One minute, the terrain resembles a lava-strewn moonscape, a mile later, a tropical oasis. So it goes on the “Big Island” of Hawaii, where Mazda has gathered a small clutch of auto writers for a preview of its new Protege5 and MP3 models.
The setting is, in a sense, appropriate. The unusual island offers a surprisingly wide range of climates as one climbs from its warm, azure coast to its frigid volcanic peaks. The two new Mazdas show just how much a manufacturer can vary the look and feel of a single platform in its bid to attract different buyers.
2002 Mazda MP3Enlarge Photo
“We tried to be like everyone else, and that didn’t work,” explains Executive Vice President Steve Odell. So Mazda’s going back to what it once did well, producing products aimed at niche buyers, if not the outright fringes of the market. There’s an all-new, rotary-powered sports car in the works, the RX-8. But the Protege5 and MP3 are the first to reach showrooms, and offer an insight into Mazda’s strategy.
On the digital superhighway?
2002 Mazda Protege5
At first blush, MP3 might seem an odd name for an automobile. It’s the name of a digital compression format widely used to send music over the Internet. But it proves to be an apt choice for the first model Mazda designed specifically for the U.S.
The sedan starts with the base, four-door Protégé, but the star of this show, if you will, is the Kenwood 919 audio system. It’s the first factory-installed system that can play CDs, CD-Rs or CD-RWs recorded in the MP3 format. (The latter two are discs enthusiasts can “burn,” or record at home.) Compared to a conventional CD, an MP3 disc will deliver up to 10 hours of music. The 919 pumps out 45 watts into each of four, door-mounted speakers. There’s also a 100-watt subwoofer in the trunk.
The audio sysem is worth about $1200, noted Kenwood executive Michael Sherrill, a lot of componentry for an $18,500 subcompact. But Mazda’s put a lot into the vehicle itself.
The bodyworks are modified with a new front fascia, modified side panels and a unique rear wing. The body itself is lowered half an inch, and the suspension is substantially enhanced with such things as oversize front and rear stabilizer bars, Tokico gas shocks and 17-inch Dunlop SP9000 low-profile tires.
Mazda engineers claim a significant increase in performance and handling, something backed up by TCC’s own experience on-road and on-track. The MP3 offered precise steering, and no noticeable torque steer. On a tight handling circuit, it proved to offer the type of predictable behavior seldom found in an economy front-drive sedan.More kick
The MP3 shares the same, 2.0-liter DOHC in-line four as the base Protégé, but it adds ten horsepower with some mild tuning changes. At 140 hp, it’s got a decent kick, though Mazda wouldn’t do badly by adding a bigger engine, as rumors suggest it has in mind.
2002 Mazda Protege5
But as it stands, the MP3 should play well for Mazda. “We’re getting (back) on the radar screen of consumers,” insists Odell, pointing to the automaker’s recent sales gains.
The sporty sedan is specifically aimed at the sort of youthful trendsetters who have made the Honda Civic a cult car. In particular, Mazda hopes to see the MP3 show up among the “rice burners” that dominate Southern California streets late at night. The automaker plans to import only 1500 of the sedans this year, and it suggests that it already has more than enough orders in hand to account for them all.A wagon by any other name
Mazda Protege 5Enlarge Photo
Whatever you call it, the design is downright functional, as a growing number of buyers are rediscovering. Mazda says the Protege5 offers up to 24.4 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seat folded. Using the measurement methods of some of its competitors, the numbers would be even larger.
2002 Mazda Protege5
This isn’t your grandfather’s Country Squire. The Protege5 is sleekly styled, almost European in appearance, borrowing the same front fascia as the MP3. The body structure has been beefed up, so it handles much better than one might expect, as well. We’re also pleased to report that there’s none of the boominess you find with many other low-end wagons, usually because of a lack of sound insulation over the rear axle.
The Protege5 also gets the 2.0-liter engine, and like the MP3, it offers a choice of five-speed automatic or five-speed stick.
While wagons traditionally appealed to older family buyers, the Protégé5 is aimed at stylish Gen-Xers, and based on its mix of performance and functionality, it seems likely to hit the mark.
That’s not to say there aren’t some challenges. Even at $16,815, the Protege5 goes up against some tough competition, particularly from such hot marques as Hyundai and Kia. And the Koreans typically include some of the hardware—such as ABS brakes—that are optional with the Protege5. But Mazda has certainly taken a few steps in the right direction with its two new Protégé spin-offs.