- The Washington Times - Friday, March 8, 2002

Remember the old gag about what happens to your lap when you stand up? It retires to the rear and takes on an assumed name.

Exactly that is happening in the car business these days as a bunch of vehicles take on a rearward orientation along with assumed names. Generically, they are referred to as crossover vehicles, supposedly a combination of the traditional family car with the taller stance and cargo-carrying capability of a sport utility vehicle.

Examples are the new Mazda Protege5, the Toyota Matrix, Pontiac Vibe, Ford Focus ZX5 and the upcoming Chrysler Pacifica.

In truth, they are mostly hatchbacks or small to midsize station wagons. But nobody likes to call them hatchbacks because the designation is thought to be a turnoff for American buyers.

There's good reason for that fear. Hatchbacks, especially those with four doors, have not fared well in the U.S. market, though they are enormously popular in Europe. It's an enduring puzzle because hatchbacks, as well as small wagons, offer practicality the standard notchback sedan cannot match.

But who could have predicted the changing tastes of American buyers? At one time, the hot numbers were muscle cars with big engines, sleek styling and two doors. Young people who used to pant over such machines now salivate over tall station wagons like the Jeep Grand Cherokee.

True, SUVs usually have four-wheel drive, but it's their overall practicality as so-called lifestyle vehicles that gave them their appeal.

Now they are losing some of their luster, especially those that are truck-based. Some people have simply tired of driving trucks, even though they like to be seen in them. Enter the crossover.

Subaru was first, with its Outback essentially a jacked-up Legacy station wagon. Volvo followed with the Cross Country and Audi with the Allroad. Now the bandwagon is rolling.

The subject here is the Mazda Protege5, which is less a crossover than a traditional hatchback. But it differs in that it presents a more sporting face. It's something like the difference between a pedestrian Volkswagen Golf and its high-performance sibling, the GTI.

In designing cars, demographics are a big deal. Cars are aimed at different segments of the population, and the Protege5 obviously targets young people.

But, anecdotally at least, it has some of the same broad appeal as the Chrysler PT Cruiser.

The test car, done up in bright red, attracted attention from all sorts of onlookers, including a woman obviously in her 70s who walked over at a service station just to comment on what a neat-looking car it was.

That's more than half the battle. But even if the Protege5 fell a bit short on styling, it still would be a dandy automobile, especially considering its price.

The test car had a bottom-line sticker of $18,485, including the destination charge, a motorized sunroof, side air bags and anti-lock brakes. Standard equipment, at the $16,905 base price, covered such items as a three-spoke leather-covered sport steering wheel, air conditioning, a stereo with a CD player (but no cassette), fog lights, remote locking, power windows and mirrors, cruise control, a roof rack, a roof-mounted spoiler and alloy wheels.

The only thing lacking was leather upholstery. But you don't expect that in this class of car anyway, and there are many people who prefer the sort of quality cloth seats found in the Protege5. They're simply more comfortable.

Moreover, the front bucket seats have multiple adjustments and are designed to cradle the driver in hard driving. Though the Protege5 could not be classified as a sports sedan, the seats would not be out of place in one.

Driving the front wheels is a 2-liter, four-cylinder engine with 130 horsepower. On the test car, the power was transferred through a five-speed manual transmission with a state-of-the-art shift linkage that was a pleasure to manipulate. Even stop-and-go heavy traffic offered welcome shifting time.

On paper, the power is modest. But because of the Protege5's gearing, shifter and light clutch action, it feels quick and not strained. You can engage in stoplight sprints without fear of embarrassment.

Handling and ride are biased slightly toward softness, so you don't get the harsh feel of a sports coupe.

Inside, the Protege5 has tasteful plastic trim that mimics titanium and engine-turned metal. Instruments are black-on-white, and the controls are where you expect them to be.

In back, there's passenger space for a couple of six-footers, and there's a whopping 20 cubic feet of cargo space under the hatch behind the back seat. The seatback, of course, folds down for extra cargo, but it doesn't fold flat.

Call it what you will: Crossover, hatchback, economy compact, sporty car. The Protege5 can lay claim to all of those designations.

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