Review: 2003 Mazda Protege5
I started contributing car reviews to TTAC back in 2006. Today’s is my last. But which car should I cover in my final TTAC review?
Why not write the review TTAC founder Robert Farago wouldn’t let me write? RF had a rule against reviewing our personal cars. But my 2003 Mazda Protege5 has been mentioned in quite a few of my reviews, and has been implicit in nearly all of them. RF’s rule went by the wayside some time ago, but the thought of reviewing the P5 didn’t cross my mind again. Until now.
When I bought my Protege5 back in November 2003, it was already at the end of its run. I got a great deal ($18,900 MSRP, paid $13,400) because the new Mazda3 was in transit. So the P5 was designed and engineered back in the mid-nineties. How does it possibly remain relevant today?
The Protege5 remains relevant for the same reasons I still own it. First of all, despite a 2,800-pound curb weight, the car’s reactions to steering inputs are quicker than in any compact hatch I’ve driven since buying it. Though the low-effort steering can have an over-assisted, rubber-band feel at modest lock under light loads (a trait shared by the current Civic Si), both on-center and when you’re tossing the car precisely through a curve the rack and column seem to transmit EVERTYTHING through a relatively thin, minimally padded rim to your fingertips. (The thick, heavily padded steering wheels favored by many people and consequently common on performance-oriented cars block feedback.) A MINI or a 500 should feel as agile and provide communication as plentiful and nuanced, but doesn’t.
By lifting off the Protege5’s throttle as you enter a turn you can coax the rear end out a bit, but in general the car’s chassis is extremely stable. Testing out the car’s handling early on in a snow-covered parking lot, I had to resort to pulling the hand brake to get it to spin. Even without stability control (which was never offered), every ounce of potential can be extracted from this car safely and easily. In subjective terms, the P5 feels so alive and is so much fun, even in daily driving, that it has made nearly every car I’ve reviewed over the past decade seem dull, even boring in comparison. Consider the Mazda Exhibit A in the case that it’s more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow.
Almost ridiculously large windows separated by thin pillars further contribute to driver confidence. If you can’t see something ahead, behind, or to the side of this car, you must be looking in a different direction. As in an NA or NB Miata, I wish I could lower the seat an inch or two. As is, you sit far above the compact instrument panel yet well below the windshield header. You can see the front end just enough to easily place it. (Unless you’re the au pair who once parked by feel, crinkling the front left fender.) To get this driving position in a current vehicle, you have to get a crossover. Even these often have tall, deep instrument panels lately.
The driver seat, though surprisingly supportive and comfortable for one in such an inexpensive car, doesn’t do as much for driver confidence. It might look like it would provide lateral support, but it doesn’t (especially not when upholstered in black leather). Front and rear seat height can be independently manually adjusted. Bean counters have since killed this feature in every compact (most recently in the Chevrolet Cruze).
The Protege5 is smaller than current compact hatches, but has a roomier back seat, perhaps because safety standards were quite a bit lower in the 1990s. My three kids have logged thousands of hours in the back seat of this car. A couple of adults will not only easily fit, but they’ll find better thigh support than in many much larger cars. The Protege5’s cargo area isn’t large—this is the rare wagon that has a significantly shorter rear overhang than the related sedan, such that it’s really a wagon in roofline only—but it has always been large enough for us.
Beyond the handling and driving position, back in 2003 I was smitten with the Protege5s styling, especially the rear quarter view. Mazda really finessed the area around the tail lamps when transforming the Protege sedan into a wagon. A tasteful body kit lends just the right amount of aggressiveness to the car—unlike some, it doesn’t overpromise or make someone in his forties feel ridiculous. Overseas, the car was offered without the body kit, and the car then looks a bit pudgy. Frankly, even with the kit the car appears a bit rotund from some angles. Car styling has gotten much edgier in the years since, and at this point the Protege5 looks its age, even if it will age better in the long-term than either generation of Mazda3. I prefer to think of the exterior as “classic.”
The highly polished, chrome-appearing rims now on the car don’t do it any favors, especially not when paired with red paint. They were on the car from the factory. I had the dealer swap wheels with another car, and credit me the $400 difference. But a few years later the finish peeled off the painted wheels. To replace them under warranty, Mazda shipped the wheels they thought were still on the car. The dealer then balked at replacing them at all, claiming that the flaking wheels were “aftermarket” because the selling dealer (no longer in business) hadn’t reported the swap to Mazda. I persuaded them that this was not my fault, and said I’d be more than happy to have them replace the painted wheels with painted wheels. But there was no way to have Mazda ship painted replacements, so it has worn shiny rims since.
The Mazda’s interior, well the interior is cheap, but honestly cheap. It doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not, and the door panels at least are soft to the touch. The controls are simple and within easy reach. Let’s consider the interior “classic” as well.
I suppose I must mention the P5’s engine, which has never ranked among the reasons I like the car. Under 2,000 rpm it gets the shakes and lugs. Over 4,000 rpm it runs out of breath (130 horsepower allegedly arrive at 6,000, but this isn’t obvious from behind the wheel). Between 2,000 and 4,000, though, it produces a good, solid pull with more character than you’ll find in a Mazda3 mill. Early on I replaced a tall shifter with one that halved the throws. Partly for this reason, the shifter isn’t always the smoothest, but at least you’re pulling and pushing on a rod and not a cable.
Fuel economy started out in the mid-20s, then increased to the high-20s as the engine broke in. Sometimes it tops 30. Thanks to short gearing (nearly 3,500 rpm at 70), highway fuel economy is a little lower than suburban fuel economy. For reasons of economy and noise, I’ve long wished for a sixth cog. (Some people do replace the fifth gear with one from the closely related transmission in the 626.)
Sometimes I fantasize about the powertrain I’d install in my Protege5 if cost weren’t much of an object. It couldn’t be one with much torque. Even the stock engine steers the car under hard acceleration. But a Civic Si powertrain might serve nicely. In reality, the most common significant powertrain mod is a turbo. But for me the Protege5 is about having fun in daily suburban driving, so I’ve never felt an urge for boost, especially as this would likely dull the engine’s responses pre-boost.
The Protege5’s reliability has been excellent, with one big exception. In 115,000 miles I’ve been through a couple sets of pads and rotors, a couple sets of front wheel bearings, front lower control arms, and stabilizer bar end links. Oh, and three sets of headlight bulbs, which are such a PITA to change I pay the dealer to do it.
The exception is rust. Where the roads are salted, small Mazdas predictably start to meld with atmosphere about six months after the five-year rust perforation warranty ends. Each fall I remove what rust I can from the rear wheel openings and shock towers, slap on some rust converter, then paint. I had more thorough rust repair performed once, a couple years ago. The rust has since returned. To thoroughly fix just the rear end a body shop will charge a couple grand, which can’t be rationally justified.
So, why does the auto industry no longer offer a car like this one in North America? Visibility was cast by the wayside due to styling trends. The chassis story is more complicated. The transition to electric power assisted steering (EPAS) for fuel economy reasons hasn’t helped, but even cars with hydraulic steering generally provide far less feedback (e.g. the Audis mentioned earlier, and BMW 5ers recently compared by C&D).
In a word, the reason is refinement. In sharp contrast to a current batting-way-above-its-league Focus, the Protege5 ain’t got none. After driving a Lotus Elise, the Protege5 felt as high, quiet, and cushy as a Lincoln Navigator. Compared to just about anything with four doors, though, the near-classic Mazda is rough and noisy. Wind noise, road noise, engine noise, transmission noise—the entire dyssymphony is present. NVH couldn’t have been much of a consideration when it was engineered. In years past I’ve had my entire five-person family in the car for a 700-mile trip. Looking back, I don’t know what I was thinking. This is not a highway car. For long trips we now have–what else?–a bigger wagon.
But isn’t there space for at least one affordable compact hatch that trades off refinement for responsiveness and feedback? Can’t at least one manufacturer take a chance on the possibility that the hand raisers would actually pull out their checkbooks? Until this happens—and it might never happen—I’ll stick with the Protege5 until rust takes out something essential (my pride if not a strut tower). For better and for worse, the Mazda delivers a visceral connection not only to the road, but to a bygone age.
Fortunately, there are still some car sites willing to trade refinement for responsiveness and feedback. My road at TTAC hasn’t always been straight or smooth, but smooth, straight roads are boring. With TTAC, whether headed by RF, Ed, or BS, there has never been a dull moment. Thanks, guys!
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta.com, which covers car reliability, real-world fuel economy, feature-adjusted car price comparisons, and (as of this month) weekly “Why (Not) This Car?” reviews.
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