The Carchive: 1981 Mazda 626 Saloon and Coupe

The last couple of visits to The Carchive have taken a look at a few of North Americas most honest cars of the late ’70s. The economy offerings of Ford and Chevy – basic, simply engineered cars designed to work hard so their owners didn’t have to. They weren’t aspirational, but they were the right cars for the time.
It was around that time, though, that America’s domestic makers were really starting to feel the pressure of cars from the orient – and the same was true in Europe at the turn of the ’80s. The best selling car of that time – the Ford Cortina – was feeling a certain amount of strain from the Mazda 626.

Click the pics for a half-decent hope of reading the words.

“For those who thought today’s prices had made quality motoring a thing of the past, the Mazda 626 range could change your mind”
At the turn of the ’80s, the British car buying public hadn’t yet developed a taste for the radical. It was just beginning to accept forward-thinking in smaller cars – the Fiesta, Renaults 5 and 14 and the Volkswagen Golf had shown just how outclassed the comparably old-fashioned Mk2 Ford Escort, Vauxhall Chevette and Chrysler Sunbeam were becoming. The next size up, though the ‘large’ car (Stateside you’d call it a compact) was as traditional as ever.
It would be another two years before the Ford Sierra would turn up and scare the shit out of everybody with its ‘jellymould’ styling, and slightly longer before the Vauxhall Cavalier (Opel Ascona) would make the shift to a modern front-wheel drive layout. In this staid, starchy environment, the Mazda 626 fitted right in.

“Inside, the 626 is all you would expect of a top-quality, luxurious saloon.”
There was absolutely nothing technically advanced about the 626. It was a straightforward, front engined, rear-drive design. Struts at the front and a dead axle at the rear, located by four links and a Panhard rod. Its biggest engine, the 2.0-litre four,  was rated at 90PS (88bhp),  while the 1.6-litre wheezed out 74bhp – 11.8 seconds to 60 was as quickly as the 626 could be made to move. In contrast, a 2.0-litre Cortina S could crack it in well under ten seconds. But performance, or driveability wasn’t what the 626 sold on.
The SDX was the top trim level, yet was priced way below the “equivalent” Ford Cortina Ghia, yet carried a vast array more equipment. You got such niceties as electric windows all round, remote fuel filler and boot releases and a tilt adjustable steering wheel that Cortina owners could only dream about. There was central locking, too, and individual map reading lights. And, miracle of miracles, if you lifted the driver’s door handle, the lock barrel illuminated. Admittedly – these are features that luxury American cars had enjoyed since the ’50s, but were far from commonplace in an affordable European saloon at the turn of the ’80s.
And there was a coupe – which didn’t drive any differently at all but looked kind of slinky.

“With the 626 range, Mazda have made quality motoring a luxury you can afford”
The 626 didn’t capture the imagination of the masses, but it did score a loyal following and helped to cement appreciation of a brand that doesn’t seem to be able to do much wrong in the UK right now.
Towards the end of this model’s life, CAR magazine spoke thus of the 626: “For: Equipment. Against: Cortina layout, iffy handling at limit. Sum-up: Japanese Cortina, about to be replaced by far-better FWD car.”
And, broadly speaking, they were right. The 626 was a simple car with lots of garnish, designed to please the tastes of the relatively undescriminating. At the risk of snobbism, it perfectly served those with lemonade budgets but champagne aspirations. The next generation would be different. It would be good.
(All images are of original manufacturer publicity materials, photographed by me. Copyright remains property of Mazda Motor Company, who abandoned their old naming policy over a decade ago. Yet, despite that, the Mazda3 is still a 323 at heart)

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4 responses to “The Carchive: 1981 Mazda 626 Saloon and Coupe”

  1. longrooffan Avatar

    When I first married, my new wife owned the two door version of this 626. Metallic blue with blue cloth interior. Loaded with options and, I believe, a five speed. Her nephew ended up with it as a high school graduation present. He learned to drive a stick in that car. That 626 lasted him through college at SLU before the tin worm took over. Loved that car. I had almost forgotten about it. Thanks for the memory….of the car, not the wife 🙂

  2. Alff Avatar

    I learned to drive in one of these coupes. It was a nice little car.

  3. dukeisduke Avatar

    I remember when the 626 launched, just a year after the RX-7. I still think it’s a great looking car, especially in the coupe version. This was about the time that Mazda’s management announced that they were focused on the customer, and they would make design changes to meet customer wants and needs.

  4. tholt Avatar

    I owned one of these for the better part of a year. I have always loved the styling of the 2 door. Unfortunately, the one I had was free for some very obvious reasons. The car wouldn’t rev, it pulled hard left when you put on the brakes and the clutch slipped when I could get it to rev. It was also in bad trouble from the inevitable rot here in the upper midwest. I eventually donated it, but I wish I hadn’t. It was rare then and they’re just nowhere to be found on the roads now.