Mazda has always been one of those smaller car companies who, despite the fact they are selling mostly mainstream cars, strives to appeal to a specialized audience. In 2015 Toyota was the top selling car manufacturer in the World selling 10.23 million cars. Mazda sold 1.54 million vehicles or 15% of Toyota’s total. A question for you, specialized audience – if you could only purchase a Toyota Camry or a Mazda 6 which would you buy? Exactly. Camry outsold the Mazda 6 by a margin of 8 to 1 in the US in 2015 so congratulations on being such a unique individual.
At the end of the day we gearheads are driven by emotion, not logic. Being the Zoom-Zoom company, Mazda understands that driving – real driving – should be infused with joy. They make sure that every vehicle they sell has its fair share. Sometimes they do this by producing cars with innovations outside of the mainstream (see engines, Wankel) but just as often they do it by engineering a better driving mousetrap (see roadsters, MX-5). The Mazda Protegé5 falls into the latter camp.
By the Summer of 2002 my wife, Debbie, had been driving our 1989 Audi 200 Avant for ten years. Being our roomiest vehicle it was our primary transport when our family of four traveled out of town so reliability was critical. As wonderful as the car was, intervals between visits to our Audi mechanic David were beginning to decrease dramatically. Reluctantly Debbie and I decided to undertake an automotive experiment we had avoided in our first twenty-nine years of driving. We decided to buy a new car.
I can’t remember exactly how I became aware of the Mazda Protegé5. Like virtually all the cars that had come before it, however, its purchase was firmly planted in my head before the actual shopping began. Reviewing colors and options I decided on a silver five speed manual with a sunroof. My wife and I used our credit union’s car buying service to locate the car and negotiate its price so all we had to do was pick it up. It was the end of the model year and Mazda was looking to make room for the 2003 models by discounting the 2002’s. The purchase price was a little over $15,000 – almost exactly what we had paid for our used Audi 200 ten years earlier.
The Protegé was the North American name for Mazda’s Familia small family cars which spanned eight generations over forty years ending in 2003 before the introduction of the current Mazda 3 series, itself now in its third generation. The Protegé5 is a four-door hatchback, though I think of it as a station wagon, and it was only produced from 2001 to 2003. Perhaps taking a page from Audi’s former playbook, Mazda saw fit to infuse the wagon with sportier characteristics than the three-box Protegé sedan. This included recalibrated steering, sporty 16” wheels, beefed up suspension and a bright red strut tower brace in the engine compartment.
Stylish white instrumentation, a sporty steering wheel, supportive front seats and early faux carbon fiber trim completed the effect inside.
Visually the Protegé5 is beefier than its sedan sibling with added side body molding and a front spoiler featuring oversized fog lights.
The Protegé5 is propelled by a four-cylinder, 1991 cc engine producing 130 bhp and 135 lb-ft of torque to propel the 2,800 lb wagon. The engine can be buzzy to a fault, not helped by low gearing resulting in almost 3,500 rpm at 60 mph, but its torque curve is smooth and the engine spins freely up to its 6,000 rpm redline. The attached five-speed manual transmission is smooth and precise. As nice as the aforementioned sounds please keep in mind that the Mazda at its core is an economy car. Still, after fourteen years and 135,000 miles the Mazda continues to entertain every time I get behind the wheel.
The astute reader will by now have noted that the Protegé5 is considerably smaller than the Audi it replaced, but the interior is spacious and the simple attachment of a Thule to the factory roof rack meant that we could carry as much in the Mazda as we had previously in the Audi.
Mechanically the Protegé5 has largely lived up to our hope that it would provide long term reliability. The engine has never needed anything other than recommended service and the clutch is still original although we plan to fit a new one this Spring. The only unexpected mechanical issues have been brake calibers which seem to freeze easily despite the fact the car has always been regularly driven. Over its life we’ve probably replaced each corner’s binders twice.
Our experience with the body has been less favorable. At a time when rust has become a rarity many Protegé5s have experienced significant rot around the rear wheel wells and ours was no exception.
By 2014 the rust progressed to the point where it was time to either say goodbye to the Mazda or fix the rust properly so it could stick around for the long haul. Defying financial reasoning I of course went for the repair and full repaint. Looking around online I discovered FixMyRust which appears to only sell needed replacement stampings for the parts of select cars that chronically rust. I dropped the car off to Joe (who had done much of the bodywork on last week’s 912 and a few weeks later had the newly resprayed car back.
Of course, our two formerly little boys have grown up. Both Josh, now 24 and his little brother Peter, now 21, moved from the back seat to the driver’s seat of the Protegé5. Both learned to shift manually in the Mazda making them rarities among post Millinniels. Like many of their generation both boys started out indifferent to driving, but thanks in large part to the Protegé5 both have learned that, well, Zoom-Zoom is real.
Next Week – A car with so much personality it has a name.
Last Week – 1968 Porsche 912 Soft-Window Targa – And The Number That Shall Never Be Spoken.