If you look around there are some new vehicles on our shores that
could be considered hatchbacks, depending on how you look at things, and whether or not
the manufacturer sees it as one. Mazda, on an upswing these days with many new and
interesting products, has designed a "youth-oriented" vehicle that, they say,
has exceptional seating and cargo capacity and flexibility and a distinctive, sporty style
that reaches out to a diverse group of consumers. Can you say Hatchback?
Introduced as the Sport Wagon at the 2001 Los Angeles Auto Show, the Protegé5 is
Mazdas newest product to come from the Protegé platform, and is leading the
industry in the new "five-door" niche with great looks and decent performance
for an economically minded car.
Unlike the more pedestrian and useful station wagon of yore, the Protegé5 has a very
small cargo area concealed by a rigid privacy cover. Most of us recognize this layout as
the aforementioned "H" word. But, since doom and gloom come to carmakers that
use the "H" word, most have decided to change the image of these runabouts by
calling them something else, like a five-door "what-have-you". We have been very
impressed with the arrival of these vehicles because the five-door is useful and stylish
all at once, unlike a lot of the frumpy hatchbacks we had to buy in the 70s and 80s.
All of these new vehicles, including Chryslers PT Cruiser, the Suzuki Aerio, the
Pontiac Vibe and the Ford Focus ZX5, to name a few, are attractive and offer more cargo
hauling choices than their sedan counterparts. The flexibility of the rear hatch to
swallow large loads when the rear seats are folded is the best point of these vehicles.
While they cannot carry as much cargo as the traditional station wagon, they are a
compelling alternative to an SUV, stylish and utilitarian in one compact package. Another
point in favor of the sedan-based five-door is better fuel economy and much better
handling than any SUV could hope for.
On the flip side, directly comparing the Protegé5 with the best selling small SUV and
the newest five-door, cargo capacity is at a premium for the Mazda. With the rear seats
folded, a good measure of true cargo capacity, the Ford Escape has 64.8 cubic feet of
space to stow your stuff. The new-for-2003 Pontiac Vibe has 57.2 cubic feet available for
your mountain bikes or whatnot. Consequently, the Protégé5 has only 24.4 cubic feet to
At the least the "Zoom, Zoom" factor of the Mazda outweighs the apparent
cargo-carrying deficiency. When driving the Protegé5, you notice the crisp and quick
handling within a few minutes on the road. The slightest movement of the steering wheel
makes course changes instantly, while not being too twitchy. Cornering is above par on
most surfaces, and traffic lines are cut as quick as the Fed has cut interest rates this
We really liked the full gauge cluster and ergonomic layout of the controls. We also
liked the positive pedal feel and tight clutch. What was stellar was the shifter. It was
the nicest front-drive gear selector we've driven lately and felt almost as good as its
sibling's, the MX-5 Miata.
Interior accoutrements are on pace with other vehicles of the sub-$20,000 class. We
liked the cloth covering the seats; its texture and pattern suited the sportiness
and utility of the vehicle. Controls were well placed and easy to use. We definitely like
the separate stalk with windshield wiper controls.
And we were very impressed with the Protegé5s engine. Torque and horsepower in
this engine merge to form a formidable line that propels this vehicle to speed faster than
you might expect. With 130 horsepower and 135 lb.-ft. of torque, this little wagon gets
going pretty well. One passenger, though, commented that the ride felt rough and the car
jerked around quite a bit. While we really dont disagree, we at least can attribute
the jerkiness to a touchy clutch and taut suspension.
The styling of the Protegé5 is boy-racer cool, with ground effects all around and a
monochromatic color scheme that could make any adolescent drool. As part of the Protegé5
package, you get 16-inch alloy wheels, P195/50R16 all-season tires, large front fog
lights, an adjustable roof rack, rear roof-end spoiler, front and rear air dams and side
sills, and body-colored power mirrors, bumpers, side moldings and door handles.
Our Protegé5 tester topped out at $18,395 that included a base price of $16,335 plus a
small list of options and the obligatory destination charge ($480). The options on our
tester, of the few that are offered, were carpeted floor mats ($80), ABS with side airbags
($800) and a power sliding glass moonroof ($700), the last two had to be chosen together
to get either.
The Mazda Protégé5 is a veritable bargain in its price class: You get superior
handling coupled with enough power to make the most of the handling in an attractively
stylish automobile. Long live the hatchback!