Although there's no sign of their sales declining (yet), the days of conspicuously consuming, over-capacitized, underutilized sport/utilities are numbered. Should gasoline prices suddenly fall in line with those around the world, 5000-7000-lb trucks will be thick on the used-car lots. Sure, there'll always be those who still require heavy metal to tow a boat, horse trailer, or race-car carrier, but most of today's sport/utility buyers do none of that. When fuel gets truly costly, the most sensible and sporty vehicle for many current SUV drivers will be, as Europe has already discovered, the sport wagon. We saw a hint of the future popularity this type of versatile vehicle will enjoy with the '01 Chrysler PT Cruiser (we named it Motor Trend's 2001 Car of the Year).

Granted, there's a new classification of automobile on the horizon, so-called sports tourers or crossovers exemplified by the forthcoming '04 Chrysler Pacifica among others. These larger-than-wagon, smaller-than-SUV something or others will likely capture those who don't want the real or perceived stigma of a minivan nor the environmentally insensitive label associated with traditional sport/utilities-even those me-too car-based cute-utes. What's left are fun-to-drive, surprisingly useful, four-door sport wagons that'll catch the attention of young or young-minded buyers who value style, cargo capacity, performance, and price-probably in that order. Besides, they're even more fun to drive than some sports cars and sport sedans. Really.

The relatively low-cost examples we gathered for this comparo also should've included the upcoming 205-hp turbocharged Chrysler PT Cruiser GT (see "First Drive," this issue), but one wasn't yet available for testing. Conversely, instead of comparing a lower-priced, otherwise near-identical non-turbo 165-hp Subaru Impreza 2.5TS AWD Sport Wagon ($17,495), we decided to lob a few rounds over the bow of the oft-praised turbocharged WRX Sport Wagon ($23,495); this particular tester resides in our own One-Year Test fleet. It was fitted just this month with a set of optional plus-one BBS/Bridgestone Potenza boots at a seriously pricey retail cost of $3035, bringing the as-tested total to an artificially swollen $27,055. Price-hedging aside, the Mazda Proteg5 ($16,335 base) and Toyota Matrix XRS ($18,750 base) hold more than a few surprises for the more expensive, hot-rodded WRX.

The core values all three of these hatchback sport wagons share are four doors, fuel-efficient high-revving four-cylinder engines, flexible load-carrying capacity, manual transmissions, and higher-than-expected levels of handling prowess-hence the "sport" in sport wagon.

We asked each manufacturer to please send us its highest-output best-handling compact wagon, and as a result, the list of standard equipment swells over their lesser models. Common to each of the three wagons are standard CD stereo, leather/tilt wheel, foglights, remote entry, power window/locks, cruise control, four-wheel disc brakes, and sport-tuned suspension and wheels. Call it all the "basic good stuff" (BGS) package.

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.

As a bonus, the Matrix features a rear-glass hinge (like some SUVs) in addition to its hatch opening, allowing a person to safely retrieve items that may have shifted during rapid transit and are in danger of falling out if the cargo door itself is opened. Another benefit of a glass opening is that it requires less swing-out space if the vehicle is backed near an obstacle.

Driver-seat comfort and bolstering have as much to do with first impressions as they portend a car's sporting intentions and abilities. From the moment we climbed into the Subaru, we knew something fun was afoot (or aseat). With high-thigh and deep-side bolstering, the WRX's racing-style front buckets mean business. They're also highly adjustable.

The Mazda has similar though less purposeful seats up front that scored highly. While each of our editor's physical dimensions are different, we find the Matrix's driver's seat less supportive than the others and adjusts through a narrower range. That makes it difficult for us to find just the right combo of legroom and wheel-to-chest distance. If we set the legroom, the steering wheel is too close, and vice versa. If either the steering wheel telescoped or pedals were adjustable, it'd be easier to feel at home in the Matrix. Rear-seat accommodations actually do follow the tale of the measuring tape. From largest to smallest, we find the Matrix most comfortable, the Protege5 slightly less so, and the WRX almost a bit tight, though not objectionable.

Enough of content, cargo, and comfort. These are, after all, sport wagons and a blast to drive. It used to be four-bangers were just that: Small-displacement economy-minded little motors for commuter cars. Turbochargers, variable valve-timing, and high-revving multi-valve DOHC heads changed all that. Today's four-cylinder motors are cleaner than ever, they still sip at the gas pump, but you can also pump the gas pedal to make things more exciting.


All three wagons have high-revving capabilities, yet each manufacturer puts a different spin on the concept. The Mazda Protege5 is the cleanest-running here, earning a ULEV rating. While it lacks the absolute horsepower the other two offer, its 2.0L/130-hp inline-four (the only engine currently offered) runs on less-expensive regular-grade gasoline and returns the best EPA mileage figures of the three. The Protege5 does, however, offer a more useable amount of torque at a lower rpm than the Matrix: 135 lb-ft at 4000 rpm versus 130 lb-ft at 6800 rpm. Because of this around-town-rpm earnestness, we'd hardly say the Protege5 is slow--it's merely horsepower challenged. Still, it doesn't embarrass itself at the test track, returning a decent 8.82-sec sprint to 60 mph, and clips the slalom cones at a pace (66.4 mph) that would challenge most sports cars. No doubt the trick strut-tower brace and anti-roll bars aided in wagon's extremely flat and predictable nature. Equipped with ABS, the Protege5 comes to a halt from 60 mph in a respectable 124 ft.

Because the WRX's turbocharged LEV-status production 227-hp/2.0L was born to aid Subaru's World Rally Championship racing efforts, it's designed to be both powerful and torquey. Contrary to what one might expect from a turbo, its useable torque is not nearly as subject to engine rpm as the Matrix's naturally aspirated 1.8L, nor does it display too much turbo-lag. Perhaps because of the engine's flat configuration, or perhaps because the turbo wakes up at a usefully low rpm, we find the engine both civilized at low rpm and an absolute Mustang-slayer at full throttle. Get the launch technique just right, and the World Rallye Blue wagon jumps off the line and screams to a 5.86-sec 0-60-mph run-fastest of the group by almost a second and a half. Perhaps we were pinning too much hope on our expensive new tires and wheels, but the WRX's slalom speed (65.0 mph) increased by just 2 mph over the standard 16-inchers with all-season rubber. That's still outstanding, especially for a wagon.

On the downside, we've begun to notice those expansion joints and uneven pavement more with the shorter sidewalls, yet we really enjoy their crisper turn-in characteristics and far less tire howl than the mud and snow-rated tires they replaced. Tradeoff? Our only wish is that the WRX was available with a six-speed rather than the five it now has. Tightening up the gear spacing between 1 and 5 and adding an overdrive sixth gear (which is what Toyota tries to do with the Matrix) would solve the low-rpm lethargy we observe in nearly all small-displacement motors. Otherwise, it's as sporty a wagon as you can buy short of an Audi S6 Avant for close to $60,000.

By adding a muffler that approximates an exhaust note more often produced by aftermarket systems, the Matrix XRS's 1.8L/180-hp TLEV-spec engine sounds more aggressive than the other two. With an eyebrow-raising 9000-rpm redline, it's a car ready for the pages of Super Street magazine. Driving it around town, we find ourselves looking less at the tach for shift points and more to the momentum we feel in our seats and the tone reaching our ears. Occasional glances reveal we've been driving it comfortably in the 3000-6000-rpm range, which comes as a bit of a surprise. Sure, it sounds a little buzzy, but that's where it likes to perform. If we want to awaken the angry nest of wasps under the XRS' hood, we simply keep the pedal matted past the magical 6000-rpm VVTL-i changeover to its high-lift long-duration cam timing. There's plenty of wheelspin on tap if you want it, and moderating this tendency with a sensitive foot on the accelerator nets an SVT Focus-beating 7.26-sec 0-60-mph time (MT, April, 2002).

This alone would enthuse us because the low-volume high-tech 170-hp SVT is one of the most impressive front-drivers around. However, the Matrix XRS went on to nearly tie the same Focus with a truly fast 66.9-mph average speed in the 600-ft slalom. Finally, as if to add insult to injury, the pretentious, non-conformist Matrix stopped 4 ft shorter from 60 mph than the Focus in a world-class 114 ft. On those rare occasions when the upgraded stereo isn't being evaluated-we recommend the Propellerheads for full effect-we found the droning exhaust note a bit objectionable, especially at freeway speeds where its pitch changes little. Then again, attitude is part of this wagon's package.

We learned a great deal living with and driving these three wagons. First and foremost, the words "wagon" and "fun" can be used in the same sentence. Wagons are easier to park than SUVs, more fuel-efficient, better suited to carving up a curvy road, and, to some, better looking. Turbochargers are your friends, and performance tires are worth the money, especially if mud and snow aren't semi-present in your local climate. Don't trust government-supplied measurements, and don't presume a Japanese wagon with the chrome letters "WRX" on the rear hatch is a pushover.

Specifically, we learned to appreciate Mazda's Protege5 for its bargain price of entry, the styling of a Lexus IS 300 SportCross (almost), and its extremely well-engineered suspension package that runs with the best of them yet doesn't beat occupants to a frothy foam. Bonus points for a clean engine plus good fuel mileage. What it lacks is the seat-up cargo space befitting a wagon, about 30 hp, and a 17-in. wheel package. Just the 10 horses and other goodies that already appear on the MP3 sedan would greatly increase its appeal.

We still, and absolutely, love our Subaru WRX Wagon. In the car's confidential logbook is written, "Things I like: WRC Blue paint, sport seats, and slaying Mustangs. Things I'll forgive: All-season tires, lack of sound-attenuating materials, and self-inflicted poor fuel mileage." The fact that WRX sales were off the charts last year indicates that it's truly caught on. Now, if it weren't for this darned hard-to-classify, do-almost-everything-well, priced-to-fly-off-dealer-lots Toyota Matrix, the mighty WRX would've been our first choice.

At the test track, the Matrix beats most of the best front-drivers out there, it swallows cargo like a moving van, and even the sportiest, most expensive example costs less than $20,000. Because the edgy look might not be for everybody, you can also buy a Pontiac version called the Vibe. While Chrysler may have hummed the right tune last year with the revolutionary PT Cruiser, leave it to Toyota to get the performance right, and design a new type of Bandwagon-then price it sensibly.

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