Middle Mazda

Building on an established model range is usually a case of steady development, and that is just what has happened to Mazda’s middle-sized saloon. Sandwiched between two high-performance offerings, the low-volume high-profile RX7 sportscar and the little 323 Turbo 4WD hatchback, even the most sporty version of the new 626 is somewhat overshadowed, but it is competent and refined and surprisingly fast.

Naturally, the bulk of 626 sales will be bread-and-butter versions, which start at 1800cc in both four-door saloon (£8179) and five-door hatch (£8439) forms. The saloon is pleasant if uninspired to look on, but the hatch retains at least a little of the style of its rather striking predecessor. Completing the family is a shorter wheelbase 130 mph two-door coupé which shares the family nose, but adds chin and tail spoilers and “blister” treatment of the wheel arches.

Apart from the two 1.8s, the range is powered by one of two 2-litre units: GLX cars have 108 bhp from a 12-valve sohc carburettor engine, while the two top choices boast a 16-valve injection four with yet another new device to improve low-end torque. Output of the twin-cam is 146 bhp, with torque lagging a little at 134 lb ft, which is not really too far ahead of the 12-valve engine’s 122 lb ft. Mazda’s torque booster, which lacks the usual acronymic title, uses the ram-charging principle of long inlet tracts to strengthen the response up to 5200 rpm; but since this effect begins to reverse at higher rpm, the effective length of the tracts is then shortened by opening up a crosspipe which interconnects all the ports. This occurs at 5200 rpm, when the engine control system opens a quartet of butterflies between the ports and the transverse pipe.

The changeover points is not apparent to the driver, but the response curve of the engine certainly appears to be smoother than other 16-valve engines; it is not absolutely necessary to drop down a gear to overtake, but the sporting driver will probably want to, as the power levels off a strident six grand, with torque peaking only 2000 below that. Mazda claims 8.3 seconds for the 60 mph dash, though our figures gave a best of 8.8 sec. With the throttle wide open, some noise is obvious, but gentler driving can be very quiet.

Like the 323 4WD Turbo, the rear wheels are positioned by two parallel lateral arms and a forward link, with a vertical spring strut, and like the RX7 the various bushes are arranged to give toe-in under cornering. (Mazda’s sophisticated rear-wheel steer system will not be seen here for a few months yet.) At the front another spring strut is balanced by an L-shaped lower arm.

One of the new car’s features is that every model comes with power-assisted steering, a simple engine speed related system for the 1.8, but for all other models there is a sophisticated version sensitive to both rpm and mph. It is not quite so delightful as on the rear-wheel drive RX7, but it feels remarkably pleasant for this level of car.

Another “luxury” now finding its way down the market is ABS, and Mazda’s is a full four-channel system giving individual wheel control. It is standard on the two GTs, though so far not available for any others.

Inside there is a softer look to the dash, with a sweeping curve enclosing the clear instruments. Comfortable seats are widely adjustable, particularly the bucket-type ones in the GT models, which also have a wonderfully useful sliding tray beneath, while safety belts can also be tailored to fit. Upper variants feature the expected electric luxuries such as locks and windows, but even the cheapest 1.8 comes with a Clarion radio/cassette.

Our chance to drive the 626 came in speed-fearing America, but even at the 55 mph limit the cars (in British spec) proved more comfortable freeway cruisers than the soggy home-grown offerings I was to drive later, and happily ran up to three figures in comfort.

Quiet and smooth without being over-soft, even the sportiest GT Coupe absorbed holes without complaint, but could also turn its wheels to some of the delightful winding roads south of Atlanta, Georgia, and put in some very rapid motoring. A quick gear change lets the driver keep the engine on cam, and its stable and grippy cornering on 195 tyres is well up to standard for this class of coupé.

Not that the sports-minded customer is restricted to the two-door; Mazda has had the good sense to offer the 2.0 GT performance in a five-door version too, for the family man. Prices are £12,949 for the former and £12,749 for the latter. GC