Today we complete our Rare Rides Icons coverage of the mass market, midsize, mid-Eighties Japanese sedan. We’ve covered the V20 Camry, the CA Accord, and most recently the PU11 Maxima. Now we take a look at the alternative to all those, the Mazda 626.
Mazda’s 626 was known as Capella in its home market and was a new larger (but compact) entry into Mazda’s lineup in 1970. In its first generation, Capella fit into Mazda’s showrooms between the smaller Familia (later a 323), and the larger and more luxurious Luce (later a 929). Export versions of this rear-drive car were called 616, or in the North American market, 618. The 618 was a relative blip on the radar though, as Mazda was still new to the American market. Mazda Motor of America wasn’t established until 1971.
In its second (CB) generation in 1978, Mazda consolidated the Capella’s branding and started to make it larger. Capella was called 626 in all export markets apart from the UK, which used the name Montrose. The CB 626 continued to establish Mazda as a provider of mainstream family cars, and Mazda shipped it to North America in 1981. By then the CB was about finished, as for the 1983 model year Mazda moved to the third (GC) generation 626.
In its third guise, the 626 moved to front-drive, and Ford started to display some say in Mazda’s product planning. The 626 was sold as the Ford Telstar in certain markets, and after Mazda was finished with it was turned into the Kia Concord and Capital. Those two were primarily sold in the South Korean market. The GC 626 was particularly successful in Europe, where it won awards for build quality. But Mazda was ready to take the 626 in a new, more international direction. For the 1988 model year in North America (1987 elsewhere), Mazda followed a similar modernization suit to its Japanese competition. It was time for GD.
The new GD was again a transverse, front-drive vehicle. And as before, it was sold as the Ford Telstar in certain markets. Unlike the Maxima which looked similar in its mid-Eighties revision, Mazda made a clean styling break. The GC 626 was very angular, with an upright, almost formal greenhouse that had two windows on either side and a fairly thick C-pillar. It ended in a high rear deck with a rear-end trimmed largely in matte black plastic.
In contrast, the new sedan was notably more rounded, with an overall look that was aerodynamic and modern. Styling was more relaxed on the GD, and side glass adopted the three-window design popularized by the Audi 5000 and Ford Taurus. The extra window slimmed the C-pillar and lent itself to a sleeker look. Said window was useful for the five-door version, which needed more side glass to meet the liftback. The exterior trim was slimmer and more integrated than before, especially at the rear. Gone were the masses of black plastic, replaced by tidy-looking rear brake lamps.
Changes to the interior of the GD 626 mirrored those on the outside, where hard-edged dash shapes were replaced with more organic curves. Controls stayed approximately where they were before. Dials used a more modern orange needle and white font color scheme, instead of the orange on orange of the prior year. With the new 626, Mazda opted for a more traditional window switch layout: In the GC generation, the driver’s window switch was on the driver’s door, while the other three window switches were located in front of the shifter in the console. GD saw them all migrate to the door.
Though it had an all-new look, the 626 stayed about the same size as it was since the early Eighties. The wheelbase grew from 98.8 inches with GC to 101.4 in the GD, as Mazda shrunk overhangs for a more balanced look and more interior room. Length stayed exactly the same on the sedan as the prior generation at 177.8 inches, with the same width of 66.5 inches.
Mazda planned to make big inroads into the family sedan market with its new 626 and expanded the number of production locations. Japanese production took place in Hofu as it had before, as well as in Bogota, Colombia and Bekasi, Indonesia. There were new production locations in Zimbabwe, and in the U.S. at Flat Rock, in Michigan. The Flat Rock plant produced the MX-6 and Ford Probe at this time but did not build the 626 until the ’93 model year.
Previously the 626 was offered as a two-door coupe, with four doors as a sedan, and as a five-door liftback. For the GD generation, Mazda added a station wagon to the 626 lineup, which rode on a slightly edited version of the GD platform called GV. The wagon never made it to North America; 626 was represented only by the four- and five-door variants. In North America and Australia only, the former 626 coupe turned into the MX-6 and was marketed as a separate car.
Mazda offered a wide variety of engines in the GD 626, dependent on the market. At the lower end was a 1.6-liter inline-four, and at the top end was a 2.2-liter turbocharged inline-four. In between, there were six other gasoline engines and two different diesels. Notable among the gasoline engines were 1.8- and 2.0-liter mills with dual overhead cams. Of the diesels, the higher performance 2.0 RFT version used a Comprex supercharger sourced from the Bongo cargo van. Mazda did not offer a six-cylinder powerplant at this time.
All cars were hooked to a four- or five-speed manual, or a four-speed automatic. Mazda’s engines of the era were tuned to provide torque, rather than impressive power figures. Worth a mention, Mazda introduced four-wheel drive in this generation 626. Four-wheel drive was limited to certain trims of the 626 and was never offered on the coupe version. North America was excluded from any four-wheel-drive 626s.
There were three trims of the 626 in North America at its 1988 introduction. On offer were the DX, LX, and Turbo, with additional sub-trims for the Touring (hatchback) and 4WS, or four-wheel steering. The standard engine for the North American market was the largest available on the 626, the 2.2-liter. Also used in the Ford Probe and the B2200 pickup, the engine was good for 110 horsepower and 130 lb-ft of torque. In Turbo trims, the F2T equipped with an IHI turbocharger and intercooler produced 145 horses and 190 lb-ft of torque.
Key differences between the trims included a step up to more standard equipment in the LX, and the addition of all LX equipment and special polished 15-inch alloys in the Turbo. Pricing was generally competitive with offerings like the V20 Camry, but with Turbo and 4WS eclipsed the Camry V6 LE considerably. The base DX asked $11,258 ($27,356 adj.), and the LX started at $13,158 ($31,973 adj.). LX was the base trim for the five-door Touring, at $13,358 ($32,459 adj.). Turbo sedans were $14,808 ($35,903 adj.), and the Touring Turbo asked $15,008 ($36,469 adj.). Top-tier was the Touring Turbo 4WS, which commanded $18,058 ($43,880 adj.).
The 626 was quickly refreshed for the 1990 model year, where noteworthy changes included the addition of new chrome window trim, a revised grille, and new alloy wheel designs. Shortly thereafter the Hofu plant stopped building the GD 626, as Mazda prepared a new model. The wagon version on the GV platform continued in production for some time, though not by the Japanese plant. Other markets received new GV wagons through late 1997.
In North America, the five-door 626 proved an unpopular choice and was discontinued after 1991. That made for a more limited sedan-only final year of the GD 626 in 1992. The following year brought the new GE generation, which saw the discontinuation of the Capella name. Mazda had a new plan to create luxury brands to rival Lexus and Acura: Amati in the U.S., Eunos (an extant brand), and ɛ̃fini elsewhere. But it was the worst possible timing to launch a luxury project, as the Japanese asset crash brought Mazda’s luxury brand to a quick end. Perhaps Amati should receive some coverage in Abandoned History.[Images: Mazda]
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