EXPERT REVIEW

The Detroit News's view

Most of the (male-dominated) automotive press tends to drool over the all-new 1998 Mazda 626 mid-sized sedan. And in many respects, it is a sleeper in the family sedan segment, especially with a V-6 engine that’s available with a five-speed manual transmission. You can’t get that combination on the Honda Accord.

So if you’re in a sporty mood, check out the redesigned 626. We drove the top-of-the-line ES version with a $24,445 sticker. But be forewarned: This Mazda is not particularly family friendly – except for that little “swing” button on the dashboard.

She: The 626 is a great car to be alone in, but once you pile in all the kids or get stuck in the passenger seat, you begin to see its shortcomings. The back seat reminded me of a fancy living room with white carpeting. Pretty and roomy, but impractical. If you’ve got a couple kids in the back seat of the Mazda, you’ll be hauling them without cupholders, climate control vents or a power outlet. And you can’t get an integrated child seat either. It would make me think twice before I purchased it as a “family” vehicle.

He: Come on, the Mazda 626 is sensitive to passengers besides the driver. What about that neat “swing” button you can press to make the front vents move like an oscillating fan? That was pretty thoughtful – and unusual. I’ve yet to see that on the competition.

She: I was less impressed with that button. Besides, I’ve yet to see a Mazda competitor skip the pop-up locks on the doors. There’s another thing you don’t get on the 626. And it’s kind of disconcerting. You can’t lock the car from the passenger seat, which can be unnerving if you’re sitting in a parking lot waiting for somebody. Only the driver has access to any locking switches. Oh, it’s a nice car all right, but just make sure you’re the one behind the wheel.

He: As usual, you’re getting hung up on the little details and not looking at the big picture. This is a terrific car – probably the best 626 ever. If you remember the old 626, it had the look of a compact car. This version takes after the upscale Mazda Millenia, especially with the chrome-accented grille. The 626 now looks like a true mid-size sedan. Enthusiasts will appreciate the fact that you can get a five-speed with the optional V-6 engine. On the down side, the twin-cam V-6 is only 2.5 liters and makes only 170 horsepower. Mazda’s three main competitors all offer 3.0-liter sixes that deliver around 200 horsepower.

She: I drove the 626 a lot and I would recommend it, especially to a single woman who didn’t have to keep anybody but herself happy – and who knows kick-boxing. The Mazda has a look that’s more elegant than the Camry. It has tons of visibility, which to me is as much of a safety feature as its standard anti-lock brakes and traction control. Like many of the competitors, the 626 does not offer side airbags. But it gets terrific mileage – 27 mpg on the highway. We went almost 300 miles before we needed to fil l up.

He: I think I was most impressed by the car’s dynamics. Of all the competitors in the mid-size class, the 626 feels closest to the Volkswagen Passat in terms of steering and braking. The up-level ES edition comes with four-wheel power disc brakes and variable-assist power steering, as well as four-wheel independent suspension with front and rear stabilizer bars. The result is a sporty sedan with a decidedly European flavor that displays crisp and responsive handling, with a firm but smooth ride.

She: I’m not sure what European flavor means. They don’t offer it at 31 Flavors. I think you mean you’ll have no trouble parking or making quick lane changes in the 626. But you may have a bit of a problem if you need help; that’s where the kick-boxing comes in. There’s no roadside assistance with the 626 – and if you’re comparison shopping, that’s something you get on the Ford Taurus and Chevrolet Lumina.

He: If you’re on a budget, it’s probably best to look at a ca uch as the Lumina, which you can get nicely equipped for around $20,000. Yeah, you get an awful lot of standard features on the 626 ES, from a CD player and Bose stereo system to a power moonroof and cruise control. In fact, our test car had no options. But the $24,445 sticker price doesn’t look like much of a bargain, even alongside an Accord or a Camry.

She: The car is put together as well as a Honda or Toyota. Our only gripe was some plastic molding along the inside edge of the driver’s door. It was a little wavy, which looked tacky. More importantly, I’m still not exactly sure why anyone would buy a Mazda. I’m not sure what the brand stands for.

He: Sometimes I wonder if Mazda knows what the brand stands for. Since Ford bought a controlling interest, there has been a succession of Ford executives at the helm of Mazda here and in Japan. It’s hard to tell the difference sometimes between Mazda and Mercury. Thank goodness they still have some really distinctive cars such as the Miata. But you’re right. The new 626 is good, and it’s a pleasure to drive. But is it good enough to stand out from the pack? I don’t think so.

What we liked: Unusual and sporty powertrain combination of V-6 mated to five-speed; styling that makes 626 look less like a compact and more like a solid, mid-sized sedan; standard items on ES V-6 version such as CD player, traction control and anti-lock brakes; good fuel economy; better use of space in cabin, bigger trunk; better, stiffer ride

What we didn’t like: $23,995 base price is decent, but you still can get a fully loaded Lumina for under $20,000; no roadside assistance; no side air bags; more sporty than family-oriented; no rear cup holders, heat vents or power outlet; no integrated child seat available; no button-type locks on any doors; no way to operate power locks from passenger seat

1998 Mazda 626 ES

Type: Front-wheel-drive, five-passenger sedan.

Price: Base, $23,995; as tested, $24,445 (including $450 destination charge).

What’s new for ’98: All-new for 1998.

Standard equipment: Leather-trimmed interior, Bose AM/FM/CD stereo, air conditioning, power windows and locks, 60/40 split-folding rear seat, power glass moonroof, cruise control, rear window defogger, six-way power driver’s seat, remote trunk and hood releases, center console armrest with storage and dual cupholders, front door map pockets, tilt steering wheel, all-season radial tires, 15-inch aluminum wheels, power mirrors, intermittent wipers, body-side moldings, halogen headlights, tinted glass with sunshade, four-wheel disc brakes, power rack-and-pinion steering, 4-wheel independent suspension, floor mats, dual lighted vanity mirrors.

Safety features: Dual airbags, keyless entry system, anti-theft alarm, traction control, anti-lock brakes.

Options on test vehicle: None.

EPA fuel economy: 21 mpg city/27 mpg highway.

Engine: 2.5-liter V-6; 170 hp at 6000 rpm; 163 lb- ft torque at 5000 rpm.

Transmission: Five-speed manual.

Specifications: Wheelbase, 105.1 inches; overall length, 186.8 inches; curb weight, 2,994 pounds; legroom, 43.6 inches front/34.6 inches rear; headroom, 39.2 inches front/37.0 inches rear; shoulder room, 56.3 inches front/55.9 inches rear.

12-month insurance cost, according to AAA Michigan: $1,222. Rates based on an average family of four from the Livonia area whose primary driver is age 40 with no tickets who drives 3-10 miles each way to work. Rates reflect multicar discount and, where appropriate, discounts for airbags and seat belts.

Where built: Flat Rock, Mich.

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