"What's the fastest car in the world? A rental car, of course!"
That old chestnut, the object example of truth lovingly wrapped in a cliché. We all know people who have purchased cars previously the property of a rental or loaner fleets. And not ironically, either; this wasn't some vane nod toward empathy – like adopting an abused baby harp seal because you feel bad – or merely thumbing their nose at the Goddess of Nice Used Cars. They saw no problem in purchasing an automobile that had likely never known an easy day in its life.
It doesn't matter if it's a Camaro SS or a Dodge Avenger, an Audi A6 or a Kia Rio, a Nissan Quest or a Lincoln MK-whatever. Nobody has ever been nice to a rental car.
Unless said rental car isn't really a rental. If you have friends who are drunkenly foolish kind and generous enough to loan you a car for your week-long California vacation, you're much less likely to beat on it. Further, if the car is a cute little blue station wagon with a proper three-pedal manual transmission… well, we here at TTS really like harp seals.
That's not to say our little Mazda Protege5 – dead-stock and with six-figure miles – didn't see some exercise. We put around 1,000 miles on the digital clock running all over the Bay Area. We slogged through East Shore Freeway and San Francisco rush hour traffic. We cruised a lot around iconic Alameda island. Best of all by far, we got to play in my old stomping grounds of Marin county and the Marin Headlands, Mt. Tamalpais, and Route 1.
Now, not only is the Bay Area some of the most beautiful country in the country, but these are some of the best driving roads period. You've seen these ribbons cut into the hills in any and every magazine from Bimmer to Sports Car International to some of the European rags, and in numerous car ads from Acura, Mercedes-Benz and even Dodge ("Hi!"). In fact, when I lived there I used to run into the film and photo crews – literally and figuratively – from time to time.
Yes, there are more bicyclists than there used to be, but that's mostly on the weekends. Yes, these are what I like to call "one chance roads" in that, if you leave the road, well… that was your one chance! Sorry about the lack of guardrails, but the locals know better.
The speed limit on much of Mt. Tam is 35 mph, and you would have to work like hell to consistently maintain that speed. Honestly. You really don't have to be running at hypersonic speeds to get your jollies. Besides, a light, modestly-powered car may be all the fun your heart can handle.
The best way to sum up the Mazda's gestalt is it combined the handling dynamics of my 1985 Honda Prelude with the engine feel, steering, and ergonomics of my 1993 Miata LE. The 2.0-liter, 130 horsepower engine was willing but a little rough at higher RPMS, at least by today's standards. The shifter was smooth with medium throws, more akin to the Honda. On the backroads and up in the hills, it was light on its feet, but when really pushed the front end would wash out through the hairpins. Ratchet down to six- or even seven-tenths and find your rhythm, and the little Mazda positively danced.
It was an absolute sweetheart of a partner.
As a regular car, the Protege5 also did well. It behaved sitting in the aforementioned traffic, it's clutch pedal never becoming a burden and its seats remaining quite comfortable. It handled the kiddo's car seat and other accoutrements just fine. It took our Target purchases – because it doesn't matter where we are in the United States, we'll end up at a Target store – with ease. Overall, it returned mileage somewhere in the mid-20s. Actually, I didn't really keep track of it, but based on fill-up frequency and miles per tank, that seems about right.
So, is it the best "rental" car on my personal list? Maybe. It's certainly in my top 10, and maybe even top 5. The company the Mazda keeps on that list includes a Dodge Charger R/T, a Jaguar S-Type and a slightly rusty Mercedes ML320.
Make of that what you will.
Epilogue: Somewhere during the week I noticed a sweet smell from outside the car at stoplights. Turns out, the original radiator was weeping from the breather hose nipple, just under the cap. I wound up borrowing a lift and some tools from my old friend Bill Arnold at his shop. I'm happy to report, in addition to everything else I really liked about the Mazda, it's dead simple to wrench on, too.