Car reviews - Mazda - 626 - Classic sedan
Quality, interior space, equipment
Room for improvement
Lack of character
26 Feb 2001
By TIM BRITTEN
THE Mazda 626's suggestive Euro looks have been given an Oriental tweak with the latest facelift version introduced to Australia in November 1999.
The medium-size import from Hiroshima gets a newly styled front end with sharp, raised creases running down the bonnet as well as new bumpers front and rear.
The new look is an improvement, but it still doesn't elevate the 626 to style-leader status.
The changed appearance is supported by an interior with revised, more sumptuous trim and some reworking of the hardware to make the 626 quieter and smoother as well as more responsive to the steering.
Mazda aficionados probably easily notice the changes to the styling, but others will probably walk right past. The new front end looks slightly tidier than before and the adoption of heftier side protector strips helps avoid damage in tight parking spaces. But new lenses on the tail lights and a new bumper do little to make the 626 look any different.
The same applies to the driving experience.
The 626 feels surprisingly responsive for a 2.0-litre in a relatively large body but this is partly explained by the low weight of just under 1200kg in manual sedan form.
Although it only produces 93kW it does so at a reasonable 5500rpm and undoubtedly the long-stroke configuration helps torque spread itself effectively across the rpm range. The rpm at which the maximum is developed (4500) is maybe a little misleading because the engine feels relatively strong at much lower speeds.
In manual form the 626 as a result feels quite sprightly, eager to get under way and happy, if a little rowdy, when spinning through to the highish 6500rpm red line. Sure, best performance starts to come in after the 4500rpm maximum torque figure, but the 2.0-litre remains satisfyingly responsive at low speeds too.
The manual gearshift is no pace-setter in terms of slickness or positive action, creating the odd fumble from the driver as fifth-to-fourth shifts are attempted, and the late, light clutch engagement makes it all too easy to mis-match clutch and gearshift, resulting in an occasional graunching noise.
The ratios are well chosen however - helped by a slight change to second gear that provides slightly brisker acceleration - and allow the Mazda to be driven with some verve if the driver wants. The automatic has had some changes, too - it is now the same transmission used in the sibling 323 models.
The 626 comes across as competent in terms of suspension control. It lacks the ultimate bump-absorption ability of a quality European, but is quiet and compliant in its treatment of the road surface nonetheless. Bumps are felt, but the suspension's pliability removes the hard edges.
The steering is accurate, but lacking noticeably in weight or feel. The car grips well, but is not involving enough to ever qualify as a sporting sedan.
ABS is also standard fare in the well-equipped Mazda, working through an all-disc braking system (ventilated at the front, solid at the back) to give the driver a feel of security on the road.
The cabin shows Mazda's typically flawless build quality and there's new, lighter trim to help give a more spacious feel, but the interior has been colour-coded to death. Virtually everything is a shade of grey, from carpets to seats, to door trims to instrument panel - where there is at least some relief with a charcoal backing panel for the gauges.
It is hard to find the right driving position, with a lever-adjusted backrest never managing to produce a comfortable angle of inclination. However the steering column is adjustable for height, and the short cushion does adjust for tilt.
Equipment on the upmarket Classic model includes climate control, cruise control (on a stalk that rotates with the wheel), in-dash CD player, wood grain finish on the centre console, leather steering wheel and gearshift (it feels more like vinyl) and fog lights but the steering wheel adjusts for height only and there's no trip computer.
The comfort factor draws few criticisms, though. The seats may not have a lot of shape but appear to support their occupants well enough, and there's a generous supply of legroom front and rear. Shoulder room isn't quite up to the wide-body standards of Magna or Camry, but the 626 still feels pretty spacious even though it now shares its platform with the smaller 323. The boot is big, deep and augmented by the provision of a split-fold rear seat. The spare, thankfully, is a full-size wheel, the same as those used elsewhere.
At the end of the day though, the 626 fails to leave any lasting impressions.
It's a well-crafted, competent car with more than a suggestion of Europe in its styling. The main problem is that that suggestion doesn't carry through to the Mazda's road behaviour. Mazda buyers get their money's worth in quality, comfort and equipment, but those wanting a bit styling flair, or dynamic character will be disappointed.
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