An unusual five-door coquette on wheels.
by Marc K. Stengel
What's the point of driving to and fro if you're not going to have fun? This is the very question proposed by the sparky Mazda Protegé5 that rolled my way last week. I simply don't understand what could have inspired the pug-nosed, pert-bottomed, goggle-eyed sport wagon other than pure functional enjoyment.
This is an unusual car in many respects. It looks funny, but in a sense that is definitely "funny-cute." It looks tiny, but it's a legitimate five-seater with twice the stowage area of a typical compact sedan's trunk. Its layout is the basic econo-commuter-car cliché: front-wheel-drive, modest power, mushy shifter.
So how come, once the offbeat shift/clutch timing becomes ingrained into one's driving pattern, thoughts turn only to tossing this car through every neighborhood corner, accelerating from every stop amidst a fanfare of chirping tires?
The Protegé5, after all, is the boxy, buxom sister of Mazda's Protegé ES. Both sedan and sport wagon exploit Mazda's revvy, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. It's rated at 130 horsepower and 135 lb-ft of torque, but its sprightliness owes to twin-overhead cams that spool this motor up into its powerband in the blink of an eye. There is no traction control available with the P5 beyond the judgment and continence of the driver. So for the most part, a P5's neighbors will simply have to accustom themselves to the "zoom-chirp" signature that heralds every coming and going.
Laudable as well, if not particularly magical, is the P5's combination of four-wheel independent suspension (front and rear struts) with disc brakes all around. Struts aren't especially exotic, but Mazda's engineers have dialed them in to give the Protegé5 a relatively low ride height, which necessitates relatively stiffer damper settings, resulting in relatively flatter cornering feel. The P5, in other words, begs to be tossed around like a chef salad.
That's when you discover its competitiveness: Its front wheels claw, its precise rack-and-pinion steering (with variable power assist) twitches with delight, and the shifter finds the next gear without ever relinquishing the powerband. At the next corner, strong, confident braking starts the cycle anew. Anti-lock braking, alas, is optional but highly recommended, not least because the $800 surcharge includes side airbags for front occupants.
Riddle me this
Making sense of the P5's interior is a more challenging riddle. Standard appointments are econo-cloth and vinyl leatherette — no shame there. Instrumentation and controls, moreover, are logical to read and use, for the driver particularly. Kids and adults liked the rear seat fine during my stint with the car, although, predictably, the kids tolerated longer trips better. And I found the driving position very easy to tailor to my sporting preferences of short leg reach, extended arms.
It's from the perspective of the back hatch that Protegé5 changes the rules a bit. This fifth door opens, nominally, onto almost 20 cubic feet of cargo space; but a hinged lid more or less cuts this space in half by creating a short rear deck behind the top of the rear seat back. The lid provides security from prying eyes, of course; and it is removable for accommodating taller carry-ons. But it isn't itself stowable in the car in any convenient way, so it pays to predict when you'll chance upon that irresistible credenza at the flea market.
It's quite likely that the credenza will fit, however, since the rear seats fold in a 60/40 split to make way for 24.4 cubic feet of expanded stowage. Personally, I'm undecided about the efficacy of a feature that gives one an option either to fold the rear seat backs by themselves or, instead, to flip forward the rear seat bottoms and then the seat backs. In the latter instance, a flatter loading surface is achieved; and it's conceivable that some occasions might favor folding seat bottoms while leaving the backs upright as a buffer between fore and aft cargo. But the rear headrests have to be removed if both the bottoms and the backs are folded; and, once again, there's nowhere to put 'em.
Complaints are already circulating about this sport wagon's meager credentials as a true wagon. For my own expansive test, I stuffed the P5 with three large recycling bins (3 cubic feet each) for aluminum and plastic, seven smaller ones (1.5 cubic feet each) for paper and glass, and two 50-lb dog food sacks (2 cubic feet each) filled with cardboard. The calculator tells me I had about a cubic foot to spare, but I could still see out the back window, and the "zoom-zoom" decal on the rear window still appeared in my rear view mirror. I must have looked like a high-tech ragman, with recyclables tucked into every nook. But driving this engorged P5 was no less enjoyable for that, and in fact I marveled how such a sporty little war wagon could enliven one of suburbia's more unenviable chores.
Which, after all, is precisely the thing that recommends the Protegé5 so highly, to my mind. It's not work if it's play, and Mazda's kicky sport wagon has this endearing knack for playing the flirt while you're trying to get some work done.
2002 Mazda Protegé5
Base price: $16,335; as tested, $18,395
Engine: 2.0-liter in-line four, 130 hp
Transmission: five-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 170.5 in x 67.1 in x 57.8 in
Wheelbase: 102.8 in
Curb weight: 2716 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 25/30 mpg
Safety equipment: Front airbags
Major standard equipment: HVAC, power windows/locks/mirrors, AM/FM/CD, roof rack, fog lamps
Warranty: Three years/50,000 miles
Copyright © 2001 by the Car Connection