When I was a senior in high school, I bought my first car: a little yellow 2003 Mazda Protegé5. It had a 2.0L inline four engine, four-speed automatic transmission, and just under 200,000 miles on it. I paid cash for it (probably more than I should have due to the number of repairs that had to be done to it), and the man I bought it from was the original owner. In fact, just before we drove off with the car, Mom found a Polaroid-style photo of the man and his family in the glovebox, taken by the dealer on the day he bought it brand-new. (He didn’t knock the price down for that find, though.)
After a new radiator, an EGR (engine gas recirculation) valve clean (which took three days for Dad and I to do), a brand-new front end and hood from when I rear-ended someone, and I-can’t-remember-how-many other repairs, I decided to upgrade to a car I thought would (more) reliably get me to college and work every day. One year after I bought the Protegé5, I bought a 2005 Mazda 3 hatchback from a guy in Dallas. When I bought it, it had just over 110,000 miles on the engine and had just had the clutch replaced. That’s right: it was a five-speed.
It took me several hours spread over the course of three days to really learn how to drive stick, and then a month or so to really master it, including idiosyncrasies like hill starts, rev matching, and heel-toe braking (not something I used every day, but taught myself anyway). After that, though, I melded with that car.
Compared to the Protegé5 that soon became my brother’s car, my Mazda 3 was a step up in almost every way. It was quieter, it rode smoother, and you could actually drive over sixty miles per hour in it at lower RPMs. The dark interior, though cloth and plastic, looked and felt more luxurious than the drab gray of the P5. Being a five-speed, it got great gas mileage: I averaged 28 mpg combined over the course of my ownership. And, while the P5 would take off like a go kart, the 3 would actually keep going.
Was it reliable? Yes, it was. I don’t recall a day when I didn’t drive it to school. It started up every time, had a hot heater and a cold A/C (important in Texas!), and always stopped when I needed to. Aside from replacing the MAF (mass air flow) sensor and cleaning carbon deposits off the intake manifold (I think Mazda engines, at least from this era, tend to run rich and leave such deposits), the car required no engine work. In fact, I would wager the engine to last at least 200,000 miles, if not more.
However, it did require work elsewhere. The headlights were so oxidized that I had to take the front end of the car apart and replace both assemblies. The suspension grew squeakier and squeakier throughout my ownership. I had to replace both front struts, and needed to replace both rear suspension assemblies (but didn’t). A motor mount caused a rough ride, so I had it replaced as well. These are things that do wear out over the normal life cycle of a car, and yet even as I replaced parts, things continued to squeak, creak, and groan.
Despite all this, I really bonded with the 3. In a way, I developed what some call “machine empathy” with it. I could feel when to shift gears without looking at the tachometer and isolate new rattles and squeaks from the existing harmless ones. It wasn’t the fastest or flashiest car on the road, but I felt like I operated it as an extension of my arms and legs, and that’s what mattered to me.
We had some great experiences together, too. It got me safely home during a surprise snowfall one afternoon (a rarity in Texas). It got me and my brother safely to Kansas City and back for the Great American Eclipse of 2017, and more recently to Austin and back. For whatever reason, rain is the car’s perfect weather. Everything just tightens up and smoothes out, and it’s one reason I enjoy driving in the rain.
It’s been a great commuter, get-around-town car for me. However, it has to stretch as a road-trip or travel vehicle. It’s fairly loud on the highway, it channels bumps abruptly into the frame, and it’s hard to pack out when camping. As I find myself traveling greater distances by road, whether in the Metroplex or on vacation, it’s sadly less and less pleasurable to drive. Though I’m torn, and I wanted to “drive it until the wheels fall off,” I’ve decided it’s time to acquire another vehicle.
So, this write-up is in honor of my intrepid little Mazda 3, which I have put through the paces during my ownership. It ain’t the young car it once was, but it’s still got a lot of life in it. It’s not a Honda or a Toyota, but I’m impressed that it runs and rides as well as it does at its age. It’s served me well, and I know it’ll serve its next owner well too.