Car Review: 2003 Mazda Protege5


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SEE ALSO: Mazda Buyer's Guide

DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD WITH CAREY RUSS

    Your emotions yearn for a sports car. Reality says you need 
space for four and/or lots of stuff, more space than is even found in 
a small, sporty sedan. A small crossover or SUV isn't in the picture 
- your enthusiasm is for driving. Oh yes, and you are on a budget - 
it would be nice to have change from $20,000. Tough order?

    Not really. The Mazda Protege5 would appear to have your 
name on it. It's a sporty-looking four-door hatchback with sports 
car attitude that is more than skin deep. When it made its debut a 
couple of years ago, it had no real competition. Now, hatchbacks 
and small wagons seem to be undergoing a renaissance, with a few 
more entries in the field. But in the low-priced five-door (that's four 
doors and the hatch, or tailgate) sport category, the Protege5 still 
stands alone.

    Life is full of compromises, but the Protege5 doesn't 
compromise. Its mix of sporty looks and handling, five-door 
versatility, energetic performance, and good fuel economy is hard 
to beat. Mazda has added a new option to increase its popularity 
this year, the ``Sport AT'' (tm) automatic transmission. While 
manual-mode automatics are commonplace in upscale sports and 
luxury cars, they are rare in the Protege5's price class. The Sport 
AT adds manual-shift mode to the available four-speed automatic 
to improve the driving experience for customers who need an 
automatic, but want easy control of it at times. The automatic can 
still be had without manual mode, and a five-speed manual gearbox 
is standard fare.

    I've been driving a Protege5 with the five-speed for the past 
week, and I'll miss it when it goes away. It appeals to both my 
logical side and my sense of fun, with a great combination of 
usefulness and pleasure. 

APPEARANCE: In proportions, the Protege5 is between 
hatchback and wagon, with a passenger cabin that is longer than 
typical for a hatchback.  Relatively short, with short overhangs, it's 
a two-box variation on the current Protege theme, but where the 
typical small crossover vehicle points toward SUVness with high-
profile tires and roof racks, the Protege5 looks the other direction. 
Its flat-faced ``air dam'' front bumper fascia incorporates an 
auxiliary air intake flanked by large foglamps, the rear fascia has 
``venturi-look'' styling, side sills tie the ends together stylistically, 
and the small spoiler over the backlight is the finishing touch to its 
contemporary sports look. Low-profile speed-rated tires are 
mounted on alloy rims.

COMFORT: Inside, the Protege5 is equipped above its relatively 
inexpensive station. It has all of the contemporary sports styling 
cues, with silvery trim around the window lifts and console, and 
faux carbon fiber flanking the center stack to add interest to the 
interior. Standard upholstery is grippy cloth, and leather is 
available. The front sport buckets are supportive, well-bolstered, 
and much better than expected for the car's price class. The driver 
gets cushion height and tilt adjustment, classic-looking black-on-
silver instruments, and a leather-covered steering wheel rim. A 
large locking glovebox, CD-sized console box, and door pockets in 
all doors provide useful storage. There is greater head and leg room 
than expected in the 60/40 split rear seat. Two adults shorter than 
six feet, or three children, fit easily, with ample covered storage 
behind, and the possibility of more with the rear seat folded. No 
compromises are necessary with the Protege5.

SAFETY: The Protege5 uses Mazda's ``Triple-H'' design for a 
sturdy safety structure around the passengers, with front and rear 
crumple zones. Side airbags and antilock brakes are available.

ROADABILITY: Mazda likes to say that there's a little Miata in all 
of its products. No ad hype here - the Protege5 is as close as you'll 
get to a Miata wagon. Chassis rigidity, already good, is enhanced 
by a standard front strut tower brace, and the fully-independent 
strut-type suspension is tuned for sporty fun. It's firm enough for 
good handling, with enough compliance for comfort. Standard 
four-wheel disc brakes ensure good stopping ability. The Protege5 
can turn even a routine trip to the grocery store into fun.

PERFORMANCE: Reading the specs, the Protege5's 2.0-liter 16-
valve twincam engine doesn't sound all that powerful, with 130 
horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 135 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm. 
Don't necessarily believe raw data. Relatively light weight and, with 
the standard five-speed manual transmission, a light flywheel and an 
acceleration-friendly final drive ratio work to make the best use of 
the engine's power. It has good low-rpm torque, a healthy 
midrange, and an entertaining rush of top-end horsepower, all 
accompanied by a classic small-displacement sports car snarl. And 
that's the best description of the Protege5 - a small-displacement 
sports car with large-capacity room. Because of the engine's 
flexibility, it should work fine with the automatic, especially with 
Sport AT.

CONCLUSIONS: What do you get when you cross a five-door 
hatchback with a sports car? A Mazda Protege5.

SPECIFICATIONS
2003 Mazda Protege5

Base Price		$ 16,635
Price As Tested		$ 18,835
Engine Type		dual overhead cam 16-valve inline 4-cylinder
Engine Size		2.0 liters / 121 cu. in.
Horsepower		130 @ 6000 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)		135 @ 4000 rpm
Transmission		5-speed manual
Wheelbase / Length	102.8 in. / 170.5 in.
Curb Weight		2716 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower	20.9
Fuel Capacity		14.5 gal.
Fuel Requirement	87 octane unleaded regular gasoline
Tires			P195/50 VR16 Dunlop SP Sport 5000m
Brakes, front/rear	vented disc / solid disc
Suspension, front/rear	independent MacPherson strut / 
                         independent twin-trapezoidal link strut
Drivetrain		front engine, front-wheel drive

PERFORMANCE
EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		25 / 31 / 27
0 to 60 mph				est 8.5 sec

OPTIONS AND CHARGES
16-inch polished alloy wheels			$ 500
Moonroof and 6CD changer package		$ 690
Antilock brakes and side airbag package	        $ 490
Destination charge				$ 520
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