COAL: 2002 Mazda Protégé – Mazda’s The Answer…What Was The Question?

By 2001 our 1992 Ford Aerostar was heading towards its long home; I was topping up the transmission fluid on a bi-weekly basis, the air conditioning was kaput, the power steering pump was leaking again and I forget what all else.  At least the stereo still worked, which helped mask any new noises coming from underneath the Ford’s abbreviated hood.  All those ills could have been addressed, but only at great expense and with the understanding that a new list would soon be forthcoming.  As the old saying goes, it was time to either fish or cut bait.

To be sure, the Aerostar was a boat, but no longer a useful one, so it was time for another game of car dealership roulette in lieu of either time-honored Pacific Northwest pastime of fishing and/or bait-cutting.  The other car residing in the family stable was the Millennial (2000) Honda described here last week. A stable mate was needed to keep it warm at night . . . the question was, which were the most suitable candidates in the early years of the new millennium?

Our needs had changed over the past few years as more children left the nest.  Seven seats were no longer required or desired, nor was a vehicle that cast a shadow much longer and wider than Punxsutawney Phil’s.  Truth be told, I’d never grown fond or accustomed to wrestling the avoirdupois of a so-called minivan, no matter how practical it attributes.  Our Civic proved once again the positive characteristics of what passed in the USA as a small car.  However, its utility was somewhat in question given its two doors and problematic rear seat access.  It’s one thing to ask a couple of teens to contort themselves in order to get from point A to point B, but forcing an adult or two back there may have offended Emily Post.

A sedan seemed to be in order given the fact that the SUV craze had not yet reached the point where you would be stopped at the gates of suburbia if you neglected to drive one.  I had no particular need or desire at that point for an AWD anything, even a Subaru, this despite the fact that the Outback had recently de-throned Volvo as the Official Transportation Device of Tapioca Beach.  As my leisure time expanded, AWD began to seem attractive and then practically a necessity as the snowy heights of the Cascades and Olympic Mountains beckoned, but in 2002 we had other priorities in mind, such as . . . handling?  Fuel economy?  Styling?

As I’d been in the market only recently, I’d driven several of the available candidates in the compact car class.  Some had already been stricken from the list.  What was needed was an objective look at the updated field with pertinent stats together with subjective knee-jerk comments from the auto scribe peanut gallery.  As was so often the case, Car and Driver ably met those demands:

Ten cars!  Now that was a test that should easily whittle down the field.  A quick perusal seemed to reinforce some of my impressions, although several of the group were mostly unknown to me and would remain so, for better or worse. Examining them in the order they were ranked:  Kia Spectra?  Those were on sale at the Chevy dealership whose door I refused to darken. Despite the fact that I’d owned a witness protection plan Suzuki (a Swift relabeled as a Geo Metro), the Aerio remained an unknown quantity, chiefly because no dealer seemed to exist within a twenty mile radius. plus its looks remained a little . . . off.  The generation succeeding our old Nissan Sentra followed up in eighth and was compared to, well, a Buick.  C and D may as well have painted a red ‘A’ on its forehead, or rather a ‘G’, as it was deemed to be a car for Granny.  So, in a single bound the Sentra had lost its edge.  It bore little relation to what had come before, and certainly wasn’t up to standards of our ’97.  The remaining question was:  why abandon the enthusiast market you’d nurtured for decades to go chasing Buick?

The Dodge Neon?  Deemed as cheap, both in price and materials, but at least it had torque, even though the motor sounded like a leaf blower.  A hard pass, then.  Next up was the Mitsubishi Lancer, which was all decked out in boy-racer garb, but failed to deliver the real goods.  The Evo that came along a few years later would light the world on fire, but this was not the Evo.

Trailing along in fifth place was . . . the Honda Civic.  Following in Nissan’s footsteps, if less blatant in its cost cutting binge, the Civic delivered good gas mileage but relatively little else, although ergonomics and interior materials are praised.  Quality?  Nope.  Rattles, poor paint, and panel gaps were panned, which came as no surprise to me as the panel gaps on our previous generation coupe were so shocking I wondered if there were translation problems at the Ohio plant where they the Civics were screwed together.  Honda had abandoned the double wishbone suspension from the fifth generation to the chagrin of armchair enthusiasts everywhere.  So, the question was, why reward Honda with my hard-earned cash when their current Civic wasn’t as good as the last one?

The Ford Focus was a non-starter given the Aerostar experience was still ringing in our ears and traumatizing our credit card.  The Euro Focus may have had some good qualities, but the driver’s seat was sufficiently  painful that sticking around long enough to appreciate them may have been an issue.

The Toyota Corolla?  I mean it was in third place, after all, but still seemed to be damned with faint praise.  Interior materials are applauded, which confirms my dim recollections from two decades ago.  Competency is the watchword.  Passion?  What’s that?  Still, it finished two spots above the Civic, something that would have been unthinkable only a handful of years before.

Hyundai takes the runner up spot, which seems shocking in detail.  I never drove that particular iteration of the Elantra, but I would have predicted it to finish mid-pack, at best.  We tend to think of desirable Hyundais as a relative recent phenomenon, but it seems progress had been noted even twenty-odd years ago, particularly surprising when its Kia sibling was more or less slammed.

We don’t need no stinking Civic.

And so we arrive at the trophy winner:  the Mazda Protégé.  Mazda hadn’t been on my radar for whatever reason, aside from the RX-7 and the Miata.  Rotary-engined Mazdas were a delight (I’ll always remember the bell that rang when you reached the redline) but I’d never driven the more conventional sedans, although the mid-80’s 626 had caught my eye.  Car and Driver’s assessment of the current compact Mazda made an impression, though, and when I saw the new Protégé in the flesh, I was immediately smitten.  A front end update had turned a rather anonymous  car into something of a looker.  At the same time the rear end was positively Audi-esque, and the interior was frankly leaps and bounds ahead of our Civic’s simulated elephant hide and cardboard furnishings.  Driving the car only confirmed C and D’s verdict . . . it was a joy on the road.  The motor sang a sweet song as it delivered its 130 horsepower without the gearbox stirring required in our Civic.  Add to the little red car’s overall demeanor the fact that the dealer experience was easily the most straightforward and stress-free of my decades-long experience.  The Mazda dealership in Seattle was in truth the oldest in the United States, the flagship, and, lord be praised, completely non-predatory.  I established a relationship with them that would last until they sold out to a competitor, sad to say, earlier this year.

Purposeful styling. No gee-gaws allowed. Spoiler is whack, though.

Who put the trash out?

Our Mazda LX as delivered was the color of the car in the above photos, not quite the Soul Red that graces various current models, but still borderline stunning.  At the same time Mazda USA was featuring a special edition that came loaded with alloy wheels, sunroof, power most things, together with cruise control, all at a bargain basement price.  Standard equipment included a DOHC 2.0 liter four–400 cc’s up on our Civic–a five-speed manual and an AM/FM stereo with CD player.

Not a rotary 🙁

Rear seat space not so bad.

Pull-up handbrake nostalgia.

Twenty years on, the little Mazda is still one of the favorite cars I’ve owned:  clean in styling, spirited in acceleration and handling, comfortable for driver and passengers alike with the caveat that riders in the rear should be on friendly terms.  But most of all, Mazda had a strange kind of underdog appeal that stirred and fostered loyalty.

You may wonder about applying the notion of loyalty to what is after all an industrial concern mass-producing consumer products.  ‘Loyalty’, in fact, is an outmoded word that may soon drop from common usage given that those institutions commonly demanding or fostering fealty no longer seem interested in reciprocation.  Nations, institutions, employers . . . the list goes on, and the contemporary attitude rampant in our day could be summed up as:  take it or leave it.

Mazda, though, comes with a story, and we humans cling to stories even as most other customs and conventions fall away.  Most automobile companies have some kind of mythic founding story and are often named after an inveterate tinkerer or some early guiding light, from Ford to Ferrari, Oldsmobile to Duesenberg, Renault to Bugatti.  Mazda, however, is the only car company named after a god, in this case the Zoroastrian god of light.  And after all, who goes around naming their company after deity?  Well, Jujiro Matsuda did.

The Man and the first Mazda

As Mazda’s founder, Matsuda came from the same kind of humble background as Soichuro Honda, with a similar rags-to-richs story.  He started work as a blacksmith’s apprentice but soon went on the grander ventures, including his own manufacturing firm, building rifles for the Tsar of Russia and the Japanese Imperial Army.  Then in 1921 he was asked to right the sinking ship of the Toyo Kogyo company located in Hiroshima, which made   . . . artificial cork.  Matsuda demonstrated little interest in cork and soon went back to what he knew, which was making machines.  Toyo Kogyo was re-named Mazda, and soon began the manufacture of motorized tricycles.

The most poignant story of Matsuda’s life, however, began on the morning of August 6, 1945, his 70th birthday.  Apparently it is customary in Japan to get a haircut on one’s birthday, so bright and early on that August day, Matsuda managed to win a footrace to the door of the barbershop, beating out a likely much younger competitor.  This victory would have lasting implications, not only for the honorable Jujiro Matsuda, but Japanese industry, as well.  His haircut was finished at 8:00 a.m. sharp, at which point he left in his chauffeured car for the Mazda plant.  At 8:15, the Enola Gay dropped the first atomic bomb 50 yards from the barbershop chair Matsuda had recently vacated.  By that time he and his driver had reached a point far enough away from Ground Zero to survive, although their car was flipped over and both were ejected.  Bloody but unbowed, Matsuda managed to reach Mazda headquarters, which remained standing, one of the few major structures in Hiroshima that wasn’t completely destroyed.  The future Mazda CEO converted his plant into a makeshift hospital to treat the survivors of the blast, and then into a temporary city hall.

Whether Jujiro Matsuda’s philanthropy arose from a desire to atone from the manufacture of weapons is difficult to say, but naming his rescued company after Ahura Mazda, the god of harmony, peace, intelligence, and wisdom likely shows a desire to put that past behind him.  Matsuda would only live until 1952, but his son, Tsuneji took over the company and steered it all the way until 1979, when Ford took a large stake in Mazda.  Whether or not peace and harmony followed is open to debate, but the company did survive.

With that background and its hometown of Hiroshima, you might expect Mazda to have a few quirks, and it would have quirks aplenty in its lifetime, the chief one being its single-handed promotion of the Wankel engine.  Long after NSU, Mercedes, Citroën, and GM gave up on the rotary, Mazda kept the flame lit, all the way up to the current day, when as rumor has it, the company will install its latest iteration in a hybrid car, its sole purpose being to top up the batteries when needed, which seems an ideal application for the compact motor.  Running at a steady speed for short periods will minimize its fuel consumption and maximize the life of the rotary seals, which were always the rotary’s Achilles heel.

787B: All knees shall bow.

Mazda’s willingness to stick its neck out in favor of the rotary is the stuff of automotive legend, but the bottom line is ultimately what matters in any business.  As a relatively small company, Mazda couldn’t afford to squander too many resources on the rotary, and realized early on that the inherent issues of the little beer keg of a motor weren’t going to be engineered away easily.  They resorted to conventional engines for most of their line-up, even as they refused to give up on the rotary dream, the culmination of which was the 787B, a little car that defied the odds and major automotive powers to win at LeMans.  Mazda entered three cars in the 1991 24 hour classic.  Number 55 started 19th and essentially ran the 24 hours flat-out after testing showed the four rotor, 2.6 liter rotary was as reliable as an old nail while delivering better fuel mileage than the larger C1 cars.  Against the might of Mercedes, Jaguar, Peugeot, and Porsche, the 787B ran like a freight train through rain and shine, taking advantage of its fuel economy (ironic, given the rotary’s reputation as a gas guzzler) and fewer pit stops than the 3.5 liter Group C1 cars.  In fact, the team gambled by keeping Johnny Herbert out rather than bringing the car in for a final top-up.  Herbert had been ill for most of the race, unable to eat anything but ramen and suffering dehydration during his long stints in the cockpit.  At the end of the race he was unable to celebrate as he was unconscious in the track medical center.

RX-7’s. Nostalgia, deux.

So . . . the stuff of legends, the kind of stories that bely its position as the maker of mainstream vehicles aimed at the mass market.  Along with the bespoke racing machines, the RX-7 and  RX-8 would burnish Mazda’s reputation, as would the Miata, although those cars struggled to be produced in meaningful numbers.  In the end, Mazda would have to funnel its creative energies into creating memorable cars in the dead center of the market, something all manufactures struggle to do.  An alliance with Ford from 1979 until 2008 would aid in engineering development, but in the long run the tie-in probably helped Ford more than Mazda as the American company was able to capitalize on Mazda’s small car prowess to improve its own forays into the lower tiers of the market.  Mazda still had to forge its own path while competing with its much larger Japanese competitors, namely Toyota, Nissan, and Honda.

Zoom, zoom would come along a little later.  By then the Ford partnership was toast and Mazda was left largely on its own in a world where vast investment funds seemed to be in order if your company was going to survive and remain competitive.  Yet, Mazda still carves its own path.

Zoom-zoom starts here. Protégé 5.

Our Protégé came toward the end of the Ford era, at a time when Mazda was remaking itself.  One of the harbingers of zoom–zoom was the Protege 5, a hatchback riff on the regular sedan.  Essentially, it varied only by degrees, and the performance remained pretty much the same, but image is often everything and the hatchback proved to be popular and gave a glimpse of the future.  Together with the similarly equipped ES sedan, it pointed the way toward the Mazda 3 and the hey day of the ZZ culture.

Our Protege LX wasn’t peak Zoom, then, but for a compact sedan it certainly held its own, as the Car and Driver giant test had suggested.  On the other hand sporting pretenses are all well and good in a small economy car, but after all, the focus point remains economy, both in purchase price and running costs.  So, what was the verdict on the Protégé at the end of the day?  Predictably, its fuel economy didn’t match our Civic HX, but by every other measuring stick it was superior.  Aside from tires, brakes, and a timing belt service, it needed nothing.  Unlike the Civic, it never used oil.  It ran like a 787B train until the day of its death, and aside from a shift knob scarred by too many rock and roll star rings, it looked like new.

Oh yes . . . I just mentioned the day of its death.  We’d just returned from a trip to PDX, or Portland in non-PNW parlance, and had dropped our youngest daughter off at choir practice in Edmonds when a domestic sedan ran a stop sign and T-boned the Protégé on the passenger side.  Had my daughter been there . . . it’s best not to reflect on those things.  The car was destroyed.  I was unhurt, as was the offending driver, a single mother, and her two children.  I have no idea what she was thinking as she blew through a stop sign, but she was probably just another distracted driver, a distracted driver in this case with no auto insurance in force, as I came to find out the following day when I called her purported insurance company with the information she’d provided.

And so . . . our pre-zoom, zoom dreams were dashed and we had to pay a $500 dollar deductible to our insurance company.  I would hear occasionally from our insurer and the process dragged on for years.  When the final verdict came through, nothing was collected from the offending party and given that apparently she had no funds to collect it’s probably best that the matter ended there.  On the other hand, I wish she’d been honest at the scene of the accident rather than leading me to believe that she was covered.  Perhaps she didn’t want to admit the truth in front of her children.  So be it.

In the end, the Protégé was the beginning and not the end, but that is a story for another day.  Its memory lingers on the level of the other cars that left their mark, the ones I loved, if I’m allowed to debase the word by applying it to something as mundane as a transportation device.  Loyalty is another word that may be misapplied to a mere car, but it also applies, as we shall see next week.  Zoom, zoom.