Mazda 626 MPS Concept: The Birth of Mazdaspeed
The STi and Evo rival that never was.
If you were looking to buy a Japanese, all-wheel drive performance saloon in the early 2000s you had two very obvious manufacturer options: Subaru or Mitsubishi. However, in this same period, Mazda was looking to begin producing performance-focused variants of its cars under the Mazdaspeed name. Evidently somewhat inspired by the efforts of Subaru and Mitsubishi, Mazda produced their first MPS (Mazda Performance Series) concept in 2000.
The Mazda 626 MPS Concept debuted at the Geneva Motor Show in 2000. Based on the sixth generation 626, the concept was intended to act as a test car to demonstrate what Mazda was aiming to build towards with its Mazdaspeed cars going forward. Along with this, it was also used to try and gauge consumer interest and evaluate the potential for a production performance-oriented 626.
Visually the car was distinctive, and clearly took cues from its potential rivals. Rather than just adding to the sportier aesthetic Mazda was aiming for, the bodykit did also have a functional purpose. This was primarily to aid cooling, while the flared wheel arches allowed for a wider track to improve handling. The rear wing was also apparently functional, though how much truth there is to that is perhaps debatable. For the interior Mazda largely re-used parts from other existing models, with the only unique elements being a different colour scheme and some additional gauges.
While divisive from a styling perspective, mechanically is where the 626 MPS really started to shine. Under the bonnet was a tweaked 2.5 litre KL-ZE V6, which was twin-turbocharged. Other changes included an enlarged intercooler and radiator, a re-tuned ECU and an improved exhaust system. These changes combined to result in a power output of 280hp at 6500rpm, and 289ft-lb of torque at 4000rpm. A sub six-second 0-60 time was claimed, along with a top speed of around 150mph. Power was sent through a five-speed manual gearbox to all four wheels, though exactly where the full-time AWD system was sourced from was never disclosed.
To make sure the 626 MPS could actually get stopped with its extra power there were more powerful brakes fitted behind the new 18-inch alloy wheels: 345mm, six-pot disc brakes in the front and 315mm four-pots in the rear. Mazdaspeed’s performance tuning also extended to the suspension of the 626 MPS, as height-adjustable springs were fitted along with 12-stage configurable dampers. The overall weight of the 626 MPS was 1380kg, which meant it was a little heavier than an equivalent Impreza WRX or Lancer Evolution while achieving about the same amount of power.
There was also an orange 626 MPS displayed at the 2000 Tokyo Auto Salon, though in this case it was badged the ‘Capella MPS’ for the Japanese market. It isn’t known whether there were two examples built, or if the car was just temporarily re-sprayed and re-badged. Later in 2000 there was also a 323 MPS saloon displayed at the British Motor Show as a follow-up to the 626. This concept featured a 150hp 2.0 litre four-cylinder engine, and would go on to become the Mazdaspeed Protegé in the US and the Mazdaspeed Familia in Japan.
The 626 MPS however, would never make it to production. The reception to the car was not deemed significant enough for the project to be worthwhile, and so it essentially remained a parts showcase. There was also the fact that Mazda already had plans to launch the 626’s replacement, the Mazda6, by this point. It would have made little sense to launch a new 626 so soon before the new model was released, as the Mazda6 would go on sale in 2002. Mazda also showcased the Mazda6 MPS Concept in 2002: though it would take until 2006 for it to actually reach production.
As for the 626 MPS Concept, its fate is unknown. At one point it was just left sitting (presumably at a Mazda warehouse, though this is not certain), but now it seems to be gone without a trace. Whether there were one or two produced, it would be a shame if none are left. It marked the true beginning of Mazdaspeed as Mazda’s performance brand for road cars, and could probably hold its own against both its contemporary rivals and the actual Mazda6 MPS that achieved production.