These days, Japanese cars are pretty much taken for granted; it's easy to forget that there was once a time when the very idea of Japanese cars on American roads would have induced derisive laughter. Of course, many of those same Japanese cars are now actually built here in the Big PX, and no one wonders about those Camrys or Accords anymore but what on earth was a Mazda 626? And did they really build them for more than twenty years? This page doesn't even begin to answer all the questions.
Toyo Cork Kogyo Company, Limited, founded in Hiroshima in 1920 to manufacture products from, well, cork, got out of that business and into vehicle manufacture in the Thirties, starting with a three-wheeled truck, duly dropping "Cork" from the corporate name. Their first car, the Mazda R360 coupe, appeared in 1960, demonstrating from Day One the company's intention to push the technological envelope. The R360 was powered by an air-cooled 356cc V-twin, sitting over the rear wheels; suspension was independent at both ends, and steering was by rack and pinion. Why name a car after a Zoroastrian deity? Mostly, I'd guess it's because the last half of "Ahura Mazda", pushed across Japanese palates, sounded very much like "Matsuda", as in Jujiro Matsuda, the former head of the company, and his son Tenuji Matsuda, who took control after his father's death in 1952.
More Mazdas followed, with engines as big as 1.5 liters, but the big news came in 1967, with the introduction of the Cosmo Sports, powered by Felix Wankel's rotary engine, previously seen in cars built by NSU in Germany. The rotary was cantankerous, and tended to munch on its own oil seals, but when it was running, there was nothing like it; NSU's Spider, from 1963, produced 50 hp from a mere half-liter of displacement.
Anxious to get a foothold in North America, Mazda entered the US market in 1970 with the Capella coupe and sedan, badged for the US as the RX-2, and powered by a 1.1-liter two-rotor Wankel putting out 97 hp. It sold fairly well until OPEC shut off the oil flow in 1973, at which time the RX-2's fuelishness 15 mpg, if you were lucky became a substantial liability. Worse yet, the finicky nature of the rotary, combined with the generally lax attitude towards automotive maintenance in the US, meant lots of Mazdas in the shop, a place you simply didn't find Toyotas and Datsuns of the time. (I was driving a 1975 Toyota Celica, which was darn near bulletproof for over 190,000 miles.) Mazda, in the Japanese way, went to work on the problems, got them under control, offered a 75,000-mile warranty on the drivetrain to reassure buyers, but the damage was done.
That might have been it for Mazda's US operations right there, but the company was determined to stay the course. Two piston-engined cars were readied: the subcompact Familia/323, sold here as the GLC ("Great Little Car", they would have you believe) starting in the 1977 model year, and a new Capella, introduced in 1979 as the 626.
In US trim, the first 626 was a moderately-upscale compact with rear drive, a 2-liter SOHC four-cylinder delivering 75 hp, and actual space for four if they were good friends. Consumer Guide called it a "bargain-basement BMW", which might have been pushing it. Just the same, shoppers wanting more than the stern economies of the GLC found solace and decent gas mileage, in the middle to upper twenties in that first 626. Of course, Mazda found ways to distinguish its product from the general run of compacts, most notably with the divided fold-down rear seat, which added substantially to the available cargo space. I remember my first encounter with a 1980 626; my five-year-old Toyota suddenly looked twice as old and three times as shabby. Mazda sales in the US doubled between 1978 and 1979. And Ford, looking for a way to dispose of a prewar plant in Japan, acquired 25 percent of Toyo Kogyo in 1979. (Eventually Ford would acquire controlling interest in Mazda, selling off much of it in 2008 during a cash crunch.)
The second-generation 626, now on a front-drive platform, appeared for 1983, and was named "Import Car of the Year" by Motor Trend. The engine, still two liters, was bumped up to 83 hp, and two trim lines (DX and LX) were offered. While this version would remain in production through 1987, many running changes were made, including a switch to fuel injection (good for 10 additional hp) in the DX and LX cars, and the availability of a turbocharged version of the engine, rated at 120 hp, in a five-door GT version. The corporate name was formally changed to Mazda Motor Corporation in 1984, and a former Ford plant in Flat Rock, Michigan was reopened as Mazda Motor Manufacturing (USA) in 1987.
For 1988, the two-door 626s were dropped, to reappear under the MX-6 badge, and Ford began selling a version of the MX-6 as the Probe. While the two-doors were built at Flat Rock, the 626 continued to be imported from Japan. A new 2.2-liter engine was offered in normally aspirated (110 hp) or turbocharged (145 hp) configurations. Mazda still being Mazda, a version was briefly offered with four-wheel steering, the amount of rear steer depending upon vehicle speed. (This was also available on the Honda Prelude, and discontinued there almost as quickly.) In 1992, Ford bought back a half interest in the Flat Rock plant; the joint venture was named AutoAlliance International.
Starting in the 1993 model year, AutoAlliance built 626s, MX-6s and Ford Probes with around 75 percent domestic content, qualifying them as domestic cars by Federal standards. Die-hard Japanese-car devotees scoffed at the new cars, but the 626 remained Mazda's single best-selling line anyway, and continued to sell, despite occasional reports of transmission problems. Mazda sent over two new engines for 1993: yet another 2.0-liter four, this time with double overhead cams, rated at 118 hp, and a new 2.5-liter DOHC V6, good for 164 hp. No turbos this time, though the V6 seemed to take up the slack nicely enough. Originally, only the top-line ES cars got the V6, though customer demand (and softening sales) eventually moved Mazda to offer an LX version with the V6. The MX-6 and Probe were dropped after 1997.
The fifth-generation 626, introduced for 1998, was very much like its immediate predecessor: about two inches longer, slightly more room, almost the same gauge cluster, and the same engines, retuned to deliver more torque at lower RPMs. The low-end DX model was dropped for the 1999 model year. LX and ES trim lines remained, and through 2001, you could get either engine in either line. More to the point, while the manual transmission is an endangered species elsewhere in this class, you could still get a stick with either the four or the V6. For 2000, the suspension and steering were retuned for a sportier feel, and some minor content improvements were wrought. This particular incarnation of the 626 is sold only in North America; the rest of the world gets a different 626 or Capella. The reviews of Generation Five were mixed: to the extent that the new 626 retained its essential Mazda-ness, the car was praised, but there were recurring complaints that Mazda or maybe the Ford guys on staff might have pushed it so far into the mainstream that it's likely to drown. For myself, I can say only that my own fifth-generation 626, a 2000 LX, didn't feel particularly Fordlike.
Mazda took a beating in the marketplace in the early Nineties, prompting Ford to increase its equity holdings (to just over a third) and its ultimate level of control over the company. While Mazda still jumps through technological hoops the RX-7, ever faster, was still imported in decreasing numbers through the middle Nineties and an RX-8 arrived in 2004, the MX-5/Miata continues to be the best British sports car never made in Britain, and a unique Miller-cycle engine was offered in the S version of the Millenia the 626, which continued as Mazda's bread-and-butter car, got no technotrickery whatsoever, with the possible exception of its oscillating center air vents. And maybe that's just as well. Utterly conventional for its class, the 626 still drove better than any of its competitors, a tribute to the value of working hard and staying focused.
There was to be no sixth-generation 626; for model year 2003, Mazda replaced both the 626 and the Millenia with the new Mazda6. The Europeans got the second-generation 6 in 2008; the larger North American version appeared for model year 2009. The 626 clearly isn't coming back, but there are still lots of them on the road today, and every time I see one, I smile.
Updated 18 November 2008
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Copyright © 1999-2008 by Charles G. Hill
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