Blandwagon

Mazda gets very cross when you describe its products as bland. And it's true that there are some very un-bland Mazdas, the MX-5 sports car and the shapely Xedos 6 saloon being the most obvious. But anything with a 626 badge, which means Mondeo-sized, has for the last decade or so been as visually unmemorable as a car could be. There are few cars that an expert can't immediately identify on the road, but a 626 is often one of them. And the new one doesn't change a thing.

In some ways, it's worse. The five-door hatchback version of the outgoing model did manage one interesting styling feature, a rear aerofoil whose shape smoothly moved into becoming the rear window surround - it looked like part of the design instead of a status-enhancing addendum. But guess what? It's gone, replaced by the most obvious, most unoriginal of tacked- on rear wings, to make an already fussy rear end even untidier.

From the side, the new car mimics the tensionless blobbiness of the old one, but the rising waistline, which gave its predecessor a semblance of visual motion, has vanished. But at least there's a Mazda-identifying front grille, so we may know a 626 when it comes towards us.

So what's going on? The pattern was set by Nissan and is followed by Mazda: when a Japanese car company is in the financial mire, it turns in on itself and looks back. Result: new cars that look as dull as the old ones, created on the basis that if people bought the old dullards, they'll surely buy the new ones, too.

Except that they may not buy them, because trends have moved on in the meantime. Mazda is now controlled by Ford, which is making some highly adventurous designs (the Ka, the Puma, the new Fiesta). It can't be long before some of this flair rubs off on Mazda, so let's hope the 626 is the last flicker of timid conservatism. The irony is that the design for the new car started at Mazda's European studio, a fact that the company makes much of. It was, however, finished in Japan. Make of that what you will.

The interior shows no more flair; it could have come from any Japanese maker. But it does have "intelligent" air-conditioning in all models. This is simply an automatic set-and-forget system, admirably effective and unusual in a mid-price family car, but hardly a new idea.

Am I being hard on the Mazda 626? After all, it's well made and well equipped. It's reasonably priced (starting at pounds 13,960 for the 1.8) and it probably does all that many people want from a car. This sounds like faint praise, so I'll go farther: the pounds 16,910 2.0 GSi I drove was lively, with a smooth and quiet engine, confident steering and excellent roadholding. In these areas it is indeed much better than the outgoing model. More's the pity, then, that the new car's looks give so little hint of these improvements.

To drive, the 626 is better than a Vauxhall Vectra and as good as a Ford Mondeo, apart from loud tyre roar on coarse surfaces. But that's not reason enough to buy one. If you like your cars colourless and unobtrusive, you'll like the 626. But why buy a car for mere co-existence, when there are so many to admire and enjoy?

MAZDA 626 2.0 GSI

SPECIFICATIONS

Price (on the road): pounds 16,910. Engine: 1,991cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, 136bhp at 5,800rpm. Five-speed gearbox; front-wheel drive.

Performance: top speed 130mph, 0-60 in 9.4sec. Fuel consumption: 30-35mpg

RIVALS

Citroen Xantia 2.0i SX, pounds 16,335. As distinctive as the Mazda is not. Hydropneumatic suspension gives a smooth ride, interior is roomy, brakes are over-sensitive.

Fiat Marea 2.0 HLX, pounds 16,191. Good looks and ample equipment, as well as a powerful 147bhp five-cylinder engine with an intriguing sound. Basically a four-door Brava, but bigger.

Ford Mondeo 2.0 GLX, pounds 16,285. The ubiquitous repmobile, but lively, and surprising fun to drive. Interior is well designed, and today's Mondeos are quiet.

Peugeot 406 2.0 GLX, pounds 16,445. Sleek looks, the best handling and ride comfort in the class, lots of equipment; but the engine's performance feels disappointing.

Renault Laguna 2.0 RXE, pounds 16,155. Shadows the Peugeot for handling ability and ride comfort, looks good, is well made and equipped, but lacks pace. New engines are imminent.

Volkswagen Passat 1.8 SE, pounds 16,484. Virtually an Audi with a VW badge, with the best-wrought cabin in the class and with quality oozing from every crevice. Terrific value for money, though performance is spoilt by snatchy brakes.

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