Mazda was lucky to have survived long enough to put the 626 sedan and coupe into production.
The Toyo Kogyo Company was nothing if not tough. After the company's founding in 1920, it survived earthquakes, wars and having half its production plant wiped out when the atomic bomb was detonated over Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945. But though it was a survivor, it was also still a relatively small company. So when it decided to export its Mazda brand cars to the United States in significant numbers, it did so thinking it had a big strategic advantage in its Wankel rotary engines.
Mazda sent rotary-powered coupes, sedans, station wagons and even pickup trucks over to North America during the 1970s. Mazda's initial marketing program was built squarely on differentiating itself from other Japanese manufacturers through the use of the Wankel engine and, at first, the program succeeded brilliantly. Even if you weren't in the market for a new small car it was impossible to not know that Mazdas were the cars that went "hmmmmmmmmmmmmm."
But the rotary, then still in its infancy, had problems. First it was relatively fuel thirsty in relation to its power output and with consumers feeling battered by that decade's multiple oil crises, runaway inflation and general economic malaise, buying a small car that got mediocre mileage didn't make much sense. Beyond that, though, the early rotaries were also pretty fragile and no one needed that hassle in their life.
So while the American public's awareness of Mazda was very high, they weren't really buying a lot of RX-2s, RX-3s, RX-4s or Rotary Pickups. Could Mazda convert to piston power and sustain its dearly bought, high-visibility position in the marketplace? The 626 (which would eventually become the 6), and its little brother the GLC (which would eventually evolve into the 323, Protegé and Mazda 3), were the cars that would answer that question.
"To help satisfy America's newfound lust for Mazdas," wrote Car and Driver upon encountering the Mazda's new mainstream product, "parent company Toyo Kogyo has sent us a pair of all-new sedans — a sport coupe and a four-door — both rather lamely labeled 'Mazda 626.' The name is appropriate however, because it suggests about how many competitors this pair is up against: they're being launched into the vast middle ground of today's car market, which is already glutted with both imports and domestics ranging from the Datsun 200-SX at the small, sporty end to the Ford Fairmont at the large, practical extreme. Mazda marketeers (sic) consider the Honda Accord the principle foe for the sedan, and the Toyota Celica the hottest competition for the sport coupe."
Even though the original 1979 626 was aimed at a crowded market, Mazda did little to distinguish it from the competition. The coupe and sedan were virtually identical mechanically and that meant they were both conventional rear-drive machines with a unibody made from stamped steel. It also meant that their suspensions consisted of front MacPherson struts and a solid axle in back mounted on four links and riding on coil springs. The only engine offered was a 2.0-liter, SOHC, eight-valve four drawing air in through a two-barrel carburetor and making 80 horsepower. That engine could be backed by either a five-speed manual or three-speed automatic transmission. If there was anything unique about the engineering it was that the 626 still used a recirculating ball steering gear (as did its brother the RX-7 sports car) at a time when virtually all other manufacturers were switching to rack and pinion setups.
With both the sedan and coupe riding on 98.8-inch wheelbases and stretching out 173.8 inches overall, these cars were smack average in size for the then emerging mainstream sedan market. And while neither the coupe nor sedan could be called avant-garde in styling, they were both handsome in a generic sort of way, with a face consisting of a simple rectangular grille with single rectangular headlights at each end.
In a comparison test of contemporary sport coupes, Car and Driver found the 626 to be among the least memorable. "Rather innocuous-looking," it concluded, "with a plain, uninteresting instrument panel that doesn't fit the car's performance capability. Although no one on the test-drive flew into raptures about the 626, it was given unanimously high ratings, especially in comfort and quality. No flash, just good car." Except for some thrashing from the engine bay as it accelerated, the magazine didn't point out much to love or hate about the 626. The Mazda's acceleration was modest, but not out of line — the 11.8-second 0-to-60-mph clocking tied the Dodge Omni 024's performance and was better than the Honda Prelude's, according to Car and Driver. Both the Mercury Capri and Volkswagen Scirocco, however, made it to that same speed in less than 11 seconds (and the VW did it in 10 flat).
So the first 626 neither impressed nor distressed most critics at the time of its introduction. However, the public seemed to embrace it immediately and Mazda's sales rocketed on the strength of its (and the GLC's) appeal. In the way that matters most to car companies, the 626 was a success.
With no reason to panic, Mazda didn't and the 626 carried through 1980 with virtually no changes. However, tightening emissions regulations did strangle the engine's output down to 75 hp.
There was a new grille that stretched from headlight to headlight on the 1981 626, but little else was changed as the car continued to sell well and developed a solid reputation for reliability (something new then for Mazda). With a truly all-new 626 on the way for the next year, the 1982 model completed the run of the first-generation 626 uneventfully.
And that was that for rear-drive 626s.
The first-generation 626 was successful, even though it was ultimately pretty boring. In contrast, the second-generation 626 was available in more variations and was anything but boring.
Virtually nothing carried over from the first 626 to the second. That was first and foremost because the 1983 626 was a front-drive machine with a four-cylinder engine tucked transversely between its front strut towers. And it was an all-new four, too, even though it displaced the same nominal 2.0 liters as before and still featured a SOHC valvetrain, two valves per cylinder and a two-barrel carburetor. But at 83 hp it made significantly more power and benefited from fresh engineering that resulted in smoother and quieter operation. Naturally the transmissions were new as well with five forward gears for those who wanted to shift themselves and three for those who'd rather the car did that chore.
That nothing carried over doesn't mean that the second 626 didn't have some things in common with the first. For instance, the structure was still a unibody, the front suspension still struts (though the rear was now independently sprung) and the wheelbase remained locked in at 98.8 inches (though overall length was up 4 inches to 177.8 inches).
Both the 626 two-door coupe and four-door sedan were offered again along with a new five-door hatchback "Touring Sedan." All three were exceptionally clean in their styling with a simple front end that put a slatted grille between two pairs of rectangular headlamps and almost featureless fenders and doors. The interior may have been a bit heavy on tiny buttons and velour upholstery but this was, after all, the early 1980s. Some people even paid extra for the optional digital instrumentation.
After praising the "rare equanimity" of the new engine, Car and Driver went on to compliment the rest of the car. "Balanced performance is the keynote of the 626's handling as well," it wrote. "When the going gets twisty, you dial in a change [and] the 626 takes a set, then dives for the apex with front and rear tires working in harmony. It doesn't make its moves quite as deliberately as a Honda Prelude, so it isn't as easy to drive at the limit. However the 626's responsiveness to steering and throttle connections encourages stunt driving in a way the Prelude's does not .
"Ordinarily, a lack of flaws is not enough to recommend a car: more 'best' and 'outstanding' ratings are required. In this case, though, the car performs so well in every category of performance that it commands our attention."
But the new 626 was barely quicker than the previous one with Car and Driver's five-speed coupe slogging from zero to 60 mph in 11.5 seconds. More speed, however, was on the way.
The extra speed didn't come in either 1984 or 1985, though, which the 626 faced practically unchanged.
A revised front end with single flush rectangular lights announced the arrival of the 1986 626. There was also an all-new interior that brought a few precious additional millimeters of room with it. But the real substance of the evolution lay under the car's hood where fuel injection boosted output of the standard 2.0-liter four to 93 hp. Meanwhile, a turbocharged version of the engine was also offered in the new "626 GT" which came as a coupe, sedan or five-door.
"The turbocharged motor peaks at 120 hp at 5,000 rpm with 150 pound-feet of torque at 3,000 rpm, both figures 30-percent improved over the unblown engine," reported Motor Trend on its first test of a 626 GT coupe. "Cam timing was refined for better low- and midrange power, a redesigned intake manifold has improved high-end torque, and an S-shaped high-swirl intake port, masked valve seat area, and high-energy ignition system conspire to make the '86 engine a model of efficiency .
"After spending a good measure of at-the-redline time in the car, we have come away impressed with the smoothness of the power delivery, the flat torque curve (with lots available immediately), and the free-revving nature of the motor. The turbo unit itself weighs only 11 pounds and is built to withstand the rigors of high temperatures and mechanical friction."
However the magazine did note some torque-steer with the more powerful engine. But hey, a little torque-steer is OK when the 0-to-60-mph time has dropped down to just 7.8 seconds for Motor Trend's five-speed GT coupe. That type of performance increase likely indicates the engine was making quite a bit more than 120 hp.
There was one significant change to the 1987 626 lineup and that was the adoption of a new four-speed automatic transmission in place of the previous three-speed unit. Other than that, no significant changes, but one wouldn't expect a lot of investment in a car that's about to be replaced.
Mazda's third 626 generally followed the front-drive formula laid down by the second generation with new sheet metal that incorporated styling themes of the second with more conservative tailoring. But while the look may have been conservative, the engineering would on occasion be surprisingly bold. All 626s were now four- or five-door sedans as the two-door coupe version was now renamed MX-6 for no apparent reason. And while the 626 sedans remained in production in Japan, the MX-6 was made at Ford's and Mazda's new AutoAlliance plant in the United States.
The third 626/MX-6 was larger in most dimensions with the wheelbase now stretching 99 inches on the MX-6 and 101.4 inches on both 626s. Overall length on the two-door now measured 177 inches and the four- and five-door models both expanded to 179.3 inches. In its first drive of the MX-6, Motor Trend noted that " despite these several lesser dimensions, most interior measurements of the coupe approximate those of the four-door cars. The MX-6 is now in production at Mazda's Flat Rock, Michigan, assembly plant (a pending knock-off will be sold in Ford showrooms as the Probe), leading us to believe the coupe will enjoy wide distribution here."
The base power plant for the 1988 626 and MX-6 was a new 2.2-liter version of the SOHC four-cylinder engine introduced with the '83 626. Now featuring three valves per cylinder and equipped with electronic fuel injection, this power plant was good for 110 hp whether feeding a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. A turbocharged version of the 2.2 rated at 145 hp came as part of the GT package and was available with the same transmissions.
Both the 626 GT four- and five-doors were available with an optional hydraulically operated four-wheel steering system. "Below 22 mph," said Motor Trend explaining the system, "Mazda 4WS steers the rear wheels in the direction opposite the front wheels. Maximum rear steering deflection is limited to 5 degrees left or right, [which] shaves the turning circle from 38 to 36 feet. Two feet doesn't sound like a lot, but when you need inches to get into a tight parking slot at the cigar store, you'll appreciate the difference." Above 22 mph, the rear wheels would turn up to 5 degrees either way in phase with the front wheels to improve responsiveness.
For 1989 the four-wheel steering system was made available on the MX-6 GT (and taken off the four-door 626s) and that made an already more attractive car even more so according to Motor Trend. "The supplemental steering hardware imparts a measure of added stability in high-speed lane changes and allows the car to track cleanly through tighter corners that would have a front-steer MX-6 scrubbing all four tires," it wrote. "For most people, however, the biggest benefit will come in improved low-speed maneuverability. The 4WS's compact 31.5-foot turning circle is 3.8 feet less than that of its conventional counterpart." But four-wheel steering was an expensive option and it never caught on as Mazda had hoped. A bigger success was the optional (on the GT and Turbo models only) antilock brakes whose safety benefits were obvious and enough to overcome their $1,000 price.
Still, the MX-6 GT was a slick and quick machine with Motor Trend's five-speed car ripping to 60 mph in just 7.4 seconds and running the quarter-mile in 15.7 seconds at 91.2 mph.
The antilock braking option spread to the LX series of 626s and MX-6s for 1990 as the public's awareness of such systems' benefits increased. The 626's grille and taillamps were also tweaked, while the MX-6's bumpers, grille and side moldings were all modified. This would be the last year for four-wheel steering on the MX-6.
The trim levels would juggle around a bit for 1991 and the five-door hatchback would disappear from the 1992 lineup, but other changes were almost imperceptibly slight. It was time for another generation of 626 sedans and MX-6 coupes.
The fourth-generation 626 was all-new from its chassis and engine designs right through to where it was built. It was as much a change from the third generation as the second generation was from the first even though it retained front-wheel drive.
All 626 production for North America was now centered at the same plant in Flat Rock, Michigan, that had been producing the MX-6. So maybe it was no surprise that both the coupe and the sedan now rode on the same 102.8-inch wheelbase even though, at 184.4 inches, the sedan was 2.9 inches longer overall. In both cars the standard power plant was a new 2.0-liter, DOHC, 16-valve four rated at 118 hp while the sole optional engine was a 2.5-liter, DOHC, 24-valve V6 rated at 164 hp. Once again two transmissions were offered — a five-speed manual and four-speed automatic. The 1993 626 was offered in base DX, mainstream LX and upscale ES trim while the MX-6 came either as just a plain old MX-6 or as an upscale LS.
"Working through the tidy five-speed box," reported Edmunds.com's Kevin Smith (then at Car and Driver) in his test of the 626 ES, "the V6's fluid and free-spinning delivery can whisk that mass from rest to mile-a-minute in a mere 7.3 seconds, a time that completely outguns any Accord, splits the difference between the Camry SE and Nissan Maxima SE, [and] loses only to a Taurus that says 'SHO' on its tail. The 626 ES's top speed of 128 mph and its skid pad grip of 0.80G are also impressive.
"And running hard isn't even this car's main event. The 626 is easy and natural to drive smoothly — a quality that takes on greater importance as all cars get better in the big ways."
While the new 626 and MX-6 were curvy in contrast to their previous boxy iterations, the MX-6 was better proportioned than the sedan. In fact it wasn't much of a stretch to call this Mazda's first beautiful car. However the swoopy, delicate lines of the MX-6 did severely limit rear-seat room compared to the sedan. And since both had nicely detailed and realized interiors, the more of it there was the more there was to love.
A passenger-side airbag was added to the 626 and MX-6 standard equipment list for 1994 as a complement to the one already sitting in their steering wheels. And the 626 LX was now available with either the four or V6 rather than just the four. But otherwise the twins carried forward with few changes.
Minor revisions were again the order of the day for the 1995 626 and MX-6. The most significant change was that the MX-6 LS package was discontinued and its various components (including the V6) were offered as separate options.
This generation played out its final days during the 1997 model year with few changes. On some models that chrome grille surround on the 626 reverted back to body color and the previously optional rear spoiler on the MX-6 LS was now standard, but that was about it.
Edmunds.com drove a '97 MX-6 as part of a comparison test with its contemporaries, concluding that "we love how this car looks. Exhibiting pure grace is rare for a sport coupe, yet the Mazda pulls it off. Simplicity of design goes a long way in making a car attractive, and rounded edges never go out of style. Thinking about sticking with one car for the next 10 years? This is the one you want. Just don't plan on fitting anyone in the backseats, because the MX-6 has the worst rear headroom in the group."
With the fourth-generation 626, Mazda established its midsize offering as not just an alternative to the Accord and Camry, but as a sophisticated machine in its own right. But by 1997 the coupe market was dying, and the MX-6 wouldn't live to see another generation.
With the two-door MX-6 gone, Mazda concentrated on making the 1998 four-door 626 more clearly competitive with cars like the Accord and Camry that had been steadily growing larger through the years. So, no surprise, the 626 got larger as well.
Now riding on a 105.1-inch wheelbase (2.3 inches longer than the '97 626) and stretching out 186.8 inches long overall (2.4 inches longer than before), the 626 was solidly positioned in the heart of the mainstream sedan market. But bigger as the new 626 was, most of the mechanical elements were revised pieces from the previous generation. The front suspension was MacPherson struts, the rear Mazda's well-sorted multilink system and the structure was still a unibody. Both engines were also familiar though the base 2.0-liter, DOHC, 16-valve four now made 130 hp (up five) and the 2.5-liter, DOHC, 24-valve V6 now cranked out 170 hp (up six). Transmission choices? That's right, you could have either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic.
In Edmunds.com's four-way test of sport sedans, the '98 626 ES V6 finished, well, fourth behind the VW Passat, Nissan Maxima and Ford Contour. What held it back was mostly a series of maladies. "The first thing we noticed was a tendency for the check engine light to flicker on and off sporadically," wrote one of our testers. "We also noticed that our 626 exhibited lousy build quality. The same driver who suffered through the false-alarm engine light suddenly whipped to the right shoulder of the Pacific Coast Highway on our first night with the car, flashers blinking in the deepening gloom. The center high-mounted stop lamp had loosened from its moorings, flipped itself round, and was bathing the 626's interior with blaring red light each time he stepped on the brake. Our test car also exhibited misaligned body panels and gave the general impression that each of its screws could have used an additional turn to the right . Basically, the 626 is a decent car that lacks the performance leanings that we had hoped for when we placed it in this very tough comparison test. The reliability questions it raised during our time with it didn't help its case either. As such, it's no wonder that it landed squarely in last place."
The addition of more luxury equipment to the ES versions (seat lifters and a remote keyless entry system for instance) were new on the 1999 626 but not much else was.
More significant updates came with the 2000 model year. That included the addition of front side airbags to the option sheet, the fitment of four-wheel disc brakes to all but the lowliest LX model, a move up in wheel diameter all the way around (15-inchers for the LX and 16s for the ES V6), and rear-seat heater ducts. Of course there was the usual retrimming of the outside and the four-cylinder engine now poked out another 5 hp.
Edmunds.com tested an ES V6 and found elements to love and dislike. "Stabbing the throttle on mountain roads returns a swift torque-steer jab to the steering wheel that reminds the driver that the 626 isn't a toy to be taken lightly," our writer reported. "Developing its maximum 163 pound-feet of torque at 5,000 rpm, the power plant feels like it delivers more torque than it's rated. During 0-to-60 trials, we had to hang on tight as the 626 launched us to highway speeds in only 7.7 seconds, but left our wrists aching in the process." A balky shifter, questionable quality of materials in the otherwise excellent interior, and less-than-supportive front seats all came in for criticism.
While the last 626 went chasing the Accord and Camry, its successor, the 2003 Mazda 6 four-door sedan, instead was designed to appeal to a slightly sportier, slightly less utilitarian buyer. "Launching the 6 successfully is critical to Mazda's health because this is likely the most important car the company has ever developed," we reported on our First Drive of the new Mazda sedan. "It is the first new product to represent what Mark Fields, president of Mazda Motor Corporation, calls 'Mazda's brand DNA.' That DNA dictates a vehicle that is stylish, insightful and spirited. 'With the Mazda 6,' Fields says, 'we are about to take one giant step toward reigniting the Mazda spark.'"
Of course just because Mazda was going after new customers didn't mean it had to abandon all it knew about building sedans. So the Mazda 6 is still built around a unibody structure, is still built at the AutoAlliance plant in Flat Rock, Michigan, and, like every 626 except the very first one, is a front-drive car with the engine situated transversely in the nose. In other words, it's still a very conventional car. But the suspension is all-new with a sophisticated double-wishbone system up front and a supple multilink system in the rear.
The Mazda 6's engines are both all-aluminum units with the base power plant being a 2.3-liter, DOHC, 16-valve four that, thanks to the miracle of variable valve timing, is rated at 150 hp. The optional DOHC, 24-valve, V6 displaces 3.0 liters and, also using variable valve timing, is rated at 219 hp. The four comes with either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission, while both the V6's manual and automatic gearboxes have five forward gears.
After noting that even the Accord and Camry were aiming to be sportier, we saw the Mazda 6 as one step beyond that in our first full test. "Although all of the above-mentioned Japanese sedans are much more nimble and playful than their predecessors," we wrote, "the handling dynamics of the 6 are a step above. Steering performance from the power-assisted rack and pinion setup is exemplary, with drivers citing the likes of the BMW 3 Series as a comparison. Its turning circle of 38.7 feet is on the wider side for this class, but none of the others can match the 6 in terms of feedback from the road and linearity."
We also found the brakes to be excellent, the responsiveness of the engine to be spirited and the overall driving experience to be nothing less than a joy. But, yes, the Mazda 6 is slightly compromised in utility. "But people buy cars with four doors for a purpose," we concluded, "ostensibly to ferry passengers around. Will they be as pleased? Rear-seaters may not be; passenger accommodations proved to be the one big Achilles' heel of the 6. While legroom is generous at 36.5 inches, shoulder room, at 54.9 inches, falls 1.2 inches short of the Accord and 1.8 inches short of the Camry. Those two also offer more headroom and a more comfortable rake to the seatback."
While the Mazda 6 went from zero to 60 mph in 8.0 seconds during our first Full Test, that number was slightly deceptive — the car feels quicker in real life than that.
In our 2003-2004 Family Sedan Comparison Test, the Mazda 6 finished a strong second to the Accord, based mostly on its outstanding driving dynamics. "Of all the family sedans in this test," we said, "only the Mazda 6 breaks free of its 'family' identity when the driver finds himself alone on the open road."
By the end of its first year in production, the Mazda 6 had firmly established itself as a unique personality in a market segment often accused of being devoid of that trait. So for 2004 Mazda pushed that advantage by introducing two variations not available from the competition: a sport wagon and a five-door hatchback.
The hatchback is, like the sedan, available with both the four and V6 engines while the sport wagon comes only with the V6 and only in the sportiest "S" trim level. While both of these body styles increase the utility of the Mazda 6, neither loses the sedan's verve or engaging character. "The fact these new vehicles deliver all the impressive dynamics of the sedan along with added practicality should be enough to score some attention," wrote Ed Hellwig in Edmunds.com's First Drive of the pair. "The hatchback almost makes the sedan obsolete given that it delivers additional cargo space in a nearly identical package. The wagon does the hatch one better by squeezing even more cargo room into a shape that's arguably better-looking than either of its smaller siblings."
Displaying an encouraging restlessness, Mazda has introduced a thrill-packed version of its midsize sedan for 2006 in the form of the MazdaSpeed6 — a turbocharged, all-wheel-drive Mazda 6.
The MazdaSpeed6 is more than just a turbo version of the Mazda 6 sedan, however. Besides the all-wheel-drive system, the 2.3-liter, DOHC, 16-valve four-cylinder engine in the MazdaSpeed6 is unique beyond its turbo in that it features direct injection of fuel into its cylinders rather than mixing the fuel with air upstream of the combustion chambers as is conventional. It all works out to 272 hp which is channeled through a six-speed manual transmission before the advanced all-wheel-drive system electronically determines which wheels can use the torque best (the "Active Torque Split All-Wheel Drive" system adjusts front/rear torque distribution between 100:0 and 50:50 depending on traction conditions).
With Mazda determined to shove as much "zoom-zoom" into its cars as possible, the MazdaSpeed6 is unlikely to be the last spin on the general theme of the Mazda 6. More than a quarter century after Mazda introduced the 626 into the mainstream market after the eccentricities of the rotary era, it has found that being at least somewhat eccentric is vital for its future.