Luxury cars: sport coupe and upscale diesel.

When it first hit the road a few years ago, I liked the rear-drive Mazda 626 a lot. It could almost, in fact, have been called a Japanese attempt at the highly rated West German Audi or BMW, but for a lot less money.

Since then the Japanese maker, Mazda Motors, in which the Ford Motor Company has a 25 percent interest, has put a front-drive engine into the car.

The 1984 test vehicle, a luxury Mazda 626 sport coupe, boasts a wide array of engineering refinements, including variable shock absorbers by which, with the flick of a switch, the driver can control the kind of ride he wants the car to provide - a standard ride or a more firm sports ride. Snap - and it's yours.

Among the useful gimmicks is an oscillating vent in the center of the dash that moves from side to side when the air conditioning is switched on. What it does is send cool air, first to the left side and then to the right.

True to Japanese style, however, some switches can be a nuisance, as I found out even on the earlier 626.

The Japanese sometimes go far beyond all reason in installing items that do not necessarily improve a car, but rather may act as irritants. The Tokyo-by-night, multicolored dashboard lighting, as one domestic competitor describes it, leads to a Christmas-tree display that's more annoying than helpful.

Also on the 626, you have to hit a switch several times to snap on the headlights or turn up the windshield wipers to full speed. You then hit it the same number of times to turn them off.

Even so, there is a lot more to the car than the obvious gimmicks on display. The engineering thought that went into the car is solid and its execution of a high level. The 626 does provide a good-quality ride, is easy to steer and corner, and gives quite enough performance to meet the needs of many buyers these days.

Equipped with a standard 5-speed manual transmission, the 2-liter 626 spurts from 0 to 60 m.p.h. in a reported 11.3 seconds and provides 29 m.p.g. in city driving and 41 m.p.g. on the highway, according to mileage tests by the Environmental Protection Agency. The combined city-highway figure is 33 m.p.g. With an optional 3-speed automatic, the figures are a little bit less.

The base Mazda sport coupe lists for $8,295, while the sticker price of the luxury-package coupe jumps to $9,845. The 4-door 626 carries a window sticker of

With the luxury-trim-level package, including a 10-way adjustable driver's seat, finding a comfortable position is a snap, a feat not always possible in some cars I've driven.

The Mazda 626 shows the kind of engineering the carmaker is capable of, including sophisticated suspension geometry in the rear. Anti-roll bars are fitted to the 626 front and rear. Power-assisted brakes are standard on all 626 s.

The 626 comes not only as a 2-door sport coupe but also as a 4- and 5-door sedan.

It is Toyo Kogyo that has done so much to make the rotary-engine of Dr. Felix Wankel such a success on the road. Even massive General Motors had to give up many years ago, losing a reported $50 million in the process. Yet Toyo Kogyo, which now is known simply as Mazda Motors, has persisted, and the two-seater RX- 7 sports car is the result.

As for the Mazda 626, the carmaker says that worldwide demand is far outstripping the supply.

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