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Mazda Protege 5

Zoomy Little Mazda Rocks

2002 Sports Sedan a Fun Ride

by Jim Bray

Mazda's new road rocket is hardly a subtle vehicle.

The brand new 2002 Protegé 5 is a cute five door hatchback/station wagon that appears to be aimed at the youth market.

How do I know? Well, the bright "vivid yellow" model I drove, which came complete with black racing stripes running its length (giving the overall impression of a giant bumblebee), pulled in more stares per mile than any vehicle I've driven recently, and most of the admiring gazes came from teen and twentysomething females.

So if you want to be a real babe magnet, this may be your car, but I felt like a mid-life crisis guy trying to look cool. It was quite embarrassing…

The bright yellow would also be a magnet for traffic cops, especially if you drive the Protegé 5 with any kind of elan.

To be fair, however, when "zoom zoom zooming" around in my tester I saw a couple of other Protegé 5's which had far more sedate coloring, and they were pretty unobtrusive - which is the way I'd prefer it if I were to own one of these little cars.

All this attention is well deserved, because the Protegé 5 is nifty little vehicle that, while just a tad underpowered, works as well in a family situation as it does for the youth culture. Its four conventional doors offer good access to a large and comfortable interior, while the big hatch/tailgate opens up a positively cavernous space that, were you to fold down the 60/40 split rear seat, would give you enough room for camping gear, bicycles, bodies, or what have you.

Available with a standard 5 speed manual or 4 speed automatic transmission, the front drive Protegé 5's sporty styling includes fog lights, a front air dam, rear spoiler and a set of attractive 16" alloy wheels. My sample unit also had a power moonroof, a reasonable AM/FM/CD stereo, side air bags, carpeted floor mats, a really nice steering wheel, well positioned pedals and left foot rest, and most of the creature comforts one expects these days - including cruise control with steering wheel-mounted controls.

Protegé 5 starts at just over $16 grand, but the price of my well-equipped tester came in at just under $19,000; a few more options (for instance a 6 disc in-dash CD changer) can kick that up a few hundred dollars more.

The Protegé 5 likes to call itself a sports sedan, with the "zoom zoom zoom" commercials adding to that image, and for the most part it's pretty accurate. On the other hand, while the engine cranks out 130 horsepower, it's a mite slow to come on right off the bat. But once you reach the proper rpm range the Protegé 5 will put a nice smile onto your face as long as you remember it isn't a drag racer.

A nice touch is Mazda's inclusion of four wheel disc brakes, with antilock, and they bring the car to straight and steady stops with no fuss. The rack and pinion steering with variable power assist, coupled with the big wheels and low profile tires (and front and rear stabilizer bars) combine to offer a really nicely handing car that, power caveats notwithstanding, is a relative blast to drive.

I particularly enjoyed taking the Protegé 5 through some twisty bits of mountain road and, as long as I kept the revs up, it also handled the steeper parts of mountain passes with confidence.

The interior is clean and uncluttered, yet everything you need is well at hand. The dashboard display features black on white instruments (that become black on red at night) and they're well laid out and easy to read at a glance. The stereo controls are straightforward, though the audio quality of the "multi-function stereo" (you can add cassette or minidisc - and there's even a Protegé MP3) wasn't as robust as I'd hoped.

The big things are all done well, though. The driver's seat offers all kinds of manual adjustments, the driving position is great and the sport seats are comfortable and supportive (kind of like my wife). The gearshift throws are long, but smooth and quick - and the clutch is very light. Wind noise is unobtrusive, unless you leave the moonroof open at highway speeds.

In all, it's pleasant and easy to drive - and it's fun, too.

Manufacturer's information

Jim Bray's technology columns are distributed by the TechnoFILE Syndicate. Copyright Jim Bray.


Jim Bray is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada. His columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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