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.
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.