While the 2.0L/130-hp Protege5 comes in one flavor only, including the BGS package, it absolutely begs for a turbocharger. In addition to standard equipment, ours was optioned with an ABS/front-seat side-airbag package ($800), which requires also ordering a power moonroof ($700). The grand total, including destination fee, proved the least expensive at $18,315. While a 4A transmission is available, our five-speed manual was selected to keep the performance and fun factor as high as possible. No 17-in. wheels are currently available for the Protege5, however, a rather nice set is curiously standard on the snarky MP3 version of the Protege Sedan.

In contrast, the Toyota Matrix is available in three trim levels with a variety of options and powertrain configurations. The sportiest six-speed-manual front-drive Matrix XRS includes BGS standard equipment plus ABS with electronic brake distribution. The XRS's 1.8L/180-hp I-4, pinched from a Celica GT-S, tops the Mazda, however. Added to the tally are an upgraded in-dash six-CD stereo ($100), 17-in. wheels with performance tires (only $150), and front-occupant side airbags ($250) for a total of $19,867. A four-speed automatic is likewise available.

The less-expensive Matrix Standard and XR models are equipped with a lower-output version of the 1.8L motor, producing either 130 hp in FWD configuration or 123 hp with AWD. While FWD models are optioned with either a 5M or 4A transmission, the AWD model is available only with a four-speed automatic. Buzz kill, American style. This low-output/automatic/AWD rationale runs contrary to Subaru's lineup where the combination of high-output engine, manual transmission, and AWD is unique and exceptionally good fun.

We've already touched on the WRX's 227-hp turbocharged intercooled, flat-four "ringer" status of the threesome. However, as we intended, it's the most sporty engine/trans/driveline combo Subaru currently offers and represents the company's top-performing wagon. As a result, it's also the most costly at a base price of $23,495 and, like the others, includes the BGS standard equipment. But the WRX goes far beyond the others with full-time AWD (center differential and viscous coupling) with a limited-slip rear differential, ABS, racing-style front seats with side airbags, Momo steering wheel, and an aluminum hood with functional scoop. The only major available options our tester lacks are a 4A transmission-no thanks for this sport-biased test-and a premium-level stereo. The attractive, new 17-in. BBS wheels with Bridgestone Potenza RE011 performance rubber our wagon now wears are the only option we chose to add, bringing the total to $27,055. This may seem like a lot of money for an AWD wagon, but consider the only other AWD wagons available: Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen, and Volvo. Do you see a continent-biased trend there? With the European wagons ranging from $28,000 to $50,000, suddenly the WRX's price becomes more palatable-especially considering the Subaru tops them all in base horsepower.

If the Mazda Protege5 holds the most traditional wagon profile and proportions, and the Subaru Impreza WRX has a slightly taller greenhouse, then the Toyota Matrix, which is not spun off an existing sedan's body like the others, represents a new take on the wagon idea and is noticeably taller by about three inches and wider by nearly the same margin. Clever body design, including the Matrix's tapered rear windows and swooping sheetmetal crease flowing from lower front to upper rear, give it a far more compact, sporty look than its actual size. As we expected from initial eyeballing, its interior is far more voluminous and airy than the other two. Total EPA-provided interior volumes tell the tale, with the Matrix's 118.0 cu ft topping the rest of the crew by more than 5 cu ft.

It turns out that measuring useable cargo volume (both behind and with second-row seats folded) is a black art dependent on whose standards we follow: EPA, SAE, or manufacturer's estimates. As we've discovered in the past, each one measures differently, and the figures are sometimes deceiving and incomparable. For this reason, and we feel it's a critical part of this comparison, we tend to learn more from our own use of the vehicles and actually putting known quantities of stuff in their cargo areas.

That said, if we go by the manufacturer-supplied cargo-volume figures, it would appear the WRX is the winner. We suspect there's a measurement methodology issue here, because our real-world test using a full complement of band equipment, including three drums, cymbals case, three guitars, and a keyboard case, revealed the Matrix is far more capable of comfortably holding all the gear with room to spare (see photo). Unlike the other two, the Matrix utilizes a flat-folding 60/40-split rear seat and near-flat-folding front passenger seat to increase its already ample cargo capacity. While the other two also have 60/40 folding rear seats, the seatbacks in their down position remain slightly propped up due to their cushions meeting, plus neither has a folding front seat.