DTW looks back at a car which attracted a very favourable review from then-editor Cropley at Car magazine, yet would scarcely register in terms of annual sales.
In 1983, I was 15 and already deep in car nerd-dom. I had a monthly order for Car magazine at my local newsagent (at which I had a part-time job every Sunday morning) and would genuinely get a tingle of excitement one week of every month in anticipation that it would be there as ordered when I rolled up for work.
The June 1983 edition is one I still cherish for its GIANT TEST of the R5 GTX vs. Fiesta XR2 vs. MG Metro vs. Visa GT vs. FIAT 127 Sport … followed by a 1 page review of the MG Metro Turbo, which was something of a novelty at the time. Overall, though, it’s a brilliant edition with Car at or near its best – others may love it better for The Homecoming, which is an article by David Burgess Wise about a Type 35T Bugatti returning to the roads of the famous Targa Florio race. Underlining this, in my opinion, is the lengthy lead item in the Newcomers section on the third generation Mazda 626.
I recall the 5-door version of this 3rd generation 626 (model designation ‘GC’) being, in my then naïve opinion, something of what people would nowadays refer to as the Goldilocks in terms of design in its class. It was more modern and aerodynamic looking than the contemporary Cavalier/ Ascona, but less controversially so than the Sierra which had just preceded it. The Montego hadn’t launched at this point, the BX hadn’t landed, and Renault was still fielding the R18 in this class.
I liked the 5-door for its substance-adding clam-shell rear hatch design. Some versions at least sported distinctively plain and smooth wheel covers which added to the slick/ neat/ modern look of the car. I always thought it quite sophisticated and refined in its design. There was also a smart 4-door saloon and even a sharp looking 2-door coupé. In short, this Mazda had the look of a real class contender.
However, in the EEC at least, this was never going to be the case in the only sense that matters, sales. This was the era of the gentlemen’s agreement on imports of Japanese cars into the UK and indeed other countries in Europe. As very ably explained by young Cropley, Japanese manufacturers were limited to 11% of the UK market per annum and Mazda’s total allotted share to only 1%. Once the 323 had been accommodated that meant Mazda could only sell up to 4,855 626s in 1983, less than a quarter of what the Sierra would sell on average per month.
Proof, if needed, that the hyperbole with which Cropley has become associated during his latter years at Autocar was there from early on in his career, comes with the following statement regarding the gestation of the 626. “The 626 is … one of the most completely developed Japanese cars in history”. I mean, I really like and admire it, but that seems quite the statement.
Elsewhere in the article, we learn that the 626 was built at an all new plant in Hofu, in southern Japan, which went from site to production-ready in 18 months, capable of building 20,000 cars a month via a combined workforce of 1,800 people and 155 robots. Impressive stats and facts all round.
The hatch had a good-for-its-time Cd of 0.35 – similar to the Sierra only without the amorphous styling. Engines came in 1.6L and 2.0L four-cylinder in-line, petrol flavours, both with 8 valves and competitive power and torque figures – that is, competitive with the Cavalier because Ford managed significantly fewer horses at the time, particular in 1.6L form.
Suspension was independent struts all round, located by so-called Twin Trapezoidal Links at the rear which were designed to counteract the usual tendency for of independent rear wheels to toe-out during bumps or hard cornering. The coupé even came with three-way adjustable dampers, with normal, sport and automatic settings controlled from inside the cabin.
Inside, rear space was somewhat compromised by a relatively short 99” wheelbase. The seats were very typical of an era whereby designers wanted to emphasise the discovery of lumber and thigh-support bolsters. Plush versions had lovely draylon-effect cloth trim in delightfully bold colours – deep blue and caramel being available au-choix. Dashboard and door trim plastic came in matching hues, something I recall very well from my Honda Integra which was of a similar era.
The dashboard itself was a curious mix of classic Japanese with a splash of late 70’s Citroën GS (although Subaru did something not dissimilar with its gloriously individualistic XT) in the form of minor controls being placed either side of the instrument binnacle in the shape of shortened piano keys. According to Cropley, Mazda went to the bother of giving the 4-door its own, more sober solution which he preferred (in fact, he professes a preference for the looks of the saloon over the hatch both outside and in).
I really like the 5 and 2 door solution, and I find it impressive that Mazda bothered to create such coherence in the design character for each of the three versions. Maybe the claim about being such a completely developed car was not such an idle one after all?
Cropley states that, to drive, the 626 was more than competitive with the best of Europe’s offerings, with a refined ride, competent handling (even if a slight vagueness of the steering either side of the straight-ahead took the edge off it – something common in front drive saloons of the time), and, smooth if slightly wheezy sounding engines.
The 626 GC won Car of the Year in Japan in 1982. It came fifth in the 1983 ECotY, which was the highest that any Japanese car had ever achieved up until that point. That must have been galling for a manufacturer which would never be able to allow supply to meet natural levels of demand in the European marketplace. I can’t find any sales figures on the internet, which is a shame as I would guess that the car would have sold well everywhere … bar Europe.
For me, even at a tender age, I recognised the 3rd generation 626 to be something of a breakthrough Japanese model. Like the 3rd gen Accord which would follow in 1985, it made the point that Japan was capable of design that could be desirable to European tastes. Somewhat patronisingly, Cropley speculates that the design could well have come from a European design house, probably Bertone, but I can find no further claims on the matter elsewhere.
These days, the 626 is no more, but its current torch-bearer, the 6, is a handsome thing which has aged very well, helped by judicious occasional tweaking by Mazda’s designers. Rumours are that the next 6 will be RWD and enjoy a last hurrah in-line six-cylinder engine – here’s hoping that it’s as handsome and modern as its near 40 year old forebear was back then.