Mazda Sports Wagon Still Fun, Roomy and Zoomy
by Jim Bray
Mazda's Protegé 5 is a definite success story.
After having driven a bumblebee-colored sample when the car was brand new
on the market, I was very impressed and figured the car would sell boatloads.
And it has; it's hard to drive very far near where we live without seeing multiple
examples of the little wagons zoom zooming around. And deservedly
so; Protegé 5 is a nice car.
For those who may not have yet experienced such sightings, the Mazda Protegé
5 is the attractive five door hatchback/station wagon that appears to have
spawned (or at least beaten to market) a host of imitators including the
Toyota Matrix/Pontiac Vibe and Suzuki Aerio. It's probably the most subtle
and attractive of them all, styling-wise, and that isn't a bad thing though
beauty, of course, is in the eye of the beholder.
The bright "vivid yellow" 2002 model I first drove
came complete with black racing stripes running its length and generated more
stares per mile than any vehicle I'd driven back then. Whether it's because
my 2003 model tester wore a nice shade of darker blue - or just that they're
now so ubiquitous - this tester cut through traffic with nary a by your
leave. I like it better that way, especially since the more conservative
paint job is also less likely to bring the Protegé 5 to the attention
of traffic cops.
Anyway, the Protegé 5 is nifty little vehicle that, while not the most
powerful rocket on the road, is nothing if not competitive with the abovementioned
cars. The little wagon works as well in a family situation as it does for the
youth culture at which it's rumored to be aimed, its four conventional doors
offering good access to a large and comfortable interior that includes a back
seat which is plenty spacious for two and, though I didn't have a chance to
try, would probably hold three without them resorting to fisticuffs). The big
hatch/tailgate opens up a positively cavernous space; fold down the 60/40 split
rear seat, and you have enough room for camping gear, bicycles, dead bodies,
or what have you.
Though our time in this tester was abbreviated, we managed to use it to haul
a fairly large projection screen (from a home theater test we were conducting)
and it swallowed the thing up without even forcing us to move the front passenger
The Protegé 5 comes with either a standard 5 speed
manual or optional 4 speed automatic transmission with manual shift mode.
This time around I had the automatic and while that initially filled me with
dread I quickly discovered that it wasn't the end of the world. In fact, while
an automatic obviously doesn't have the alacrity of a manual, or its fun quotient,
the manual shifting mode was actually pretty good and let you keep the engine
revs at usable levels. Oh, it tended to shift from first to second in its own
sweet time rather than mine, but the rest of the shifts were fairly quick and
The attractive and sporty front wheel drive Protegé 5 features stuff
like fog lights, a front air dam, rear spoiler over the hatch and a set of
attractive 16" alloy wheels. My sample also had a power moonroof, and
a pretty good AM/FM/single disc CD stereo. Other standard features include
side air bags, four wheel disc brakes, remote keyless entry, a nice steering
wheel that facilitates 9 and 3 o'clock hand positioning, well located pedals
and left foot rest, and most of the creature comforts one expects these days
- including cruise control with steering wheel-mounted buttons.
The Protegé 5 cranks out 130 horses @ 6000 rpm and torque is rated
at 135 pound feet @ 4000 rpm which, as mentioned is in the same territory as
the Matrix/Vibe combo with which it competes. That doesn't put it into sports
car territory, however; it's a tad sluggish right off the bat, especially with
the automatic, but once you get the revs up it'll put a nice smile onto your
In fact, the Protegé 5 is a lot of fun to drive, feeling much more
sporty than you might think. This is very welcome if you appreciate a car as
more than just transportation.
Steering is variable assisted power rack and pinion, the front suspension
is independent, MacPherson strut, with coil springs and stabilizer bar and
in back its independent, strut with twin trapezoidal link, coil springs
and stabilizer bar. Add these features to the comparatively large wheels and
low profile tires and it isn't hard to see why the car is so enjoyable to toss
around. It's nice to see Mazda having included four wheel disc brakes, too
(with antilock as an option), and they bring the car to a straight and steady
stop with good pedal feel.
Since my time was short, I didn't have a chance to take the Protegé
5 through my favorite twisty bits of mountain road, but my memories of taking
the 2002 model on such a trip were quite fond.
The car's interior is clean and straightforward, with everything
you need placed nicely at hand or within an easy sweep of the driver's arm.
The instruments are black on white that change to black on red at night and
they're well laid out and easy to read, with a classy bit of chrome trim around
them. The stereo controls are straightforward, though the audio quality wasn't
as good as I'd liked to have seen; to be fair, though, it's better than many
original equipment car stereos I've heard. The optional 6 disc changer might
offer a little more oomph, though I haven't heard it.
The driver's seat is manually controlled, and has enough adjustments to make
it easy to find a comfortable driving position. I would have liked a little
more side bolstering for spirited driving, but that's pretty nitpicky. Interior
noise is quite subdued unless you leave the moonroof open at highway speeds.
Abnormal noise from my tester came in the form of an annoying rattle
from the hatch, probably because the rear license plate was loose on my well-used
tester. My earlier review unit didn't have the same problem, and it would be
easily fixed under warranty anyway.
One other quibble. The knob for the HVAC systems vent control, which
is furthest away from the driver, tends to block its own labeling, making it
hard to see which settings are on the right. This, of course, is something
you'd get used to quickly and it isn't hard to figure it out by a process of
elimination, though you don't want to do this at speed!
But if that was all I could find to whine about the Protegé 5 must
be a pretty well designed and built car.
Protegé 5 starts at just over $17 grand US, and the price of my tester
(which, though not fully loaded, was certainly not Spartan either) is around
$19,000 US/ $23,000 Canadian, including the block heater.
As of this writing I've driven both the automatic and manual versions of the
Pontiac Vibe and Protegé 5 and, while I think the Pontiac comes off
as the more utilitarian of the two, I'd have to give nod to the
Mazda just because its such a lot of fun to drive.
I guess that's what zoom zoom is all about.