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Subcompact 323 and front-drive 626 spark Mazda's lineup

Since the GLC's introduction as a front-drive car in 1980, Mazda has sold 2 million of them. Now, for 1986, the Japanese carmaker introduces the 323, a spirited example of Mazda engineering and design in a subcompact vehicle. The 323 should catch on as well as the old GLC and help the importer meet or surpass its projected sale of 225,000 cars in the United States in '86.

The new 323 is slightly larger, more rounded, and more powerful than the car it replaces, and carries a base price of $5,495. A more powerful 1.6-liter, fuel-injected, overhead-cam engine produces 14 more horsepower than the previous 1.5-liter unit.

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The front-drive 626, introduced in 1983, has been Mazda's biggest seller overall. Now, with the addition of electronic fuel injection and optional turbocharging, the performance of the face-lifted 626 is sharply improved over '85. The optional auto adjusting suspension, replacing the electronic variable shock-absorber system, adds a new measure of luxury to the car, allowing the driver to vary the ride from soft to sporty.

Seats are fully adjustable so that comfort should not be an issue.

Body styles include a 2-door coupe, 4-door sedan, and 5-door touring sedan, all available in three trim levels: De Luxe, Luxury, and GT.

Price for the 626 stretches from $8,695 for the non-turbo 4-door sedan to $12,945 for the turbocharged 5-door touring sedan.

Mileage is surprisingly high and, in an Atlanta-Boston run in a 626 GT turbo, I averaged 37 miles per gallon, a few miles higher than even the Environmental Protection Agency average highway figures. With a shade more than 300 miles on the odometer at the start, the engine was far from fully broken in.

James Trado, who takes over as general manager of Mazda Motors (East) early in the new year, succeeding Eric Sundstrom, says he expects the upgraded 626 to account for 35 percent of total sales; the new 323 another 35 percent; and the restyled, rotary-engine RX-7 30 percent.

Mazda officials see a strong growth in the subcompact-car market as prices of the upper-level cars run higher and higher.

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Down the road for Mazda are a 323 wagon, a 4-wheel-drive 323 (introduced in Japan this fall), an upscale 929 series, a 4-wheel-drive B2000 light truck, and maybe even a mini-Mazda if the super-small market continues to grow.

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