(first posted 1/24/2017) Is it possible to feel sorry for a corporation? I have to admit, I really empathise with Mazda and their continuing struggle to convince consumers of their worth.
One must look no further than the first front-wheel-drive 626 to see how much potential Mazda had. This was a car that was well-received by critics and consumers alike, and which outsold the rival Nissan Stanza.
Fast forward to 2017 and the 626’s talented successor, the Mazda6, dwells in obscurity. Mazda has one of the most dynamically-gifted mid-sizers with sensuous styling and yet the conservative Nissan Altima outsells it by a factor of 5-to-1. Even the Subaru Legacy finds more buyers. What happened?
Clearly, something went terribly wrong for Mazda and yet the decades between this 626 and today’s Mazda6 reveal little in the way of product missteps. Sure, the 1997 626 was decidedly anodyne but so was the Australian-market model and in Australia Mazda is one of the top 5 best-selling automakers.
Everything Honda did, Mazda did too. A compact crossover? Check. The Tribute was launched in 2001, later than the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V’s North American debuts (1996 and 1997) but preceding the Nissan Rogue’s debut (2007). A V6 mid-sizer? Check. The 626 received a six-cylinder mill in 1997, while the Accord first offered one in 1995 and the Altima didn’t receive one until 2002. Sports coupes? Check. A compact pickup? Check, although not for several years now. Class-leading compacts? Check. Mazda platforms also formed the basis of some of Ford’s most commercially successful and well-received models of the past few decades, like the ’91 Escort and the first Fusion and Escape. So why the hell is Mazda Japan’s underachiever in North America?
You could perhaps place the blame on a rough start. Mazda first arrived in North America in 1970 and quickly became known as a purveyor of rotary-engined vehicles. The Wankel rotary motor was put in everything from subcompacts to sports coupes to pickups, just in time for a fuel crisis and a realization that this type of powerplant simply wasn’t economical enough. Buyers were clamoring for small, fuel-efficient cars – whether import or domestic – and it was Honda that got off to a rollicking start with its Civic and Accord. Toyota and Datsun also did a roaring trade with their range of vehicles that were more conservative than much of what Mazda and Honda were offering.
While Mazda still offered rotary engines beyond the 1970s, they de-emphasized the powertrain in their range and introduced a range of conventional piston-powered models. But by the dawn of the new decade, Mazda was still at number four behind Honda, Toyota and Datsun.
During the 1980s, Datsun shot themselves in the foot by rebranding as Nissan. This robbed them of some serious momentum, not to mention brand equity, and so some of their newer products like the front-wheel-drive Stanza failed to challenge the Accord for sales dominance. Despite this, Mazda wasn’t able to earn a spot on the podium. Still, for all of the Japanese automakers it was a seller’s market as their cars sold at massive dealer mark-ups.
The first front-wheel-drive 626 was a car that really shook off the cobwebs in the mid-sized segment in Australia. Rivals Nissan, Toyota and Mitsubishi were busy selling increasingly old-fashioned, rear-wheel-drive sedans and wagons and along came Mazda with an efficiently-packaged, dynamically-talented, front-wheel-drive sedan and hatch. Priced below the Honda Accord by a few thousand dollars, the 626 and its rebadged Ford Telstar compatriot were immediately popular; the RWD Japanese still outsold the 626 but that was with heavy fleet sales.
Conversely, in North America, the 1983 626 lived in the shadow of the Accord and faced competition from numerous domestics and imports that employed the same front-wheel-drive layout and were priced similarly.
To say the 626 was critically acclaimed would be an understatement. It swept awards worldwide, receiving the Car of the Year trophy in Japan, Motor Trend’s Import Car of the Year prize and Australia’s most prestigious motoring award, Wheels Car of the Year. The 626 also came in fifth in the European Car of the Year competition, the highest finish yet for a Japanese car.
In the Motor Trend competition, the 626 beat out the Porsche 944, Nissan Sentra, Toyota Tercel and the entire Mitsubishi range. The magazine was glowing in its praise—one tester even proclaimed, “I love virtually everything about, in, on or under this car!” The 626 was said to have broad-ranging capability, from a smooth and responsive four-cylinder engine, state-of-the-art front-wheel-drive handling and excellent interior design, materials and workmanship.
Mazda certainly tried to make the 626 stand out by offering a dizzying array of models. Unlike the other Japanese compacts, the 626 came in a choice of 2-door coupe, 4-door sedan and 5-door hatchback (or ‘Touring Sedan’, in Mazda parlance). Transmissions were a three-speed automatic or a five-speed manual. A diesel was offered until 1985, only in a highly-specified Luxury 4-dr, producing 61 hp at 4100 rpm and 87 ft-lbs of torque at 2750 rpm. In 1986, the diesel disappeared and a turbocharged four-cylinder appeared in a new GT hatchback trim. Available only with a five-speed manual, the 2.0 turbo produced 120 hp at 5000 rpm and 150 ft-lbs at 3000 rpm.
Most 626s left the factory with the standard, carburetted 2.0 four-cylinder with 84 hp at 4800 rpm and 112 ft-lbs at 2500 rpm. Corresponding with a minor facelift and interior revision in 1986, the 626’s base engine received fuel injection and a healthy bump in power to 93 hp and 115 ft-lbs.
Like most of its Japanese rivals, the 626 rode on a fully-independent suspension with McPherson struts front and rear. Unlike most of its rivals, electronically adjustable shock absorbers were available on the coupe and 5-dr. The driver could select between ‘Normal’, ‘Firm’ or ‘Automatic’—the latter setting adjusted automatically based on vehicle speed. This was a hot new feature in Japanese cars of the 1980s, also appearing on the 1985 Mitsubishi Galant. Although a novel feature, the 626 already possessed quite capable handling and so this option was somewhat of a gimmick. Still, it was a gimmick Honda, Toyota or Nissan didn’t offer on their rival models.
During the first FWD 626’s run – a nice and short one in typical Japanese fashion – the car continued to be highly recommended by critics. Consumer Guide said they rated the 626 highly, if not quite as highly as the Accord; their only criticism in 1985 was the rather high level of engine noise – an enduring criticism of Mazdas – although they found the various enhancements made in 1986 had improved refinement.
You really couldn’t go wrong with a Japanese compact in the early-mid 1980s, such was the general level of competence. But some were better than others: Mitsubishi’s Tredia was a bit small and the Galant a bit more expensive, while Nissan’s Stanza had soft handling. The Camry was utterly dependable and completely inoffensive. And if you wanted to buy American, you could purchase a GM X-Body or a Chrysler K-Car or a Tempo/Topaz for well under the out-the-door price of one of these Japanese compacts. To give you an idea of the price disparity, in 1985 you could buy a three-row Chevrolet Celebrity wagon with a 2.8 V6 and an automatic transmission for only around $500 more than a base 626 sedan. And that’s talking MSRP, not what these Japanese compacts were actually selling for after the dealers inevitably added unnecessary extras and fees.
Then there was the Accord. It was built in the US, which was a lovely bonus. Depending on trim level, it sometimes undercut the 626 or at least matched it on price and was similarly specified. It wasn’t vastly better than the 626 but it was generally regarded as having superior powertrain refinement. Honda had invested heavily in North America and it was paying dividends: the Accord rocketed up the sales chart.
Honda had a head start in North America in building modern, efficient FWD cars that buyers wanted. Toyota arrived in the US earlier than Mazda and also developed an exemplary reputation. Those automakers’ exemplary reputations and Toyota’s far-reaching growth into new segments explain why they outsell Mazda today. But what about Nissan? Sure, it has more trucks and a greater model range than Mazda, but why does the inferior Sentra outsell the Mazda3? Why does the Mazda6 have its ass handed to it by the Altima?
Things looked so bright for Mazda in the 1980s. If only their North American trajectory had followed that of their Australian operations. Mazda is a brand that deserves to succeed, and one of the first signs they were deserving of this success was the first FWD 626.