The transition from RWD to FWD was one that stymied Detroit in a number of ways. But the Japanese seemed to have had no problem at all, as typified in the Toyota Camry as well as this new generation of Mazda 626. Not only was it essentially without faults, it was as good or better than anything in its class, whose standard-bearer at the time was of course the Honda Accord.
This generation not only made a very positive impression in the US, but was something of a breakthrough model for the Japanese in Germany, where the 626 quickly became the top selling Japanese import, and was lauded for its excellent dynamics, quality and reliability.
The 626 was all-new, except for using a beefed up version of the 323’s transmission. We should note that the all-new FED 323 arrived two years earlier, and was also as good or better than anything in its class, and undoubtedly influenced many aspects of the new 626. The new 1998 SOHC four, like the rest of its competition from Japan, wasn’t exactly brimming with power with 83 hp. But as R&T summed it up perfectly: “Just enough pep and performance to make driving fun”.
That’s in the context of a very different time with different expectations, but fun they were, teamed up with their slick-shifting 5-speed manual transmissions. Not quite as much so with an automatic; more like pleasurable.
The 626’s fully independent suspension was well-tuned to deliver the fun in the handling department too. Along with crisp steering, this made it “a delight to toss about pitch into corners“.
The interior came in for praise too. The seats were widely-adjustable and comfortable, although the coupe’s lower roof meant headroom was none too generous.
What’s not to like?