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MAZDA 626S NOW WEARING `MADE IN USA' LABEL

Mazda has joined the ranks of other Japanese automakers by assembling its compact 626 sedan on American soil for 1990.

Mazda follows Honda and Toyota in bringing the assembly of family sedans stateside, and expects its Flat Rock, Mich., plant to eventually be the sole source of 626 sedans for the U.S. market.Although major components like the engine and transaxle still come from Japan, U.S.-built 626s have a domestic parts content as high as of 65 percent. That is expected to rise to 75 percent in 1991, as Mazda steps up its North American parts purchases.

That level should rise even further during the mid-1990s, as Ford begins supplying engines for Mazda cars.

Besides wearing a "Made in USA" label for the first time, the front-drive 626 gets minor revisions for 1990. Taking a cue from Detroit automakers, changes are largely cosmetic, like a new grille, steering wheel and interior fabric.

Two body styles are offered: a four-door sedan or five-door hatchback. The two-door coupe is known as Mazda's MX-6, which has been assembled in Flat Rock since late 1987.

The 626 competes with other compact sedans like the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Nissan Stanza, as well as several U.S. nameplates including Chrysler's Dodge Spirit and Plymouth Acclaim.

It is offered in a DX model or a plusher LX version, which adds amenities like electric windows, cruise control and upgraded interior.

The hatchback 626 is offered in either the LX or GT model, the latter powered by a turbocharged, 2.2 liter 12-valve four-cylinder engine that delivers 145 horsepower at 4,300 rpm.

All other models have a normally aspirated version of that engine that generates 110 horsepower at 4,700 rpm.

Prices begin at $12,459 for the 626 DX sedan with a 5-speed manual transaxle. At the top is the 626 GT five-door sedan, which starts at $15,699 with the manual.

Driven for this review was a 626 LX sedan, the most popular model in the line. It is base priced at $13,929, but the test car was laden with more than $4,600 worth of options that raised its sticker to $18,847, counting the $279 destination fee.

Some of the pricier options are likely to be passed over by most buyers. Those include a compact disc player ($700), an electric "moon roof" ($700) and anti-lock brakes ($1,150).

Other options are among the commonly ordered extra-cost items - air conditioning ($810) and an electronically controlled 4-speed automatic transaxle ($720).

The 626 LX has a comfortable and well appointed interior. Instrumentation is complete and well arranged, although drivers may find the AM-FM stereo a long reach and placed too low.

Front occupants are secured by motorized shoulder belts and manually fastened lap belts. Thoughtful touches abound, like a driver's seat that is height adjustable, a combination tray/storage box in the center console and a sun visor pocket so one doesn't misplace the toll ticket.

There is generous room front and rear, allowing the 626 to seat four adults comfortably, five in a pinch. Its rear seats can be locked in the upright position, or folded flat to increase cargo space.

The 626's 2.2 liter engine was found to deliver smooth and ample power under all but the most severe conditions, while returning about 27 miles per gallon in overall driving.

Ride and handling of the 2,780-pound LX model was also found to be smooth, balanced and well insulated over a wide variety of road surfaces despite the car's smallish 101.4-inch wheelbase.

Do-it-yourselfers will find spark plug changes easy. Reaching the oil filter is easier from below, but not impossible from above. Servicing the drivebelts may be tough because of the engine's transverse placement.

Because the Mazda 626 is now domestically assembled, a comparison with Japanese-built models was in order for this review.

Although the sample of cars was relatively small and included some early U.S. versions, close scrutiny revealed the Japanese models to edge out the domestics because of slightly better paint finishes.

The American-made 626 was found to have several minor flaws, including an optically distorted driver's sideview mirror. But surprisingly, both showed noticeably uneven body panel fits, like doors, hoods and decklids.

Mazda hopes U.S. sales of the 626 will exceed last year's level of 55,000 units. Each one is covered by a three year/50,000 mile comprehensive warranty with no repair deductible.