With its conservative styling, inside and out, the Mazda 626 is an easy car to overlook. Especially because it does battle in the hottest hotbed of competition - the midsize sedan market - against such stalwarts as Camry, Accord and Taurus.

Although everyone's attention has been focused on Mazda's greatest recent success, the tiny Miata retro sports car, or Mazda's newly revamped MVP minivan, the 626 has been quietly plugging away as a decent seller for the company, which is partially owned by Ford. What many Mazda owners have discovered about these cars is that they can buy a high-quality, Japanese-derived vehicle (built in Flat Rock, Mich.) at a moderate price, even several thousands less than Camry, Accord or Taurus.

The trade-off: Although the 626 is a comfortable, nice-running sedan, it doesn't have much of the subjective essentials that many buyers seek, such as image, character, stellar performance, bragging rights, etc.

For many other buyers, however, those things are not important, and a moderately priced, well-made sedan is just the ticket, even if it isn't all that exciting.

The body style is balanced and attractive, although notching in with the common run of sedans. At one time, the 626 was a stylistic maverick, with some interesting looks, but Mazda seems to have locked its bread-and-butter family car into the stylistic gridlock of Japanese-look cars.

The interior is plain, even though the top-of-the-line ES-V6 test car was equipped with leather seating, full power and an excellent stereo. Mazda needs to get on the stick here and design the dashboard to look rich and refined. As it is, the dashboard, gauges and controls look more like something from a budget compact than any kind of top-drawer sedan.

Driving the 626 initially, I was put off by the plainness of the interior and the lack of image overall. But I quickly grew to appreciate the comfortable ride, the fairly roomy interior and the nimble handling.

One thing I really appreciated was having a stick shift with a V-6, a formula that most other automakers have abandoned for their standard sedans. Among top-selling cars, Toyota Camry and Nissan Maxima still have this setup, but Honda Accord and the domestics have pretty much gone with straight V-6 and automatic, except for a handful of special-edition cars.

Manual shifting makes the 626 much more fun, sporting and quicker than if it were saddled with a slushbox. I do have a complaint about the engine, however.

Although I thought the rumble of this small V-6 sounded gutsy and aggressive, most mainstream drivers will find it loud and annoying. It did idle quietly and vibration-free, but get on the throttle, and the noise and harshness come pouring in.

Also, 170 horsepower isn't what it used to be. Yes, it's plenty of power to move this little car with some zip, even with four people on board. But with much of the competition pushing or exceeding 200 with its upper-end V-6 engines, the 626 be gins to feel a bit overworked.

The ride and handling are good, right up with the segment leaders. According to a Mazda spokesman, Fred Aikens, handling and steering have been sharpened with some judicious chassis stiffening and suspension tuning. The rack-and-pinion steering has been made smoother and more responsive by using Teflon-coated parts to reduce friction.

Braking is four-wheel disc, which should be standard on everything these days, but anti-locking and traction control are optional and extra. They should be standard.

The bottom line says a lot about this car, which is value. The bottom-end model, the LX with four-cylinder engine, starts at $18,000 but includes a full load of power features and accessories. The base engine makes 130 horsepower, which would most likely be more than adequate.

The test car comes standard fully equipped with all the goodies, including full-power features, leather seating, remote locking and alarm, cruise and cup holders. Th e test car had a few options, including the anti-lock braking and traction control and a CD changer.

Fully loaded with gear, the 626 still comes in at a fairly reasonable price. The subjective items, such as character and image, may be absent, but the more tangible pieces, such as value and quality, are present.

2000 Mazda 626

Vehicle type: Five-passenger, four-door sedan, front-wheel drive.
Base price: $22,445.
Price as tested: $24,220.
Engine: 2.5-liter V-6, 170 hp at 6,000 rpm, 163 lb-ft of torque at 5,000 rpm.
Transmission: 5-speed manual.
Curb weight: 2,987 pounds.
Wheelbase: 105.1 inches.
EPA mileage: 21 city, 27 highway.