I really wanted one of these in yellow, but I settled for a red one late in the 2002 model year. I always seem to buy my cars in spring; I suspect the boredom of winter and six months of driving salt stained cars wears me down. I’m ready for a change once the snow has melted. My Protege5 was late enough in the cycle that the dealer actually called it a 2002-1/2. The only difference I can remember was the wheels. Mine were 2003 painted 5 spoke alloys with squared off spokes vs. the slightly twisted spokes on the 2002s.
I suppose it should come as no surprise that the Protege5 has some fans here at Curbside Classic. In fact, they’ve been the subject of two previous COAL articles. This piece by Michael Ionno from 2016 captures my experience perfectly, right down to the inevitable rust problems that continued to plague Mazdas in northern states. If you’ve been keeping track, this was my fourth Mazda, all of which had premature rust. You’d think I would learn my lesson.
In the fall of 2001 I had received a mailing from Mazda promoting their new little hot hatch and coincidently, Car and Driver had run a favorable review in their October 2001 issue. This was back when Car and Driver was still relevant and I was still a subscriber. I have always liked the Mazda hatchbacks, going all the way back to the first gen GLC, but for multiple reasons ownership had continued to elude me.
I came very close to pulling the trigger on the 323 derived Mercury Tracer wagon but ended up with a first gen Camry wagon instead.
Since it was winter and I didn’t buy new cars in winter, the idea of going to take a look at the Protege5 just sort of simmered on the back burner. Our second car was a 1996 Saturn SL2 which came into the fleet when I remarried in 2001. The Saturn was fine, no issues, but it lacked the flexibility we wanted in a second car. At least that’s how I rationalized it to my wife.
So anyway, one fine spring day, I headed over to Polar Chevrolet and Mazda in White Bear Lake to take a look at one of these little wagons. My salesperson was a woman, a first for me. She was enthusiastic, but not in a pushy way, and the buying experience went pretty well. I was already committed to buying one of these little wagons before I had even sat in one. I really wanted a 5 speed in yellow, but the only yellow one in stock was saddled with an automatic, so I took a red 5 speed for a test drive. Next thing I know, I’m calling my wife to get her okay the trade of the Saturn in on this little red racer. As a point of reference, this would be my sixth red car out of the thirteen I’ve owned up to that time. And this wouldn’t be my last red car as you will see in future COALs. I do like red cars (and trucks).
At the time of this purchase I was a 46 year old middle manager just looking for a little distraction from the stress of everyday life. I suspect I was just a bit north of Mazda’s target demographic, but this car punched all the right buttons for me. A 2.0 liter, DOHC engine making 130 hp and a 135 ft lbs of torque, complete with red tower brace. Just what the boy racer ordered.
With the requisite black on white instrument cluster, leather wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, this interior really worked for me. Mine had the cloth seats which looked great. In the rear, both seats folded almost flat and the rear cargo area was covered by a hard, hinged panel. While this car didn’t have a particularly larger cargo area, it worked well enough as a second car. Mazda really had pretty minimal competition in small, inexpensive sport wagon niche. Maybe the Impreza wagon and the soon to be launched Vibe/Matrix twins, but that was about it in the US.
Compared to the Protege sedan, the front end of the Protege5 added oversized fog lights and a more aggressive fascia. It’s rarely foggy in the Twin Cities, so I hardly ever used them, but I really liked the look.
Out back there was a little winglet over the rear window. Quite common now, these were still somewhat rare in 2002. Combined with some very cool taillights, the rear end looked as good or maybe better than the front. Completing the look were side sill skirts that tied into the line from the front bumper to the rear valance. I know the styling of this wagon didn’t work for everyone, but in my mind this was one of Mazda’s better looking cars and that says a lot given how good so many Mazda designs have been.
Sad to say though, but after a 3 years of spirited driving, some cracks began to appear in our relationship. Front brake rotors and pads were needed at about 40,000 miles. And the fabric on those nice seats began to wrinkle a bit. And then one day while washing the car I noticed the first signs of rust in the rear wheel wells. At first I thought it was just surface rust from stones kicked up from driving too fast on dirt roads, but closer inspection revealed the rot coming from inside out. If there is one thing I can’t abide, it’s body rust. Seriously, it’s 2002 and cars aren’t supposed to rust anymore. I made an attempt to repair the wheel arches with rust converter and rattle can Classic Red, but I knew it was only a matter of time. We still owned the MPV which had also started to exhibit some wheel well rust.
I knew my rust repairs wouldn’t last long so I started thinking about my next car. Aside from the rust issues, I really enjoyed this car, maybe more than any other I’ve owned. Rather than trade Protege5, I listed it on Craigslist for a decent price. I had a guy respond to my ad within minutes of my posting it. I sent him an email telling him I was still at work but I could show that car that evening. My email included my company name and next thing I know this guy is in the parking lot looking at the car. I know because I would park outside my window. He claimed to have been watching for a 5 speed Protege5 for his wife for weeks and mine was the first to pop up. He still wanted the car, even after I showed him my rust repairs. We closed the deal that night at my asking price.