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In the latest of the popular zoom-zoom commercials, the Protege5 is the fetching yellow car dazzling the fetching little boy. Mazda is trying to create a fetching new feeling, by building more cars like this and letting people know it. But Mazda has been building fetching cars for some time now-RX-7, Millenia and Miata to name three-but can't seem to get recognized for it. Maybe the Protege5 will do it.
The Protege5 is very good looking. Cool looking, for an un-wagon. Trim cladding, just side sills and air dams. Great-looking 5-spoke, 16-inch alloy wheels, either brushed or polished like chrome. Speedy lines and stance, not boxy. In profile it looks like a short Subaru Legacy GT wagon, but it's prettier at each end.
It's cool all over. The spoiler fits like an eyelid over the slanted rear hatch. There's a standard black roofrack, and the black radio antenna is raked back from the rear center of the car. The center brake light (CHMSL) has 24 small bulbs that definitely catch your attention. Sleek headlights (straight off the "prosaic" Protege), a moonroof, black diamond mesh grille that hints at a smile. More black mesh in the mouthy airdam below the bumper, with a foglight on each side.
Integrated within the chassis, which was redesigned in '99, are front and rear crush zones. Mazda claims its "Triple-H" frame structure forms a rigid barrier to injury from side impact.
Under the hood, which sounds very solid when dropped, the 2.0-liter four is mounted neatly in the transverse position. A red suspension brace between the wheel strut towers, to firm up the handling, signals the car's capability.
The interior is also way cool. It's very neatly done, distinctive and sporty in dark charcoal leather dash and doors, with cloth seats. Three times, in our tape-recorded notes, we mentioned how comfortable the driver's seat was. Both front seats are tweaked in lumbar and lateral support, and the driver's seatback structure uses something called "Pluma-flex" board, which Mazda says is stiffer at the bottom and more flexible at the top, resulting in a "gentler and more accommodating fit," and transmitting less vibration.
There are touches of aluminum, like burnished pewter, all over, including the armrests, door handles, and the vertical control panel, where the AM/FM/CD and climate (HVAC) systems are located. It's also inset in faux carbon fiber. The simple, small three-spoke tilt steering wheel looks and feels especially neat. The tidy three gauges have off-white backgrounds and black numbers with amber illumination.
The Protege5 may be small but it doesn't feel cramped in front. Everything falls into place for the driver, with good foot room including a nice dead pedal. Visibility from inside is also very good. There's no whumping in your ear when just the driver's window is down. There's a small triangular window in the back third of the rear door glass.
For convenience, there are grab handles in the front armrests, storage pockets in each door (though none in the front seatbacks), a deep glovebox and good interior lighting. There are two flip-top cupholders forward of the five-speed shift lever, as well as a deep slot for small stuff, and a sloped coin slot with a lip, in the lower left dash. Between the seats lies the handbrake and a deep console. Power windows and locks, remote entry, rear window wiper and rear seat heater ducts are standard.
The rear seats are surprisingly roomy and comfortable for adults.
With the 60/40 split rear seats folded, there's 24.4 cubic feet of cargo space. Mazda measures at a height level with the top of the rear seats, as per EPA guidelines; some manufactures measure to the ceiling, making specs sometimes skewed. There's a space saver rear tire underneath the cargo bay floor, with a security cover. There's also an interior light switch back there, so you can leave the hatch open when the car is parked without stretching the battery.
The child seat anchors use the latest system, consisting of two sets of lower anchors on both sides of the rear passenger seat, and three top tether anchors for each rear seating position. With this system, the latest child seats can be secured without using the car's seatbelts.
Right away, you can tell it's a tight chassis, over the small bumps at modest speed. It has the ride of a more expensive sports car. Seventy miles an hour doesn't feel like 70. But the suspension is most impressive over hard ripples at high speed, with no darting or tugging. The curves bring a smile to your face. Always responsive, always spirited.
It's a thoughtful and detailed suspension, with carefully valved shocks. The handling is sweet and tight, with rack-and-pinion steering using engine-rpm power assist. The front roll center is lowered 24 mm from the standard Protege, and the rear roll center raised 21 mm, with the roll angle during cornering limited to 2 degrees, all aimed at improving cornering and responsiveness. The weight distribution is 60/40. MacPherson struts in front, with Mazda's proven Twin-Trapezoidal Link system in the rear.
The aerodynamics are also good, as the Protege5 is impressively steady at 60 mph in a big wind.
It's got a great five-speed gearbox, which is good because you have to work the 130 horsepower a lot to keep it up there (it's always fun, though).
It's about as fast as you might expect for 130 horsepower. But just putting around in third gear is easy and smooth, with consistent throttle response. For enthusiasts: Under full acceleration it takes a fairly long time to get to 6500 rpm where redline begins, which in third gear is 80 mph. In any gear, the power drops off from 6000 rpm until the rev limiter hits at about 7000. But the band isn't peaky; at 3000 rpm it responds nicely, steadily, as the torque peaks at 135 foot-pounds and 4000 rpm.
Fifth gear and 65 mph equals about 3000 rpm, a very relaxed spot for the Protege5. But it gets buzzy in higher rpm, and 130 horsepower doesn't afford you the luxury of passing on two-lanes without a downshift.
We made one memorable pass on a fantastic two-lane road on the Big Island of Hawaii, driving north from Hilo on the northeast coast. From 5000 rpm in third gear, the engine revved to 6000 like a champ, where the upshift to fourth gear was smooth as silk.
The act of shifting gears is made easy by an uncommonly agreeable coordination of the clutch, throttle and shifter. It's very user friendly; smooth is made to feel natural. Heel-and-toe downshifting, adding the brakes and brake pedal ergonomics to the mix, all four working at the same time, is no problem for the eager Protege5.
The brakes are relatively big, with 10.2-inch ventilated discs front, 10.3-inch solid discs rear, but ABS is optional. The anti-lock brake system includes Electronic Brake Distribution (EBD), which reduces braking distances by apportioning the front/rear wheel braking force according to cargo load. The ABS option also comes with side airbags. Mazda said that customer surveys have indicated that most of their buyers would rather save $800 than have ABS with EBD and side airbags. We strongly recommend the ABS, EBD, and side airbags, as they could save your life.
Our test car did not have ABS; the Protege5 stopped in a straight line when the brakes were locked.
There's a lot of value in the new Protege5-in its efficiency, utility, looks and sporty performance. It embodies the zoom-zoom spirit. It deserves to bring Mazda more name-recognition and engineering-recognition. And as an option to a mini-SUV for a small, sporty family, that compromise between a Miata and a Tribute, the Protege5 could be a whole lot of fun.
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