MAZDA’S “passion for the road” cooled on Northern Virginia’s snow-covered streets. The car, the 1996 Mazda 626 LX-V6, went nowhere without slipping and sliding. And when it approached snowy hills, it went nowhere at all.

It was an unbelievably bad performance for a compact, front-wheel-drive automobile. The problem? Low-aspect ratio tires.

“Aspect ratio” describes the relationship of a tire’s tread width to its section height. Compared with regular tires, low-aspect tires are wider where the rubber meets the road, but shorter between the wheel’s rim and the tread. This frequently means quicker steering responses and better handling on dry roads. But short, wide tires tend to behave like skis in the snow: slip, slide, goodbye pride — and safety. Too bad, because with regular rubber, the 626 is one of the finest, most under-appreciated family cars available.

I slid all the way home, where I slipped into an easy chair, picked up the TV remote control unit and pushed the power button. Whattaya know? Another one of those rock-beat Mazda commercials with a woman singing, “Maazzdahh! Passionn, for the roaadd!” I guess she must’ve been using different tires.

Background: The 626 has always been durable, reliable, fuel-efficient. For 1996, Mazda has given it some lusty stuff — a slick body that looks a lot like the luxury Mazda Millenia, a spiffed-up interior and, in the case of the tested LX-V6, sporty but snow-dysfunctional tires.

It doesn’t make much sense to put low-aspect tires on a family car, but you can order the LX-V6 with standard radials — and the other three 626 models come with regular tires. Besides the upscale LX-V6, the other models include the base DX, the LX and the very top-of-the-line ES (Extra Special). All are front-wheel-drive and seat five comfortably.

The DX and LX are equipped with 2-liter, inline-four cylinder, 16-valve engines rated 114 horsepower at 5,500 rpm. Maximum torque is set at 124 pound feet at 4,500 rpm.

The LX-V6 and ES have standard 2.5-liter, double-overhead cam, 24-valve V-6 engines rated 160 horsepower at 5,500 rpm with maximum torque set at 156 pound feet at 5,000 rpm.

A five-speed manual transmission is standard on all models. An electronically controlled, four-speed automatic transmission with overdrive is optional.

Standard equipment on all models includes dual front air bags, B-pillar adjustable front shoulder harnesses, four-wheel independent suspension, variable-assist (speed-sensitive) power steering and U.S. 1997-standard side-impact door beams.

Standard brakes on the DX and LX include ventilated power front discs/rear drums, compared with standard power four-wheel disc brakes on the LX-V6 and ES. Anti-lock brakes are standard on the ES and are optional on the LX-V6 and LX.

Complaints: Those low-aspect ratio tires: If you love to rip and run, get ’em, but they’re not much good for anything other than dry, paved roads. They also wear out fas ter than regular tires, and are often more costly to replace.

Praise: A great family car. This is especially true of the super-spiffed 626 ES, which rivals the best from Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Volkswagen and America’s Big Three car companies — General Motors, Ford and Chrysler.

Head-turning quotient: Attractive in a Millenia sort of way.

Ride, acceleration, and handling: Triple aces on dry road; an exceptionally well-balanced compact sedan. Lousy with low-aspect tires in snow and mush. Dry-road braking was excellent. Snow-road braking was scary, even with the use of the optional anti-lock braking system on the test car.

Mileage: About 24 miles per gallon (15.9-gallon tank, estimated 370-mile range on usable volume of recommended premium unleaded), combined-city highway, running driver only with light cargo in the LX-V6’s 13.8 cubic-foot-trunk.

Sound system: Six-speaker AM/FM stereo radio and cassette. Installed by Mazda. Will please most music lovers. Aud ophiles will quibble.

Price: Base price on the LX-V6 is $19,195 (including a $700 discount from suggested retail). Dealer invoice price is $17,353 (including a $602 discount from suggested retail). Price as tested is $21,740, including $2,095 in options and a $450 destination charge.

Purse-strings note: Compare with Toyota Camry, Mitsubishi Galant, Honda Accord, Ford Contour and Taurus, Chevrolet Corsica, Pontiac Grand Am, Dodge Stratus/Chrysler Cirrus, Nissan Altima and Volkswagen Passat.

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