2001 Mazda 626
2001 Mazda 626
Click image to enlarge

Chrome trimmings made a big return when in the fall of 1997 Mazda introduced an updated version of its 626 family sedan.

But an abundance of chrome, along with styling cues from the upscale Mazda Millenia, were not the only major changes Mazda had on tap for the 1998 626. The interior and trunk were made substantially bigger, thanks to an extra 5.1 cm. (two in.) of wheelbase (the distance between the front and rear axles). That and an extra 5.1 cm. of overall length conspire to give the ’98 626 more cabin and trunk space than the ’97 Ford Taurus or ’97 Honda Accord.

At the same time Mazda stiffened up the body structure considerably, by some 32 per cent stronger in bending and 43 per cent better in twisting. That resulted in a major reduction in noise while also allowing the engineers to fine-tune the suspension more effectively.

Tighter suspension tuning, not to mention larger stabilizer bars front and rear, had a lot to say about the responsive handling of this ’98 family hauler. So if you’re looking for a used four-door, mid-size car, an older 626 should be on your shopping list. Especially given that used 626 prices have generally fallen in below average for this class of car.

When shopping, note that for ’98 the base four-cylinder engine was given 10 per cent more grunt than the previous version (up to 125 horsepower) while the V6 got another five horsepower (170 hp.). A change in the air-flow sensor improved throttle response, too.

Mazda’s designers also reworked the cabin, giving passengers a larger glove box and centre console, along with a covered storage bin near the instrument panel. As for safety, the ’98 car had standard front dual airbags and a body that met 1999 U.S. crash standards a year earlier than necessary. There was also anti-lock braking (standard on ES models, optional on the LX V6), available traction control and larger headlights providing 40 per cent more light on low beam.

Now of course the critical question is this: does the 626 take a back seat to more powerful V6 rivals like the ’98 Toyota Camry (194 hp.) And the ’98 Honda Accord (200 hp.). In two words, not much. Especially given the 626 — four-cylinder or V6 — has over the years been available with either a four-speed automatic or a five-speed manual transmission. A five-speed is rare for a V6 in this class.

Prior to the ’98 re-make, Mazda last updated the 626 for the ’93 model year – including the arrival of two new engine choices. The ’93-97 versions proved to be reasonably good cars, albeit not perfect ones (see Buyer’s Alerts and Recalls). And compared to its competition of the day, the 626 was a much more interesting car to drive. Especially the cars equipped with the V6 unveiled that year.

Of course, the 626 dates back much further than ’93-back to 1979, in fact. Even those early cars rode and handled well for their day. And for quite a few yeas in the late ’80s, Mazda offered a great five-door (hatchback) Touring Sedan with a turbocharged engine that was an absolute treat to drive-aside from a bit of torque steer that tended to pull the car in one direction or the other during hard acceleration.

Stylistically, what had been boxy looking cars were replaced in ’93 with a rounded, full-bodied look. That year the 626 also got bigger and considerably more refined.

Sadly, the rear doors proved to be a bit smallish, making entry and exit less than perfect and particularly awkward for installing child seats. (That critical issue was resolved in the ’98 cars.)

2001 Mazda 626
2001 Mazda 626
Click image to enlarge

Through the years Mazda experimented with interesting, although not always terribly useful, technology. For instance, four-wheel steering was offered in ’88 and electronically adjustable shocks were either standard or optional on Touring Sedans in the mid-’80s. Novel as these items are, mainstream buyers can do without them in an older car.

Used car buyers, then, have a better than average chance of finding a usable and affordable 626 on the nearly-new market. When inspecting and test driving, just be alert to various design and assembly issues (e.g., window glass tracks, sunroofs, engine mounts, suspension components). The 626 is one of the more enjoyable family cars to drive, but its overall quality history is not quite equal to best-in-class models like the Camry and Accord.

Used vehicle prices vary depending on factors such as general condition, odometer reading, usage history and options fitted. Always have a used vehicle checked by an experienced auto technician before you buy.

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