SEE ALSO: Mazda Buyer's Guide
Mazda likes to say that there's a little Miata in every vehicle the company makes. This is certainly true in the case of its 626 midsized sedan. In a class where blandness is the norm, the 626 shines with its own unique character. In current Mazda lingo, it has plenty of Miata DNA.
The current-generation 626 was introduced for the 1998 model year, but, even though it's relatively new, Mazda hasn't left it alone. Although 1999 saw only minor revisions, 2000 models have a facelift, a new interior treatment, and significant chassis upgrades. (Because of these changes, expect little difference for 2001.) LX and ES trim levels are offered, each with the choice of a 2.0-liter four-cylinder or 2.5-liter V6 engine. Both are dual overhead cam, four-valve-per-cylinder designs. The 170-hpV6 is unchanged, but the four has a number of enhancements that result in an increase of five horsepower for an even 130.
I've just spent a week with a 2000 626 ES V6 equipped with the optional automatic, and had a chance to drive one with the standard five-speed manual gearbox at the press introduction earlier in the year. While the five-speed is a bit sportier, the automatic has advantages in traffic and doesn't seriously decrease the 626's fun quotient. In ES trim, the 626 is at the upscale end of the midsized sedan class in appointment, but not in price.
APPEARANCE: The jellybean look of the 1993 through 1997 626 is now well and truly gone. When the current 626 debuted, it was leaner and more elegant than its immediate predecessor, with a look inspired by Mazda's premium Millenia sedan. Only the slightly formal roofline looked familiar. Now, Mazda's new-look chrome- trimmed five-sided grille replaces the rounder one of last year's car, and the hood and front fenders have been restyled for a crisper, better-defined look. New headlights complete the makeover. At the rear, the tail is leaner, with an RX7 and Miata-inspired "ducktail" spoiler lip and restyled taillights. The ES has an elegant monochrome color scheme with chrome trim only on the grille and around the side windows.
COMFORT: The 2000 626's interior has been reworked far more than its exterior. In ES trim, it is very much a "near luxury" car, with a glare-reducing dark-over-light color scheme, leather upholstery and steering wheel, and woodgrain trim. It's not pretentious, but well-designed and very functional. The front bucket seats are comfortable and supportive, and the driver's seat is power-adjustable. Instruments and controls are sized and placed for easy use, and the 626 trademark oscillating center vents improve an already excellent climate control system. The optional six-disc dash- mounted CD changer can be easily operated by the driver or the front passenger. Rear passengers are treated to a good amount of space for the car's size, and the rear seat folds with a 60/40 split. The trunk is usefully sized. The ES trim level includes nearly every upscale comfort and convenience feature except the in-dash CD changer as standard equipment.
SAFETY: All 2000 Mazda 626 models have dual depowered front air bags and three-point safety belts for all seating positions. Anti- lock brakes are available on all models, and traction control and side airbags are offered on V6 cars.
ROADABILITY: Miata DNA in action. The 626's fully- independent suspension is firm enough for good cornering ability with minimal body roll, yet supple enough for good compliance on poor road surfaces. Four wheel disc brakes are standard with the V6 engine, and optional antilock brakes and traction control enhance driver control in tricky situations. The 626's nimble handling makes it an enjoyable car on a twisting country road, and low interior noise levels help make it a great highway cruiser and everyday car.
PERFORMANCE: There's more Miata DNA under the hood. Although the 626's 2.5-liter V6 is smaller than the 3.0-liter engines of its direct competitors, it packs plenty of punch. It's a musical, rev-happy sports car engine at heart, and adds as much character as performance. It is smooth and has the sort of power delivery that encourages enthusiastic driving. A five-speed manual gearbox is standard equipment, even for the V6 models, but my test car had the optional four-speed electronically-controlled automatic. While the automatic takes away some of the sporty part of the 626's personality, it does add convenience and decreases driver stress in traffic. And, thanks to the engine's good midrange performance, the car's fun-to-drive character is little compromised.
CONCLUSIONS: The Mazda 626 is an enjoyable alternative to the more common midsized sedans.
SPECIFICATIONS 2000 Mazda 626 ES Base Price $ 22,445 Price As Tested $ 25,020 Engine Type dual overhead cam 24-valve V6 Engine Size 2.5 liters / 152 cu. in. Horsepower 170 @ 6000 rpm Torque (lb-ft) 163 @ 5500 rpm Transmission 4-speed electronically controlled automatic (5-speed manual standard) Wheelbase / Length 105.1 in. / 187.4 in. Curb Weight 3106 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 18.3 Fuel Capacity 19.6 gal. Fuel Requirement unleaded regular gasoline, 87 octane Tires P205/55 HR16 Bridgestone Potenza RE92 Brakes, front/rear vented disc / solid disc, antilock optional Suspension, front/rear independent MacPherson strut / independent multilink Drivetrain front engine, front-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 20 / 26 / 23 0 to 60 mph 8.2 sec OPTIONS AND CHARGES Automatic transmission $ 800 CD changer $ 225 TLEV emissions equipment $ 150 ABS with traction control, dual side airbags $ 950 Destination charge $ 450