2003 Mazda Protege5
Photo: Laurance Yap. Click image to enlarge

by Haney Louka

Sport Mode almost makes automatic fun

You’ll rarely find me endorsing a small car equipped with an automatic transmission, but in the case of this Protegé5, Mazda has done a commendable job.

New for 2003, along with minor styling changes, is Mazda’s Sport Mode automatic transmission. It’s equipped with a manual mode – this transmission-type is referred to as a ‘manumatic’ – that allows driver control over gear selection. It’s not groundbreaking technology, although until this year it’s been the exclusive domain of near-luxury and performance cars costing $40,000 and up. Now the feature is trickling down to models with a more digestible window sticker.

There are typically a few disadvantages associated with small cars that deliver their power through automatic transmissions (not-so-affectionately termed ‘slushboxes’): first, the lack of a direct connection between engine and drive wheels means that power is lost through the transmission. Second, small engines are characteristically peaky, and slushboxes normally have fewer gears than their manual counterparts, decreasing the chance that the engine will be within its ‘sweet spot’ when the power is needed. Finally, small cars are light, and if the transmission is less than silky smooth, they can be jerked around by abrupt up- or downshifts, a characteristic that is exacerbated if the transmission is indecisive in its shifting.

2003 Mazda Protege5
Click image to enlarge

All of that seems to add up to not much fun, right? Well, Mazda has solved the latter two issues, and if you would like to get rid of problem no. 1, you’d have to invest in an $80,000 BMW M3 with its Sequential M Gearbox-a true manual with an automatically engaging clutch-or learn how to drive standard.

First, the peakiness. Mazda has endowed its Protegé5 with the larger of two motors offered on the Protegé sedan. It displaces 2.0 litres and develops 130 hp at 6,000 rpm and 135 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm. It’s a smooth, refined unit that provides flexible power delivery with surprisingly little fuss. Noise and vibration are kept in check throughout the rev range. Limited sweet spot? Not an issue.

2003 Mazda Protege5
Photo: Laurance Yap. Click image to enlarge

2003 Mazda Protege5
Photo: Mazda Canada. Click image to enlarge

Now what about the transmission smoothness? Somehow, Mazda’s engineers have managed to design a transmission for a small car with a small engine that doesn’t throw the car into convulsions during shifts. In automatic mode, part-throttle upshifts are almost undetectable. Downshifts are timely and smooth, which is where many automatics – including those on much more expensive cars – are seriously lacking. The P5’s transmission seems to be one step ahead of the driver in this area, which almost makes the manual mode unnecessary. Almost.

But the Sport Mode, as Mazda calls it (each company calls this type of transmission something different) does add an element of fun to this slushbox, allowing the driver to do the thinking and have full manual control over gear selection. And each manumatic offers a different level of manual control. In the case of the Sport Mode, it allows the driver full control most of the time. For example, leave it in second gear as you accelerate and it won’t automatically upshift as many manumatics do; it’ll merely bounce off the rev limiter until you either slow down or upshift manually.

Should you be loafing along in fourth gear and suddenly need second gear power, simply mashing the throttle won’t help a whole lot. It will stay in fourth gear no matter how hard you push your right foot into the floorboards. But the Sport Mode does have an idiot-proof feature: try to downshift into second at 110 km/h, and the number ‘3’ displayed on the instrument panel will merely flash, indicating that you’re in the lowest possible gear for the speed you’re driving. And should you forget that you’re in manual mode and slow down to a stop without shifting down from fourth gear, the transmission will automatically downshift and default to first at a complete stop.

In other words, the Sport Mode will let you choose your gears manually as long as you’re exhibiting enough intelligence to keep the revs between idle and redline.

There is one situation, though, where the transmission steps in where it shouldn’t: second gear starts. Many slushboxes have winter modes that allow second- or third-gear starts to reduce the amount of torque reaching the drive wheels, thus reducing the chances of wheelspin. Since the Sport Mode always downshifts to first at a complete stop, the driver needs to manually shift up to second before accelerating. A little annoying, but easy enough to get used to.

Now what about the rest of the car?

2003 Mazda Protege5
Photo: Laurance Yap

The P5 has a base price of $20,185. Add my tester’s gorgeous Midnight Blue paint ($105), 4-speed Sport automatic ($1,300), A/C ($1,000) and glass moonroof ($800) and the total as-tested price comes to $23,390. That’s a competitive price for a car that includes niceties such as four wheel disc brakes with anti-lock, 16-inch alloy wheels, ground effects, six-speaker CD audio, cruise, and keyless entry as standard equipment. An SE model adds leather seats, but pricing was not yet available when this review was written.

I had a chance to drive the P5 on a short highway trip and found it to be a capable, comfortable package. The engine turns just under 3,000 rpm at 110 km/h; a little busy, but appropriate for mild acceleration without having to drop a gear. There’s precious little wind noise at that speed, with the ambient sound being divided between road (tire) noise and engine hum. The 2.0L is one of the most refined in its class, competently doing its job and revving without complaint. Highway speeds are attained easily and passing performance is decent.

Another of the Protegé’s claims to fame is its handling. The P5 is tuned for sporty handling thanks to a front strut tower bar that increases the stiffness of the front end under cornering loads. The steering is well tuned for sporty driving, as it incorporates excellent turn in and response characteristics.

In short, the Protegé5 drives like a car costing thousands more.

2003 Mazda Protege5
Photo: Mazda Canada. Click image to enlarge

Mazda’s designers have nailed the interior design of the P5 as well. It’s like they went shopping with a list of all that is trendy and incorporated these items into their design. Tasteful cloth covers seats that, while a little on the flat side, provide decent support. The texture of the interior plastics makes them look softer than they are. Silver trim is everywhere, including the centre stack and door panels. Another nice touch is the faux carbon fibre trim on either side of the centre stack. Silver-faced gauges with black numerals revert to a red-on-black colour scheme at night – attractive to look at and very easy to read. The sound system is easy to operate and sounds great, thanks in part to two tweeters in the dash in addition to the requisite four larger cones.

Overall, it’s one of the most aesthetically pleasing interiors in its class.

2003 Mazda Protege5

2003 Mazda Protege5
Photos: Mazda Canada. Click image to enlarge

It would be nice (although compromising for interior headroom) to see a larger sunroof in the P5. It’s almost small enough to fit into the ‘why bother’ category. And the only other concession that the P5’s interior makes is that the door handles are cheap feeling in their operation. Something a little more substantial would be appreciated there.

Interior packaging is top-rate as well: passenger space is identical to the Protegé sedan’s in all but one respect: it boasts 10 mm more headroom in the rear seat thanks to its hatch configuration. The Protegé’s rear accommodations are among the best in class as well. Headroom and legroom measure 976 and 900 mm, respectively, while those measurements are 946 and 914 for Civic, 940 and 856 for Sentra, and 940 and 899 for Corolla.

The split folding rear seat makes cargo versatility a P5 strong suit as well. Boasting 561 litres of volume behind the rear seats (compared to 365 litres of trunk space in the sedan), that number grows to 691 with the seat folded forward. And for privacy, there’s a standard removable cargo cover that keeps smaller items away from peering eyes.

In terms of exterior styling, the P5 has to be one of the prettiest faces in econo-dom. That Mazda supplies the hatchback only in top trim levels, with fog lights, ground effects, a rear spoiler, and 16-inch alloys doesn’t hurt matters either. It possesses an aggressive sportiness that few vehicles in its price range can approach.

To Sum it Up

The Protegé provides a sporty, stylish, practical package for a very reasonable price. The wagon is back, and this time, it’s hip.

Shopping Around

The P5 is one of many models participating in the wagon revival. Primary competition comes in the form of the following:

  • Chrysler PT Cruiser ($22,500)

  • Ford Focus ZX5 ($21,260)
  • Hyundai Elantra GT ($18,495)
  • Kia Rio RX-V ($15,750)
  • Pontiac Vibe ($20,220)
  • Subaru Impreza TS ($22,995)
  • Suzuki Aerio ($16,195)
  • Toyota Matrix ($16,645)

Technical Data: 2003 Mazda Protegé5 w/Sport Mode auto

Base price $20,185
Price as tested $23,390
Type 4-door, 5 passenger hatchback
Layout transverse front engine/front-wheel-drive
Engine 2.0 litre 4 cylinder, DOHC, 16 valves
Horsepower 130 @ 6000 rpm
Torque 135 @ 4000 rpm
Transmission 4-speed ‘Sport Mode’ automatic
Tires 195/50 R-16 all-season
Curb weight 1246 kg (2741 lb.)
Wheelbase 2610 mm (102.8 in.)
Length 4331 mm (170.5 in.)
Width 1705 mm (67.1 in.)
Height 1420 mm (55.9 in.)
Cargo capacity 561 litres (19.8 cu. ft.) (rear seats up)
  691 litres (24.4 cu. ft.) (rear seats down)
Fuel consumption City: 9.9 l/100 km
  Hwy: 7.4 l/100 km
Warranty 3 yrs/60,000 km
Powertrain warranty 5 yrs/100,000 km

Connect with Autos.ca