2002 Mazda Protegé5

2002 Mazda Protegé5

A fun yet practical sport wagon
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Fun behind the wheel doesn't have to preclude practicality. Mazda is proving that premise with its new Protegé5, which is basically a five-door variant of the well-known Protegé four-door sedan (with trunk). A new body style for Mazda, Protegé5 combines the practical virtues of a wagon with the taut suspension and precise maneuverability of a small sport sedan. The new model went on sale as an early 2002.

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Five-doors haven't been popular in the U.S. lately, though they've remained high on shopping lists in both Europe and Japan. Mazda first called the new model a "sporty wagon," but then switched to Protegé5. There's "probably some negative baggage" with the wagon name, said executive vice president Steve Odell. The Protegé5 is actually a follow-up to the MP3 sedan, which was introduced in mid-2001 with a 140-horsepower four-cylinder engine, various performance-oriented components, and an alluring MP3 audio system.

Although the Protegé5 has the regular Protegé's 130-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, it displays the MP3's front-end appearance, including immense, round foglamps. Alloy wheels hold P195/50R16 tires, and the Protegé5's chassis is specially tuned to yield more responsive handling than a regular Protegé-which isn't bad either. Sinuously shapely in physique, the five-passenger, five-door hatchback comes in a choice of youth-oriented colors.

Dimensions and powertrain details are similar to the regular Protegé sedan. A five-speed manual transmission is standard, with a four-speed automatic optional. On the safety front, side-impact airbags antilock brakes are optional.

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Especially when painted in such exuberant shades as Vivid Yellow, the Protegé5 is an extra-friendly "fun" car, taking full advantage of Mazda's propensity toward sporty behavior. Handling is its principal benefit, promising well-controlled road reactions-a Mazda hallmark. Enthusiastic drivers can expect spirited response, sporty steering "feel," easy maneuverability, and sure-footed movement through curves. Quick steering, which requires a little effort, also enhances its sporty nature.

Better yet, there's little penalty in ride comfort. An unabashedly taut suspension means that passengers might feel more bumps, and the car rolls a little more than might be expected, but it's smooth indeed on relatively unblemished roads. The ride is nicely controlled over bumps, which it absorbs at least to a reasonable extent, producing no really harsh reactions even when the going gets rougher. Road noise is minimal, beyond a touch of tire whoosh.

Solid and cohesive overall, the Protegé5 produces a sensation of confidence in the driver, approaching that which is experienced in full-bore sports cars. More than might be expected, in fact, the Protegé5 really behaves like a roadster-agile, maneuverable and fun to drive-but with a utility body up top instead of snug two-passenger accommodations.

Even though the Protegé5 promises virtual sports-car moves and a joyful personality coupled with generally zesty performance that tends to produce smiles, unabashed go-power is not its strong point. Manual-shift acceleration can easily be declared eager, or even frisky, but the driver shouldn't expect any startling responses when pushing down on the gas pedal. Long upgrades demand quite a bit of downshifting to keep the engine revving sufficiently high. On the plus side, the five-speed gearbox flicks through the gears easily and the clutch behaves adeptly, though a little effort is needed to produce truly easygoing startups from a standstill.

Quiet-running at all speeds, though emitting a bit of vibration when accelerating, the Protegé5 also promises frugal fuel economy. The EPA estimates gas mileage at 25 mpg city and 31 mpg highway for manual shift, or 25/30 with the automatic. About 60 percent are expected to have an automatic transmission (a little less than on other Protegés).

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Getting into the front or rear is no problem, but seat comfort is one of few potential drawbacks. Definitely on the firm side, the upholstery offers less cushioning than some occupants might prefer, though back support is satisfying. The back seat is even harder-cushioned, but no less spacious, offering a surprising level of legroom for a small car.

White-faced instruments add to the sportiness of the Protegé5 and are fully calibrated as well as easy to read, day or night. A CD player is standard, with an in-dash six-CD changer optional. Wide B-pillars do impair over-the-shoulder visibility a bit, but mirrors are good. Cargo capacity is 24.4 cubic feet with the back seat folded down (measured from the top of the seatback down to the floor), giving the Protegé5 a decent-sized storage bay, with an excellent and helpful cargo cover. A big glovebox also is handy.

For $16,815 (including destination charge), Mazda has come up with a sensibly practical yet merry little vehicle. (www.mazdausa.com)

2002 Mazda Protege5 Rear
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