Mazda 626

Polish food isn't exactly a culinary wonderworld of delicate tastes and subtleties. There's no light sprinkling of herbs, or rare magic ingredients. Nor are there flamboyant frying pan techniques or bizarre eating habits. In fact, all you need is a couple of root vegetables, and a part of a pig that the pig didn't know it had, warmed up until soft enough not to require teeth and then wolfed down with gusto. Hearty, filling, but never going to earn a Michelin star for services to gastronomy.

The Japanese invasion started with the sushi craze of the mid 1990s, when a few flush businessmen realised that pork and cabbage, breaded pork and cabbage, or pork sausage and cabbage weren't going to dazzle international investors at the working lunch. Now every new office block in the city has a mandatory sushi restaurant inside, serving up raw versions of the fish they catch hundreds of kilometres away.

Of course, it's nothing like real Japanese cooking, in the same way the curries over here are bland watered-down pastes rather than face-searing explosions of spice, because Poles can't stomach anything with too strong a flavour. Hundreds of years of turnips and white bread haven't exposed them enough to the obscure, strange or downright weird. Seeing an old Mazda is therefore an event, if you know a bit about the company.

Most people lump Mazda in with Honda and Toyota as makers of those comfortingly boring boxes that shuttle you from home to work to the shops to home to work to home to the cemetary without requiring anything from the driver in terms of emotion, which seems unfair what with them being, until recently, Ford's experimental test zone for new techonologies. Especially engines.

By the time Mazda had got themselves going as a proper post-war car manufacturer in the 1950s, they took on ideas that would have cowed most Europeans in terms of design. Most importantly they worked with the snigger-inducing Wankel, or rotary, engines. If you don't know what that is, imagine a piece of Toblerone ratting around inside a giant Tic-Tac. No pistons like a regular engine, no up-and-down boxer's-fist motions, just a triange rotating round and round inside a rounded egg, producing (theoretically) THREE TIMES as much power per cylinder, and at less capacity. This means that the 1.1litre 2-rotor engine in the legendary Mazda RX-7 sports coupe was the equivalent of a 2.0 V6, and could kick out 110hp if needed. 110hp from 1.1 litres, at the same time the VW Polo was pumping out 40hp from the same capacity. That is monstrous.

This was scarily advanced for the Americans, who were far more comfortable with pre-war technology like leaf sprung suspension and pushrod engines. Mazda tried to market their motors in the States, but it just wouldn't work; Americans eschewed them on the grounds of, ironically, fuel efficiency and reliability, and thus Mazda (25% Ford at this point) went to work on a more humble machine.

An introduction of this length is something of an apology for the Mazda 626, whose four-cylinder SOHC engine and rear-wheel drive were, strangely, so perfectly suited to American requirements that the innocuous Jap import sold surprisingly well against its competitors the Honda Accord and Toyota Corona. This first-generation 626 was almost exactly like its domestic version, the Mazda Capella; a mid-sized saloon at home but a compact in the States, with plain, unassuming features and a pragmatic approach to motoring. The engine (lowered from 80hp to 75 in the name of cleanliness) was compared in contemporary reviews to BMWs engines for power delivery and smoothness, without requiring a hard Bavarian attitude from the owner. All in all, it was a satisfying mouthful of motoring, but nothing to salivate over.

This 626 sits on knackered tyres with a smashed rear windscreen and a motley selection of rotted seaweed-coloured panels. One original wheel still clings to the rear quarter, but this car is unlikely ever to see road time again. The Japanese's continuous demands for improvements saw the 626 revised year after year, with the first generation facelifted after three years and replaced with a completely new model after five, which makes getting spare parts awkward if nigh-on impossible. Not that its a big loss; I'm a firm believer that Poles need to brighten their lives up a bit, and letting this automotive stodge wallow among the squat '80s blocks it was targetted at seems only fair. As far as tastes go, I'd rather have heartburn than no heart at all.