The 1971 model 616 and 1972 model 618 had been modest successes in the United States, each lasting just a single year. By 1980, the American public was ready for a compact piston-engined Mazda, and the 626 has been a top seller for the marque ever since.
The first Mazda 626 appeared in most markets in 1979. It was a front engined rear wheel drive compact, little changed from the Japan-market Mazda Capella on which it was based. With an 80hp (60kW) 2.0L SOHC straight-4 F/MA engine, it performed well, with both Consumer Guide and Car and Driver magazines comparing it with a BMW. One innovative feature was a split-folding rear seat, which increased cargo capacity and flexibility tremendously. This first 626 was a hit, doubling Mazda's US sales.
The passenger cabin, and therefore the doors are shared with the contemporary 323, a design feature that lasted into the mid 1980's for both car designs.
The 626, like the Capella, used MacPherson struts in front with a four-link solid axle with coil springs in back. Five-speed manual and three-speed automatic transmission versions were produced, but the recirculating ball steering was something of a throwback in the class. The twin barrel-carb engine was down to 75hp (56kW) in 1980, and a wide grille was introduced for 1981.
The front-wheel drive model appeared in 1983 with the GC platform. It was named Import Car of the Year by Motor Trend magazine and Car of the Year by Wheels magazine for 1983. The new 2.0L FE engine was up to 83hp (62kW) for the North American market. In other regions including Finland, the 626 offered 101hp (75kW) with a twin barrel carburetor. The rear suspension was now independent, and though the wheelbase remained the same as the previous model, it was an entirely different car. A SOHC non-turbo diesel 2.0L RF 66hp (49kW) engine was made available; twenty examples were imported officially into Australia from 1983 to 1987.
A 626 GT (also called the Turbo) was introduced in 1986 using the 120hp (89kW) and 150lb·ft (203N?m) FET engine. The rest of the line got a new front clip with dual (rather than quad) headlights and an entirely new interior, and fuel injection on the base engine meant 93hp (69kW). A new four-speed automatic was introduced for 1987, the last year of this series.