Driver's Seat: What's in the auto columnist's driveway?

This 2006 Mazda MPV resembles the Sturgises' 2004 model (though it is in much better shape).
This 2006 Mazda MPV resembles the Sturgises' 2004 model (though it is in much better shape).
Posted: September 27, 2012

For some reason, people always want to talk to me about cars. Their cars, new cars, buying cars - I can't walk down the street or check my e-mail without getting a question about cars.

And, often, people want to know what the auto columnist drives.

So here goes. Right now, the Sturgis family of fine automobiles is fairly long in the tooth. Sturgis Kids 1.0 through 3.0 have just finished driving lessons - our cars are "lived-in" and our insurance rates are high - and they are in college, so we're looking at Sturgis Nest Egg 0.0.

We're saving for new cars, which just keep getting better. Meanwhile, here are my reviews of the vehicles we bought used and still own.

2003 Mazda Protege5

An Elantra? Throughout early 2006, I'd been hunting for a used Hyundai Elantra, but I found no hatchbacks available - and thought they seemed a little dull.

When a Mazda Protege5 appeared, I remembered a neighbor had one. Mazdas never sparkled on reliability scales, but the neighbor seemed happy enough with his, and my mechanic OKd it, so I made the call.

Small wonder: When I test-drove it, I wondered why Neighbor 1.0 had been holding out on me. This was the most fun I'd had since I bought my '68 Volkswagen Beetle two years before, and it was a bargain. Its 2.0-liter four-cylinder was not fast, but the handling was fantastic, the ShiftTronic four-speed a delight, and everything in the cabin well-placed.

Kudos: I was pleased when I read that Edmunds.com put it in the Editor's Pick category. A longtime fellow auto writer from Virginia also dubbed its short two-year model run much better than the beloved Mazda3's.

Choices are good: Rainy days in the Protege5 always get me down. Mazda has decided that only one wiper-delay setting is necessary. I hammer them on this in my reviews of newer Mazdas every chance I get.

Fuel economy: I average about 28 m.p.g. in my usual driving, fairly low for a little car. Sturgis Kids 1.0 through 3.0 drag it under 25 because they keep it in automatic mode.

Reliability: From Miles 49,500 to 155,000, it has only needed maintenance items. The spark plug in cylinder No. 4 has gone bad four times (the gap keeps getting smushed) in the last 30,000 miles, but I just switch it out myself for $2.50, try to blast out any dirt in the engine, and go on my way. I'm not ripping it apart at this point.

2004 Mazda MPV

A quick fix: When the driver's-side air-conditioning in our 1998 Pontiac Transport went out at age 10 and Mile No. 130,000, I'd had it. Too many little things broke, plus the intake valve gasket had blown at 71,600 miles (thanks, 72,000-mile extended warranty).

I wanted something right away and didn't want to spend a lot. A four-year-old MPV appeared at the Mazda dealership, so I drove it.

Neighbor 1.0 also had an MPV, so I felt confident, even though it didn't rank high in reliability reports.

Fun to drive: Mazda's "Zoom-zoom" campaign was well under way, and I found the MPV fit in as well as a minivan could. Its 3.0-liter V6 moves the van quickly, and the country roads of Chester County were much more fun than in the Transport.

Awkward controls: The radio controls are hidden behind the gearshift when it's in drive. I have steering wheel buttons, but still.

Also, the old column-mounted gearshift for the five-speed transmission has just P-R-N-D-3-2. Fourth gear is on a button that's too easy to hit by mistake. And you can't have first. Disappointing.

The price was right: The dealership made my experience too easy. I took the van home to show Mrs. Passenger Seat and Sturgis Kids 1.0 through 4.0, then visited Edmunds.com for pricing. I printed out the trade-in on my van and the recommended price for the MPV.

When I sat down at the dealership, they were offering more for my trade-in and less for the MPV than Edmunds suggested. I made the deal that day. (The year 2008 was slow for used car sales.)

Fuel economy: The MPV runs around 20 m.p.g., a little bit less in town and a little more on the highway.

Reliability: We've replaced two coil packs for a hefty fee and worry about the other four going. But at 145,000, it hasn't been too bad.  

In the future?

Something new: We've flirted with replacing the MPV a few times. The Toyota Sienna is nice and roomy but not as fun. A 2010 Kia Sedona almost had our number, but then the reliability didn't impress me. So we've held onto our dollars and waited.

A new world: I picked the ideal time to start writing "Driver's Seat." After years of selling rolling McMansions followed by near-disaster in the auto industry in 2008 and 2009, the car business has gotten a lot more interesting.

We're following the pack and going small this time out. Mrs. Passenger Seat has her heart set on an alien green Kia Soul, and when my turn rolls around, I'm leaning toward the Toyota Prius C, Hyundai Accent, or Ford Fiesta. Or, if we go a little bigger, a Mazda CX-5. But I have some time to make up my mind. Ladies first.


Contact Scott Sturgis at 215-854-2558 or ssturgis@phillynews.com.

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