So Glad they Bothered: 1983 Mazda 626

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.

1983 Mazda 626 Hatchback (GC) (source: Pinterest)

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.

Mazda 626 (GC) range (source: Pinterest)

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.

Advert for Mazda 626 GC, selected for the vibrant depiction of the interior colour scheme and design. (source: Reddit)

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?

Mazda 626 (GC) interior – note the piano-key buttons for the minor controls around the binnacle for the 5 and 2 door versions. (source: WheelsAge)

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.

Author: S.V. Robinson

Life long interest in cars and the industry

28 thoughts on “So Glad they Bothered: 1983 Mazda 626”

  1. These certainly did pretty well in the Irish Market, which of course was too small in absolute terms to trouble the EEC rules very much. Up until 1985 you had to have an assembly plant here if you wanted to sell cars in Ireland, and I think Motor Distributors Limited built 323s in theirs.
    I do recall a radio advertisement for this 626 which would not be acceptable now: it consisted of an account of a drive by a 626 owner interspersed by bursts of Japanese sounding speech, which was supposedly our protagonist praising the car. (Maybe it actually was Japanese, I certainly wouldn’t have known the difference, but I doubt the budget would have stretched to an actual Japanese speaker.) Inevitably for the times, it ended with him lowering his (electric) and intoning, “Kamikaze!”. Like I say,of its times…

    1. Hi Michel. You’re right about Motor Distributors assembling the Mazda 323. I remember hearing at the time that they did a deal that, by assembling the 323, they could import Volkswagens fully built, instead of assembling them as they had done with the Beetle.

      The assembly of the 323 was done with exactly the same care and attention to detail they had previously lavished on the Beetle. My 1978 323 needed two new front wings and a tailgate at two years old because there had been no paint applied to the underside of the top surface of the wings and no anti-corrosion treatment injected into the closed box section at the base of the tailgate. After much haggling, MDL agree to supply the parts free of charge, but I had to pay for the labour.

      Happy days!

  2. I still have the brochure somewhere, but like Cropley I preferred the 4-door. Mazda had a history of Italian styling, and the 1985 Fiat Croma ( by Giugiaro ) had a very similar hatch treatment. This was at the top of my shortlist – but funds were short so I never had one.
    The subsequent GD model was even better though – and I eventually had one of them.

  3. I remember these 626s well. They were very common in Switzerland, mostly in 5-door guise. Saloons were not very popular, and in comparison I still think they lack the strong character of the hatchback. Looking at it now, I find a very well resolved design indeed, although its wheelbase could be a bit longer. The unusually shaped rear lights add a little flourish to the otherwise quite sober lines.

  4. I remember one of these in our village. A beige metallic 5 door, with beige interior and the smooth covers. I don’t think these were that uncommon over here in the Netherlands, but not big sellers either. Again one of those cars that were once not uncommon, but nowhere to be seen now.

  5. Good morning S.V. My now brother-in-law owned one of the saloon versions of this 626 back in 1984. I recall it as typical of Japanese cars of the era, meticulously designed and built, with none of the ‘raw edges’ one could find on contemporary mainstream European cars. How interesting that Mazda went to the trouble of designing a more ‘conventional’ dashboard for the saloon, which was presumably expected to appeal to more conservative customers. Here it is:

    One interesting stylistic detail on the series I saloon and coupé was a body-coloured ‘eyebrow’ above the tail lights:

    It had no function other than to combine with the bumper to ‘frame’ the rear end. It disappeared when the model was facelifted. Here’s the facelifted saloon:

    The black-painted side window frames on the five-door looks a little heavy-handed and busy to my eyes, but the saloon and coupé are commendably clean designs. At the time they seemed properly ‘modern’ and European looking, with none of the flourishes one associated with Japanese cars.

  6. S.V., Your first paragraph truly struck a chord. I remember the excitement felt when the mailman would deliver a fresh copy of Car & Driver to the house each month. That was many decades ago. I still look forward to cracking open a fresh car magazine. As long as we continue our fascination with automobiles, there is always something new to discover and enjoy. DTW is a daily must read for me, and I greatly appreciate your efforts. Many thanks!

  7. From some angles, it has slight similarities to the Rover 800 / Honda Legend.

    This is the advert I remember and I still recall the “You’ll be amazed at a Mazda” slogan. Although it’s quite a dramatic advertisement, I don’t think the comparison with Porsche and Mercedes-Benz works very well.

    1. That Mazda advertisement would probably not make it past the ASA (UK Advertising Standards Authority) today, as it would be seen to promote reckless driving. That’s why modern car TV adverts are so anodyne: they cannot be seen to promote speed or even undue excitement. Hence, all that’s left are beautiful idealised landscapes and equally beautiful, aspirational people.

      Having once made a complaint (about a TV advertisement for perfume that seemed to sexualise a very young looking teenage girl) I am on the ASA’s mailing list for their weekly bulletin of judgements on advertisements that have been complained about. It’s quite interesting to read what gets censured (and what doesn’t).

    2. That reminds me of the advert for the TV watchdog, the ITC. I think it’s very well done.

    3. I think I remember that advert. It’s quite good, actually.

  8. The 626 was one of the many Japanese cars that took on a distinctly Euro look at that time, think Nissan Stanza or Honda Accord who also got rid of their Eastern looks and got sober lines.

    Every year the average age of a 626 buyer got higher by one year at that time. That meant that these cars always were bought by the same people who once they had had one bought another one next time round. That’s a dangerous situation for a model and its manufacturers and Mazda had to change that.

  9. I preferred the next generation 626 hatchback, particularly the post-facelift version with the full width rear reflector in turbo 4ws trim. It may look dull to some, but I find it to be clean and dignified in appearance, reminiscent of contemporary Audis.

    And the interior, with its teardrop shaped instrument cluster, bore some resemblance to the late Porsche 944. Please avert your eyes from the awful automatic seatbelts.
    https://lh3.googleusercontent.com/proxy/7OSNufxwbLKCrVJBYnuYtkKab9Iwm1Myo79doVxpIlCAo7jFjI_GiK9ISUivupdLykakK8x0v98FDV4T4GAJhVzaa4yK-UA

    1. For me, the point is that the version of the 626 I covered was the breakthrough model for Mazda in terms of distinctive and yet European-friendly styling – the earlier 323 was too much of an Escort-clone to count IMO. The later version you depict looks like a refined evolution of the the GC’s theme, and, to my eyes, it’s (therefore?) less distinctive.

    2. The JDM version of the 1980 Mazda 323 was even more similar to the Escort Mk3. As designed, the 323 had a six-light DLO, but Ford, which was a Mazda shareholder, allegedly insisted that it be altered for export, to avoid confusion with its own model. Mazda obliged by removing the rear quarter-window from the C/D pillar:

      When Ford repurposed the 323 as the Australian market Laser, the rear quarter-light was reinstated to make it look more like the Escort again:

    3. S.V.: I agree with your statement regarding the ‘breakthrough model’. The later iteration looks a bit watered down in comparison (but this perception might be attributed to my personal taste, preferring more angular designs). The older 626 model from the late seventies already had a presence on Swiss roads, but only with the more modern FWD layout and the practical hatchback of the GC it became more widespread.

  10. My Finnish grandfather used that car for several years, and then the predecessor model until he wasn’t fit to drive any longer. The latter I remember very well indeed, as I always enjoyed the discreetly cosy interior (the fabric was velour-like and hence a lot more pleasant to a child than leather or the tough fabrics usually fitted to cars at the time).

    The 626 remained completely undaunted by the sometimes very harsh driving conditions in Finland, which may only partially be explained by the exacting servicing regiment it was subjected to. My grandfather’s second 626 stayed with the family for 15 years and didn’t let them down even once. I also perceived it as very comfortable, at lest when used the Finnish way (which meant it was never introduced to the concept of a motorway).

    1. I liked these 626s. My father had the contemporary 323 Daniel pictured, in metallic light blue. It had a pull down plastic flap in the boot revealing a really good toolkit.

  11. I see Ford Australia adopted it, with a slight makeover, as their Telstar. I think I prefer the Telstar, as the front looks ‘stronger’.

    Ford Telstar (Mazda 626)

  12. Nothing at all wrong with car nerd-Dom, SVR. I’m just glad you’ve brought about attention to another car I really don’t ever remember. I’m also trying to remember if my home town even had a Mazda dealership around the time of this car – and I can’t. Nowadays it’s lumped with almost everyone else in Sheffield’s car buying quarter which I pass fairly frequently – anew 6 is often prominently parked. If it’s soul red I sometimes nearly crash…

  13. If only the poor, lamented 626-based Probe had received even a fraction of the love expressed here…

  14. My parents had a contemporary sixth gen 323 station wagon, which was also a nicely accomplished car (and much roomier than the second gen Civic that preceded it). Having had an accident in it that was repaired but killed any residuals, my dad decided to drive the thing until it stopped working. Sure enough, the Mazda cut out on the motorway one evening as he was driving home from work, so he called the towing services, removed anything he wanted to keep and had the thing delivered straight to the scrap yard. Or so the story went (I was out of the house by then). I think the next car he bought was a Seat.

    A family friend owned a grotty 626 of the generation preceding the one from this article. When my dad, on a lark, tried to open the door with the key from his own 323, it worked! Although that said more about the state of that 626 than Mazda’s keys.

    I always found the coupé rather glamorous, although I didn’t care for the sedan. The DLO doesn’t line up with the bonnet and trunk, a bit like with the Ford Orion, which I absolutely loathed. I liked the next generation better, as it seemed to me the moment the design really “clicked”.

  15. My father bought one of these hatches in disgust at the vagaries of a Lancia Beta, whose brakes proved irreparable 3 years from new. An interesting conquest sale. He was a keen driver and didn’t love his choice, I remember the steering as being heavy and spongy, but they were beautifully made (I still recall the snappy click of the pod switches) and as another reader has noted, had lovely velour interiors. The successor was a terrific car, I had an upspec 2.2 litre version with many miles on it but again beautifully made and very pleasant to drive, the previous owners having been most unwisely seduced by a Daewoo Leganza.

    1. My recollection was that the TX5 was very much a premium product in the Ford range, priced at same level as a mid range Falcon, and A$10K more than the Button-Plan special Corsair (a Nissan Pintara, a bit smaller than the Mazda, but similar engine sizes) which was supposed to take the place of the Telstar sedan.

      The Corsair was ditched pretty quickly once import duties shrunk from punitive to inconsequential. The Telstar seems to have fluctuating origins – sometimes assembled at Campbellfield, sometimes fully-imported but without the full tax hit under some horse-trading related to the SA30 Capri.

    2. Back in 1989-90, my dad was at a Sydney Ford dealer to purchase a new Laser. Even at that point, they were struggling to shift Corsairs, and the discounting was on in earnest, to the point that my dad inquired in passing what they would want for the Corsair instead of the Laser. The salesman lowered his voice and said, “Don’t bother…”

      It’s true the original TX5 was pitched a little upmarket of the sedan, and that was partly because the TX5s were imported from Japan rather than local-build CKDs, so it’s a fair assumption the build was rather more precise on the hatchbacks. With that said, if I recall correctly, it wasn’t really until the second-generation Telstar, which were all fully imported – and hitting in the full wake of Yen shock etc – that prices really spiralled. Quite nice cars, those second-generation ones, even if older me really can’t look at the rear light trim surrounds without wincing nowadays. It never bothered me (age 10) back in the day.

      Robertas (and others), you might be interested in this long-forgotten story about a long-forgotten episode, that also has a bit of inside running on the catastrophe of the Pintara/Corsair:

      https://bauer-archive.x-cago.net/img.do?id=WHL-19970201-01078001&h=&s=0.666

      https://bauer-archive.x-cago.net/img.do?id=WHL-19970201-01078001&h=&s=0.666&pnr=1

      https://bauer-archive.x-cago.net/img.do?id=WHL-19970201-01078001&h=&s=0.666&pnr=2

      https://bauer-archive.x-cago.net/img.do?id=WHL-19970201-01078001&h=&s=0.666&pnr=3

  16. A very thought provoking article.

    From mid teens the appearance of Car was a big highlight every month and it was read cover to cover. It was a sad day when about 20 years back I realised it simply wasn’t worth my attention any more but great days while they lasted.

    On the Japanese gentleman’s agreement – thanks to Mr Andrew Miles I bought and read a copy of The Machine that Changed the World (https://driventowrite.com/2021/05/01/the-machine-that-changed-the-world/).

    In the book it explains how the Japanese makers used raised prices to control demand (this was based on the US market, no reason to think the same would not be done in Europe although I don’t remember either way). The higher prices converted straight to profit and the Japanese makers were able to build a war chest which could then be invested in transplants (local plants including one or two joint ventures with local makers).

    Not sure if that was an intended or unintended consequence of the gentleman’s agreement – ultimately it led to factories being built in the US and Europe so local employment, but of course these were under the control of the Japanese makers.

    With these plants in place they were (are) well placed to buffer against changes of demand and also move production if cost of manufacture changed due to currency fluctuation.

    Fascinating stuff and I owe Andrew a thank you for the tip on the book.

    And another to SVR for another excellent piece.

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