When our road test editor handed over the keys to our Mazda 626 tester, my first thought was "Great, another week in a boring, Japanese-designed, made-in-the-US-of-A family sedan." Traveling a mile below the surface of the Earth to the Edmunds.com editorial parking area, I walked right past the 626 not once, but twice, before I dropped my briefcase and camera bag to stand in surprise at Mazda's latest iteration of the 626 nameplate.
Gone were the boring, after-thought front and rear fascias and blasé wheels, replaced by sharpened front and rear styling and modern six-spoke rims that give the 626 a sportier and more upscale look over previous generations. Immediately, all preconceived notions were thrown out the window. We had some pavement to pound.
With a twist of the key, the 626's 175-horsepower, 2.5-liter V6 engine growls to life, and when we say growl, we mean growl. Depress the accelerator pedal and 24 valves sing the sweet song of DOHC power. And how sweet it is. From 2,500 rpm through redline, the powerband is strong and linear, similar to the Ford 2.5 Duratec. While we'd swear that these were the same powerplant, that isn't the case. Similar as it might seem from the driver's aspect, it's pure Mazda design and build from the engine block to the intake runners.
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. Developing its maximum 163 pounds of torque at 5,000 rpm, the powerplant feels like it delivers more torque than it's rated. During zero-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.
While the powerplant is the swooning aria of the 626, the five-speed manual transmission is more like a backyard grunge band in Death Valley. While we applaud Mazda for keeping a manual tranny in the lineup, shifting chores were more like cutting Spam with a spoon with long throws between gates and vague feel. More than once, we were left to wonder if we were really in the gear we wanted, slowly releasing the clutch pedal and watching the tachometer to be sure we weren't about to send the valvetrain into the stratosphere. Once engaged, the gear ratios were well-matched to the powerplant's torque curve, but left us wondering why Mazda didn't make fifth gear a true overdrive gear - traveling at 75 mph left us at nearly 4,000 rpm - and halfway to redline.
With the optional ABS/traction-controlled four-wheel disc brakes, the 626 slammed the pavement in 134 feet. Tracking was arrow-straight with moderate ABS "kick" through the brake pedal and was confidence-inspiring even after numerous hard stops. We found ourselves remarking on how the 626 would make a great base for a FIA GT championship car, especially since the steering was rather sharp, thanks in part to new smoother steering gear. However, moderate input was required, making driving the 626 a lot like taking pictures with an instamatic camera - point, shoot and go.
We were enamored by the responsiveness of the suspension package, revamped this year with a new, more rigid body structure and larger sway bars front and rear. On the twisties, the 626 hunkered down and begged for more throttle input, while out on the highway, the suspension readily soaked up nearly every pothole without jolting the passengers into instant kidney failure.
Inside, passengers are treated to one of the cleanest interior packages in the industry, with the driver perfectly centered in front of the wheel and gauges. All controls are positioned for easy reach, with the exception of the rear defrost and traction control buttons, which are hidden behind the steering wheel. HVAC controls are easy enough for a 4-year-old to use, with two large knobs for fan speed and temperature, and two rows of push-buttons to control venting, air circulation and A/C. As with previous 626 models, the front air vents feature Mazda's signature oscillating "swing vents," which we liked for distributing air throughout the cabin evenly, but cursed when trying to individually direct air when not in the swing mode.
Similarly, the AM/FM/cassette with in-dash, six-disc CD changer was simple to use with large buttons and knobs that made station or CD changes a snap while fighting rush-hour traffic. Seating is spacious for its class, but front passengers will be disappointed with the lack of lumbar support and headroom. Try as we might, getting comfortable was a chore with the seat track lacking our desired rearward travel and seat height. After a 280-mile stint behind the wheel, we were looking for a winch to help extract ourselves from the cockpit and a masseuse to work out our aching muscles.
Rear-seat occupants have a better deal, with good headroom and width for two, a set of cupholders, extra storage in the fold-down center armrest and magazine pockets in the back of the front seats. Tucking a third person in the back requires a shoehorn, with the unlucky soul having to sit on a "humped" center section of the rear bench.
Interior materials are well-matched, but the quality was more on par with bar room materials than a family sedan. The leather felt like 1970s naugahide, and the airbag cover on the steering wheel was roughly finished on the back side. On the other side of the coin, fit and finish was on par with the Jaguar S-type, with the underdash panel scoring higher points than England's finest.
At our tester's fully loaded $24,220 price point, the 626 ES is a good deal, but a bit pricey compared to its corporate cousin, the Ford Contour SE (at $18,485), though well under a similarly equipped Toyota Camry XLE ($28,032).
Given our druthers, we'd like to see the 626's body work and interior wrapped around Ford's SVT Contour platform and awesome powertrain. Then you'd see a vehicle that not only swiveled heads at the grocery store, but as the streetlight turned green as well. Since that won't happen any time soon, we'd rather opt for the 200-horsepower SVT Contour and save the $970 for the first year of fuel.