a close eye to recognize the difference. Whip out the tape measure, however, and you will find that it is bigger in nearly every dimension. The wheelbase is 105.1 inches, and
overall length is 186.8, 2.4 inches more than the old car. Most importantly, there is more than enough room inside for four, even five should the need arise. The trunk is larger, too. The front is nearly a mirror image of the Millenia, Mazda's
luxury sport sedan that starts at $28,995 and ranges up to $36,595. The understated styling is successful, but some might think it needs a bit more pizzazz. What counts is the fact that this car is a substantial improvement over the previous 626, not only
in size but all-around performance, and it comes to market at a very competitive price. The base DX, with a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder and a 5-speed manual transmission, starts at $15,695. If you want a V6 the LX begins at $20,795. Atop the model lineup
is the sporty ES, which is the model Mazda sent for me to drive. It is $23,995, fully loaded and with 5-speed manual gearbox. The ES is targeted at buyers who want room for the family without sacrificing driving fun. Built exclusively in the Flat
Rock, Mich., AutoAlliance International plant that is a joint venture between Mazda and Ford, the 626 sits squarely in contention with competitors such as the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. The 170-horsepower, 2.5-liter engine is carried over
from previous years, but with a higher compression ratio and a new air-flow sensor that provides quicker throttle response. This engine is delightfully smooth, although not overly powerful given the size of the car. Driven sedately, it performs with the
same effortlessness of its V6-engined competitors. Wring it out, on the other hand, and use manual transmission vigorously, and the ES scoots along smartly. The shift linkage doesn't feel as smooth as it does in the MX-6 coupe that uses the same
powertrain. The tall fifth gear allows the engine to relax and settle into an easy pace on the highway, where it keeps up with the ever-more-speedy flow of freeway traffic. By using computer-aided design, Mazda has been able to make the new body
stronger and less likely to flex. Not only does that help reduce squeaks, it enables the suspension to be tuned to keep noise and vibration out of the interior. A fully independent rear suspension improves cornering ability and enables
the ride to be compliant on uneven surfaces. While the ride is not harsh, it is firm enough to give sporty handling and moderate lean in turns. Electronic traction control and anti-lock brakes are standard on all V6 models. The traction
control system adjusts the engine's fuel delivery and spark timing for less power when wheel sensors detect unwanted wheelspin. The cabin is typical of the cars in this segment: two bucket seats in front and
a split-folding bench in back. There was plenty of knee room for me in back, and the fronts are reasonably generous. The leather upholstery in the ES was most appealing. The interior layout is much the same as the old 626, which is to say nicely
styled and easy to use. The woodgrain trim around the center console was a nice touch. The ES comes with a long list of standard equipment, including air conditioning, 6-way power driver's seat, keyless remote entry, power windows,
power mirrors, cruise control, tilt wheel, power moonroof, 15-inch aluminum wheels and an AM/FM/CD stereo. With this redesign, Mazda moves the 626 closer to its Millenia in everything but price. While that may hurt the luxury model, it
can't help but stimulate sales for the 626. Price The base price of our test car was $23,995. Freight brought the sticker price to $24,445. Warranty The basic warranty is for three years or 50,000 miles.
> Vehicles for The Star's week-long test drives are supplied by the auto manufacturers. Point: Mazda's redesign of the 626 shows it can offer luxury-car looks at family-sedan prices. The top-line ES is both sporty and luxurious.
Counterpoint: While the 5-speed transmission adds some excitement to the driving experience, an automatic would make the ES quieter and smoother. SPECIFICATIONS: ENGINE: 2.5-liter, V6 TRANSMISSION: 5-speed WHEELBASE: 105.1
inches CURB WEIGHT: n BASE PRICE: $23,995 PRICE AS DRIVEN: $24,445 MPG RATING: 21 city, 27 hwy.