It's the Mazda 626.
Do not cringe.
Mazda's often-dysfunctional family relationship with management partner Ford didn't damage production of its vehicles. Marketing that dozed off in mid-program hasn't harmed the product. These corporate flaws simply brought comfort and succor to the enemy, and somehow blinded the public eye to success of the freckle-faced Miata roadster and the late and lamented RX7 two-seater that was nothing more than a race car in chic clothing.
And so Mazda has become a builder of invisible cars--much to the befuddlement of insiders who have long lauded its inventory of automobiles as Japanese BMWs.
Such as the larger, roomier, peppier 1998 Mazda 626.
Granted, this family-oriented, performance-biased sedan won't catch Camry, Accord and Taurus any time in this millennium. Nonetheless, the 626 is a splendid, distinctive, easy performer that doesn't deserve its role of back marker. In fact, once tested and driven, a top-o'-the-line 626 ES with a 170-horsepower V-6 and a five-speed manual adding to the fun, has enough seductive force to convert the most dedicated Toyotans, Hondarians and Fordophiles into devout Mazdonians.
From $15,700 (for a stark-naked DX four-banger with plastic wheel covers) to $24,000 (that buys the full Monty, an ES with leather seats and a super-amped Bose noisemaker), 626s are priced at or just below the competition. It shares a Consumer Guide "Best Buy" rating with the front-running flock.
Yet unlike the rest, a 626 ES has the firm heft and set of a German sports sedan and styling that approaches global graciousness. Also, its performance numbers bludgeon Camry, Accord and Taurus, even Nissan's Maxima, and actually match Mercedes-Benz's supercharged SLK roadster.
With Flat Rock, Mich., as its birthplace, the 626 qualifies as a native-built American citizen. It was also tailored exclusively for the North American market and will only be sold here. Hence domestic nuances of styling and convenience. Such as increased rear headroom for taller American forms, ceiling grab handles for aiding entrance and exits of our burger-fed bodies, and headlights that linger to illuminate dark driveways and any loitering villains.
Wheelbase has been increased for a fractionally gentler, all-American ride. Poundage has been reduced to improve fuel consumption, and that environmental assist just might ease our guilt about fouling up Santa Monica Bay. And, of course, the 626 comes with a full complement of cup holders, air bags, 5-mph bumpers, and other goodies that are America's automotive legacy to the world.
Four trim levels are offered--from the price-leading DX, through LX and LX V-6, to the lush ES V-6 with leather lining and faux walnut trim. Two engines are available--a 2.0-liter, 16-valve, in-line four delivering 125 horsepower; and the 2.5-liter V-6 producing 170 horsepower, which is quite enough to get one into trouble with those who ride our highways on city- and state-issued motorcycles.
Lines of the car are crisp and pleasant, stylish without being garish, and with a chrome-plated grille obviously pinched from Mazda's luxurious Millenia. It is borderline conservative, but overall the flow is a freer, handsomer departure from today's increasingly timid looks of Honda and Toyota.
On the other hand, slide behind the wheel, cover a new Mazda logo, which is an inverted reissue of the Frito Bandito's mustache, and you are surely in Accord country. Hand brake to the right. Center console with armrest. Same instrument binnacle undulating over half the dashboard. Mazda, Toyota and Honda must be buying all their bits and pieces from the same catalog.
Only one heavy-duty annoyance with this interior: The ignition switch plays peekaboo from deep shadows around the steering column. To insert the key the first time, it is best to place your head in your passenger's lap. The temptation to get comfy is sometimes overpowering.
We cannot bray hard for the four-cylinder version of the 626. It is OK and will deliver drivers to destinations without upsetting truck drivers or arousing your blood pressure. The same journey in an ES with a five-speed manual takes one a lot closer to the adventure line.
Triple seals around all doors, and heavy doses of insulation glued to the hood effectively muffle any thrashing noises coming from the V-6. Thankfully, it doesn't silence a healthy rasp and rumble that is much of the entertainment of high revs and sharp downshifting. As Mazda has positioned the ES as a performance sedan, so brake and accelerator pedals are positioned perfectly for adroit heel-and-toe shifting. And a positive, quick, short-gear throw just about doubles the amusement factor.
Chassis stiffening improves the ride by erasing road noise and handling vibrations. MacPherson struts up front and a multi-link rear suspension are holdovers from the old model, which is fine because the old model was a handling sweetheart.
The ES launches quickly, gets to operating speeds in a hurry and handles with enormous security and finesse throughout its performance range.
Despite the old wisdom, Honda and Toyota would be wise to keep glancing over their shoulders. Just in case that's a Mazda 626 gaining on them.
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1998 Mazda 626 ES
The Good: Larger on the outside, roomier on the inside, more power and higher level of luxury. Looks prove that styling can be safe, without damaging elegance. Sits, rides and grips like a European sedan that costs $10,000 more. Honda and Toyota should be watching their rearview mirrors.
The Bad: Finding ignition switch takes three fumbles and two dammits. Generic interior.
The Ugly: Being a superior product with an inferior market position.
1998 Mazda 626 ES
* Base, and as tested: $23,995 (includes dual front- and side-impact air bags; air conditioning; Bose sound system; aluminum alloy wheels; leather-faced upholstery; power sunroof, windows, mirrors, driver's seat and door locks; cruise control; tilt steering; simulated wood trim; antitheft alarm system; antilock brakes; traction controls and power steering).
* 2.5-liter, 24-valve, V-6 developing 170 horsepower.
* Front-engine, front-drive, five-passenger, near-luxury mid-size.
* 0-60 mph, as tested, 7.1 seconds.
* Top speed, manufacturer's figure, 130, electronically limited.
* Fuel consumption, EPA city and highway, 21 and 25 mpg.
* 3,000 pounds.