COAL: 2002 Mazda Protégé 5 – A Mildly Hot Hatch


Sole photo of my Protégé 5 in 2002

Stinging from the sudden demise of my Grand Prix as referenced two COAL’s ago, it was now time to focus on the next vehicle.  I was a bit perplexed in terms of which direction to go. Sure, I could do my predictable same-same and go right to a GM dealer like I always did.  Nothing there was really exciting me at all at that time with their product. GM was still in a of a product funk, pre-bankruptcy.

Our company was doing a lot of business with VW/Audi at the time and I was on the account. I liked my contacts there, was treated well, and I really wanted to reciprocate in some small way.  At this point in the early 2000’s, both brands were resurgent in the U.S., especially Audi.

2001 GTI- Unobtanium!

Reciprocation or not, there was absolutely no way we could afford to buy or lease an Audi like an A-4.  A base Golf or Jetta was certainly affordable for us and made sense, but I always (and still do) coveted a hot hatch. The Volkswagen Golf GTI was always one of my all-time favorite cars since it came out in 1983, and I decided to start there.  Doing some high-level pricing on-line, I quickly realized that this was just a wee bit out of my price range.  It was winter time in late January 2002, a generally slow time in the car business especially here in the snow belt.

One evening, I discovered that there were a couple of past model  year GTI’s (2001 Mk4’s) sitting on the lot at the local VW dealer, in white and silver.  They were heavily discounted, lower trim level automatics, which was good because Mrs. C was not driving a manual, no way, no how.  And I was pleasantly surprised and excited to see they were just inside the outer limits of what we could afford…. $19,500 plus tax.   I’d finally get a hot hatch!

The missus, however, did not want a 2 door, as it was more difficult to get our not quite 1-year old boy in and out in the car seat. Whoa, wait, we stuck Adam  in the back of the Grand Prix  all the time, and it really wasn’t a big deal, now was it? Really?  Long story short, I had to get her buy-in on a big-ticket purchase like this and I wasn’t going to get it, so I had to move on.  Perhaps a switch to the Ford Family? Maybe a Focus hatch or wagon?

Then across the street in the motor mall, I spied the new Mazda Protégé 5’s sitting in front of the joint Mazda-Subaru dealer. And a light bulb went on in my brain reminding me of the Ford-Mazda connection. Ford at that time had a controlling interest and long partnership with Mazda dating back the early 70’s.  They were sharing technology and platforms.  And it meant that I could get my sisters Ford discount on it. And…better yet, they were running a 5-year 0.00% APR finance special which made it very affordable for us. I drove a red one and was quickly taken in by the spunky personality of the car, which was like a happy puppy, and I was sold.  Not to mention, I have always loved the utility of a hatchback. You could fit a road bicycle in back, among other things. It came home the next day.

The 5 introduced me to what a well handling car was like, and how a car didn’t have to be expensive or fast to be fun. While I had plenty of econoboxes to that point, they were nothing at all like this. The little 2.0 liter, 130 HP inline twin-cam 4 had a pleasant and burbly exhaust note.  It was responsive and peppy rather than fast, but it certainly felt quick. It was “flingable” and was glued to the road and didn’t complain when you threw it into a corner faster than you normally would (or should).  It cut a handsome profile in “ticket me red”, and as this is a heavy domestic car area, there just weren’t too many of these on the road and it always was interesting to people.


Inside it had an attractive instrument panel with white gauges. The fabric seats were firm and supportive. It was put together well, if giving off feeling just a bit tinny. Then again, it was barely 2,700 pounds.  Downsides? The suspension was in my view a bit too harsh… you’d feel the face of a dime if you ran over it. It had a factory-installed car alarm, which didn’t work well. Though you could dial back the sensitivity with a little knob way under the dash…it was  super easy to set off.  It was also a rather loud car without much sound deadening insulation. That combined with  the rougher ride meant longer road trips weren’t this car’s strong suit. Fuel economy I thought would be better. I think it was limited by the four-speed automatic and lacked a tall high gear. 24-29 MPG combined was what you could expect. Not bad certainly, but for a small car sold in international markets I thought it would do much better. Those were niggles. All in all,  it was by far the most enjoyable car I’d had to that point.

My time with the Protégé was short and absolutely trouble free and lasted barely 18 months. At work, the planets lined up and I had a chance to get a company car when someone quit and the bosses  were stuck with it. I just had to put gas in it. I was on the winning end of this deal hands down.  While we really loved the little 5, getting the car note off the family balance sheet on the liability side was a huge bonus with a new baby (and new day care bills).

I had a ready buyer for the 5, a teacher sister of a friend who was tired of dumping oil in her mid-90’s Saturn every week at fill up time. I walked away with a few hundred bucks in my pocket after the car note was squared away. She named the car Ruuji, after a friend she’d met during her 2 years as an English teacher in Japan. Sadly, Ruuji was stolen a year or so later when she was visiting a boyfriend deep in the city in a dicey neighborhood, never to be seen again. I guess she must have turned off the car alarm.  If it met death in a nefarious inner-city chop shop, it was a fate it certainly didn’t deserve.

The Protégé 5 started my admiration for plucky Mazda, a mid-major player that always manages to put out holistically excellent and well executed product without the resources of the much bigger global players. I would revisit this brand many years later (as you will see).   The first (and last) company car I was getting was truly a blessing, but it would not have the personality or fun of my Protégé 5,  a car I still remember fondly, and very much miss.