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?
I remember thinking the four door looked very futuristic when I began seeing them around town.
One car magazine (R &T or C & D?) said this was “the car to buy when the Mazda dealer is out of RX-7 models”.
Like the stanza, this never took off compared with the camry and accord despite having no apparent disadvantages compared with the other two. Why? This was the voluntary import restriction era when ANYTHING japanese sold well over list price. Even mitsubishi, isuzu, and subaru gained significant traction in this time. This had attractive styling and was available in the two door notchback which was so popular back then.
It’s odd to me that outside of some niche products like the miata and mpv, mazda has never really gotten out of the minor leagues in the us.
I had a used blue one just like this but with manual transmission and a sun roof. I didn’t have it long. It had a weird intermittent engine problem that caused it to suddenly burn oil and blow a smokescreen out the tailpipe. After a minute or 2 the smoke would stop. It was like a vale being open and shut. It usually did this while it was idling or waiting at a stop light. I never figured out the problem because on a bright sunny and dry morning commuting to work a maniac on a motorcycle going over 100 mph ran into the back of it while I was driving in the fast lane on the freeway. I was doing the limit +5 so about 70-75. He hit me so hard that he totaled my car. He’s lucky he didn’t kill himself. I was able to drive my poor car to the junkyard at least. I did like for the short period I had it.
The valve stem seals dry out and let oil past the stems where it gets burned in the cylinders. Not a very expensive thing to fix but i’ll fail emissions tests every time.
I thought of that but the behavior was intermittent.. Dried valve stem seals or worn valve guides would be constant and usually produce a puff or blue smoke when start the car. I actually bought the thing and got it to pass the smog test before the problem presented itself. It would start and run fine but after 15-20 minutes and usually at a stop for a light or in traffic the engine would speed up by 2-300 rpm, would run a little rougher and then begin to spew a cloud of blue smoke. It would stop on its own after 2-3 minutes. I once tested it by letting it idle in my driveway for 15-20 minutes and observed that it would cycle from smooth idle to smoke screen and back at fairly regular intervals. It was like a valve would open, oil would enter the combustion chambers and burn. Then the oil seemed to be turned off, the remaining oil would burn off, the smoke would disappear and the idle would smooth out. I could not think of any scenario that explained this completely.
I didn’t have any experience owning a Mazda before this and so was ignorant about any possible idiosyncrasies it might have. I considered pulling the head because, other than this, I really liked the car, especially the sunroof. It became a moot point when Wile E. Coyote on his Acme Crotch Rocket took it out with a direct hit.
I bought an 83 5 door that wasn’t old with reasonably low miles from the original owner. He sold it cheap because it would randomly blow oil smoke when you started it up, but not every time. He did all sorts of things to it to try and find the problem. Nothing worked. I tried a few things. Engine honey? Nope. This and that… still did it once in a blue moon. I thought maybe the valves we’re sticking open when the engine stopped, so I ran a few tanks of premium to burn hotter and remove the residue. BINGO! Never did it again for years after. I LOVED that car! Timing belt snapped at idle and I let it sit for a year. On a lark, slapped a belt in it and fired right up! A transmission oil leak is the only reason I parked it. Then mom and dad got sick of looking at it and junked it on me. 😳
This is such a lovely story I’m a little hesitant to pop the balloon. Nevertheless: it didn’t happen the way you remember it, because premium gasoline doesn’t burn any hotter than regular. You might have bought a brand of premium that had more or better detergent in it, but it’s very unlikely there was residue sticking the valves open; if there had been, you’d’ve heard about it. The cranking cadence would have been uneven as the stuck-open valves bled off all compression, and you’d’ve had very loud spitback when the spark plug set off the mixture and the fire blew right past the open valve.
I liked the coupe version as pictured here but my absolute favorite body style of the 626 was the 5 door hatchback. It looked even better when Mazda added aero headlights later in the model run.
I remember these cars very well. As Paul wrote they were a huge hit in Germany. Because of this car the Mazda brand in general, and the 626 were popular at the, let’s say “Camry crowd” in US speak (something I learned here at cc). Mazda became so successfull that the term “Mein Auto Zerstört Deutsche Arbeitsplätze”(my car kills german jobs) for MAZDA was created. Probably by worried Volkswagen workers, because the 626 won many competitions in the german motor press, like Auto Motor und Sport.
I liked this car, and still do. A leather shop owner in the street I grew up had a white one, a 4 door liftback I think it was called.
Found an article from german motor journal “Auto Bild”.
The shop owner had this one in white
A friend had the same car it was very floaty to ride in, the sport setting didnt work but it kept going ok with no major problems,
Autocar rated the Mazda 626 too, testing a five-door hatch version in May of the same year. Their 1984 ‘All-car guide’ said “Any Japanese car which is good enough to gain a high placing in the European-orientated Car of the Year contest is likely to be good, and Mazda’s 626 has many of the hallmarks of a sound all-round design…. …Our test results show the Mazda 626 to have a good performance (0-60 in 12.3 sec) and economy (33.6mpg UK gallons = 27.9mpg US), together with reasonable comfort and refinement, and a level of road behaviour which is something of a revelation to those whose expectations are conditioned by Japanese cars of an earlier generation. The 626 is roomy, if a little short of headroom, but all the controls have a typically Japanese precision and lightness.”
I have a feeling the issue that the 626 road test was in may be the same one that featured the then new Austin Maestro, a car on which so many hopes were pinned. Also FWD of course, though from a company that had been mass-producing FWD cars for 14 years. Mazda still sell cars.
I don’t feel the “little short on headroom” thing. I have a 91 5 door hatchback with sunroof so it is lower inside. I am 6’1″ tall and have my seat set high as I like the view. Even at that I can fit two fingers between my head and the headliner. Maybe if I were 6″3″ I might hit but then at that size I might be looking at another car. Although I should mention that my height is more in my legs than my torso so my issue is usually getting far enough away for my legs and arms.
’91 would be the next generation after the car featured here. That one also used a lower roofline on the hatchback compared to the sedan, but both had more headroom and the difference between them was less than with the previous generation. My brother had a 1986 626 coupe with sunroof, and headroom (front and rear) was just barely adequate and I’m only 5.8″.
It took me a little while to realize you interspersed your own photos with those of the article, nicely done. The one in the article is an LX (like yours) but seems to be wearing the optional larger 15″ wheels mostly seen on the turbo model. I don’t know that I actually have ever seen a non-turbo with the “holey” wheels. The blue car has the alloys that were ubiquitous on these, a 14″. (to clarify, I checked and the 15’s were in fact an option, I just don’t recall seeing them).
In 1987 I had a summer job at a Mazda dealer, since I didn’t want to work in the family for a while, which is another story.
At this point in my life I had already spent thousands of hours behind the wheel of a GM B body. My exposure to imports was mostly VW Golfs and I was prepared to hate Mazda cars.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. The 626 was a superb car for the era. I was stunned how sophisticated it was underneath, with a real IRS. The later turbocharged motors were very quick for the day, too.
I managed to finagle a leftover 1986 Mazda 323 base for my girlfriend at dealer cost. What do you know, that little car was also brilliant, in most ways better than the 1986 Jetta I owned.
The Mazda 3 is still very popular in Canada, along with its CX3 stablemate.
For me, the 1980s were Mazda’s golden decade. The GLC Sport (later LX) was impressive, but the ’83 626 floored me when it was new. It was such a massive leap beyond anything coming from Detroit, and much of what was coming from elsewhere too. Not just the quality or performance, but the total package. Most of the affordable Japanese and German cars of the time felt stark to me, with plain interiors, whilst Detroit’s idea of luxury was the brougham. The 626 LX though was unabashedly luxurious without resorting to any of the brougham-y cliches. It was full of interesting features – outside keyhole that lit up when you pulled the door handle, vent louvres that oscillated back and forth, audio balance and fader controlled by a joystick (best control for this function ever), driver’s seat recliner with both course and fine adjustments, storage compartments everywhere you look, the wraparound lounge chair styling of the rear seat side panels like a ’60s T-bird. I liked the versatility of 60/40 folding rear seatbacks – ubiquitous now, but can you think of another sedan or coupe (non-hatchback) that had them in 1983? Every American coupe or sedan at this time had fixed rear seatbacks. So did the Camry and Accord. Yet it was priced competitively with much lower-featured cars from rivals. Outstanding car through and though.
Agree completely. We had several Russian emigre friends with 80s era 323s, a mid 80s 323 sedan that was an absolute jewel of a car, as well as a friend with a 323 hatchback of the following generation with the wraparound rear lights. We bought a used ’89 MPV in the mid 90s from a neighbor with 90k miles, first year of that 929 based minivan, it felt light years ahead of a newer (2nd gen) Voyager we also test drove, just a solid, well built cars with a great combination of comfort and road holding. As the decade went on they lost us, our ’98 MPV Allsport was a good car, final year of that original bodystyle, but just felt cheaper. Once they went “Zoom Zoom” they totally lost us.
“What’s not to like?”
Nearly 40 years after this 626, this is a question I’d ask of Mazda’s current midsize sedan offering. Which, it was just announced, is cancelled for model year 2022.
Agreed. I’ve been very satisfied with my 2018 Mazda 6 Turbo. For some reason, Mazda has remained a niche player, despite making cars on par with Honda and Toyota, but with added zest for driving enthusiasts.
Such nice cars, in any body style. Among my friends when I was growing up (in a GM town), there were no fewer than four of these in their driveways, with one family owning two consecutive ones. One friend’s mom traded one for a new, mid-’80s Pontiac Sunbird Turbo, which she quickly came to really regret.
One friend got his up to super-extra-legal speeds once when I was riding shotgun. Dangerous and bad, and could have ended badly for a couple of teenagers, but I was shocked by the effortlessness with which this car went that fast (I won’t say how fast on here).
Quality cars that seemed both quite solid and light, with peerless style.
We bought an ’84 base model 4-door 626 in ’86 and kept it for eight years. It was that same blue as in the photos. The 5-speed was good, and it had A/C and cruise control. I wish it had had power steering, because the manual steering was pretty heavy. Overall, though, it was a very pleasant car, and we could carry a couple of passengers comfortably when the need arose.
This generation of 626 was my first new car – a 1985 4-door with 5-speed, in the lower (deluxe) trim level, a shade under $10k. It seemed incredibly opulent and sporty compared with my ’74 Valiant, so I didn’t seriously consider the luxury trim level – who needs decadence like power windows and power door locks?
It served me well for a dozen years; sold it with around 150k miles. Only one significant problem comes to mind – an intermittent vacuum-advance problem that developed late in its life, causing the car to stumble & stall and then refuse to re-start for 5 or 10 minutes. This baffled a few local mechanics, but the dealer eventually diagnosed & fixed the problem.
I don’t think there were any significant changes from ’83 to ’85. The 1986 model was a refresh, adding fuel injection (bumping the output up to 93 hp), and then the ’88 model introduced the next generation.
The only change I remember was that the 1984 LX sedan was available with a diesel engine that wasn’t offered in 83. It sold terribly (in the U.S.) and I don’t recall it being available in 85, definitely not in 86.
I went to school with a guy who had an ’89 626. It had the oscillating HVAC ducts on the dash, and I thought that was a neat feature that worked very well.
My 86 was so equiped. My son really liked them. He was about 11 at the time. We were both sorry to see it go.
Yeah, I was looking in ’86 (probably the most exploring into my next car I ever did or will ever do) and looked at the 626, it had the oscillating vents. (Besides complexity) why did they stop doing them? Aren’t electric motors like popcorn now on cars, cheaper than ever? Wasn’t the oscillating needed?
For some reason didn’t consider the 626; almost bought a Mitsubishi Galant Sigma, didn’t (for some reason I was wishy-washy in deciding what type of car to buy) and finally bought ’86 GTi. Also considered an Accord Hatch (wish they still made them); what stopped me was the option bundling where you needed to buy an LXi to get fuel injection, but I didn’t want power windows or locks that came in the package (try to avoid them now, good luck, but in 1986, they weren’t as common). VW wasn’t yet into bundling, and all of them had FI by 1986, so I went with the GTi. I should have figured, I’m a confirmed hatchback buyer and replaced the GTi with a regular Golf, which I still have.
My problem is that hatchbacks are becoming scarce; they are trying to drive everyone into SUVs or (hybrids or electric cars). The SUV might be right for me now as I appreciate a taller car (but a Crown Vic would be good too if only they still sold them…and of course not a hatchback).
Besides looking at the ’86 626, only rode in my buddy’s ’79 RWD 626. It had power mirrors (they were pretty novel back then) and I remember him always playing with the adjustment motors on both sides. I had another friend whose girlfriend had a more recent (mid 2000’s?) 626, he was carping about how hard it was to get to stuff in the engine compartment, never saw it so can’t comment myself.
Wait… I don’t remember back then what was regular gas for octane (never paid attention), but this says it needs 91 according to the spec chart. That’s premium today. In a single dual draft carb’d 3-valve? What? I hope that’s a misprint…
The same AKI (antiknock index) rating system currently in use in North America was in use when that road test was printed. It’s difficult to imagine an engine with those specifications (8.6:1 compression, etc) would require 91-AKI fuel.
My guess: something got lost in translation in specifications provided by Mazda. In the rest of the world, “91 octane” is regular fuel; it means 91 RON, which equates closely to 87-AKI American regular.
My first really nice car after a string of junkers was identical to this with a 5 speed, it was an 85 coupe that I bought in 1990 with 55k miles on it. I was only 19 and I beat on it pretty hard, clutch dumping burnouts, 100+ mph runs, reverse donuts etc, but it held up to it all and I never really had any problems with it. I kept it for 2 years and traded it with 105k on it for a brand new Chevy S-10. It was a fun car to drive and now 30 years later I wish I still had it and feel kinda guilty for the way I treated it. I never took pictures of my cars back then but for some reason I found this blurry one if it at my mom’s a few years ago.
I’ve still got my 83 coupe turbo ..still haven’t done the restore but I’ve converted the engine to multi point injection (very rare) and running a g1 link ECU and other mods …I recently inherited a 85 non turbo coupe bit rusty I will restore that at some stage I have a parts car lift back as the roof profile and windscreen was the same ..15 years ago I collected all parts that came up as spare knowing that they would be IMPOSSIBLE to get ..the 85 coupe is a multi point injection model and I have 2x spare turbo magnum engines ..by far the quickest factory car in the road and with the mods it’s faster than a Godzilla..not as good on handling tho being fwd ..but I’m wanting to do a AWD conversion on 1 as I have a few gd and gv AWD gboxes as I also have a AWD gv wagon …I’m still trying to find a bfmr rear subframe to keep it 4×114 stud pattern
I have 2dr coupe 626 1983 wanted to get two front door weather strip belt.