Then things went a little bit wrong and up until recently the Mazda range (MX5 excluded) was the winner of the 'worthy but dull' car maker title.
But things are about to change with the launch of the new 6, the 626 replacement with the slant firmly on driver involvement.
It faces a tough task because it is taking on the big hitters in this sector - Ford Mondeo, Vauxhall Vectra, Renault Laguna et al.
According to Mazda's advertising blurb, the 6 brings 'the pleasure and exhilaration of a sports car to family motoring'.
So we've decided to put this claim to the test by running a long-term 1.8 TS saloon.
The car has been driven by several members of our editorial team since its arrival and feelings are mixed.
Initial thoughts from some have criticised the engine for being a little lacking in the oomph department while others have questioned the quality of some of the interior plastics. Personally, I think the car is a lot of fun - the engine is not the most powerful unit on the market in this sector but allied to some low gearing, it makes for nippy acceleration.
Mazda also seems to have engineered in some throttle vibration once the engine spins up to the red line to highlight its sporty nature (at least we think Mazda has done this deliberately because both models we have driven have had this feature).
Driving issues aside, the 6 is clothed in a far more appealing body than the previous generations of the 626. At the front the sloping front light clusters taper in to meet the aggressive-looking grille with large Mazda badge standing proud. At the back, Mazda has aped the Lexus tail light treatment by surrounding the lights in silver metallic plastic.
Unfortunately, our test car is finished in grey metallic paintwork which doesn't really do much to advertise its sporty pretensions, or indeed, advertise its sports car links.
And the grey theme is continued inside with a cabin that it finished entirely in grey, bar the silver plastic trim on the centre console.
It all makes the 6 seem not very exciting - and the trim pattern on the seats seems to be left over from the mid-1980s. It may be well finished but the colour and pattern is awful - if Mazda wants this car to appeal to drivers who want a sporty edge, why couldn't it have designed some more sporty looking seats?
All it needs is a bit of two-tone work such as darker coloured bolsters and it would lift the interior no end.
Still, minor whinges aside, the 6 is returning an average of 30.6mpg – pretty low for this sector and a legacy of the aforementioned low gearing.
It will be interesting to see how it performs against the other new upper-medium addition to our long term fleet – a Nissan Primera 1.8.