The 626 was also sold as the Ford Telstar in Asia, Australasia and Southern Africa, but was later replaced by the European-sourced Ford Mondeo. While in Europe it was always considered a large family car, in North America the first two generations of the 626 were compact cars, and the third, fourth and fifth were mid-size cars.
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, the CB series, appeared in 1978, although most the model's introduction to most markets was delayed until 1979. The 626 was a front-engined rear-wheel drive compact, little changed from the Japan-market Mazda Capella with an 80 hp (60 kW) 2.0 L SOHC straight-4 F/MA engine and featuring a split-folding rear seat.
The coupe and sedan were mechanically identical with front MacPherson struts and a solid axle in back mounted on four links and riding on coil springs, either a 5-speed manual or three-speed automatic transmission and recirculating ball steering.
Mazda facelifted the CB series 626 in 1980. The update brought flush-fitting headlamps and a new grille insert. The grille was lengthened slightly to remove the body-colored gap between the headlamps and grille on the original model. It was also reduced in height so that the grille and headlamps formed a single "band" across the front-end.
The front-wheel-drive model appeared in September 1982 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 2.0 L FE engine was up to 83 hp (62 kW) for the North American market. In other regions including Finland, the 626 offered 101 hp (75 kW) 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 2.0 L RF 66 hp (49 kW) engine was made available; twenty examples were imported officially into Australia from 1983 to 1987. European markets also received a 1.6 L F6 80 hp (60 kW) engine.
A 626 GT (also called the Turbo) was introduced in 1986 using the 120 hp (89 kW) and 150 lb·ft (200 N·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 93 hp (69 kW). A new four-speed automatic was introduced for 1987, the last year of this series.
The GC continued in production in South Africa, where facelifted version was produced by Samcor, until 1993. The GD was not sold in South Africa, although it was assembled in neighbouring Zimbabwe.