KONA, HI — Mazda Motor Corp. has been waiting for three generations of Protege to introduce the 5-door hatchback to North America. It has concluded the time is now. The ’02 Protege5 sport wagon is finding its way into showrooms with the expectation it will account for 10% of Protegé sales this year and 15% next year, says Stephen Odell, chief operating officer of North American operations.

The vehicle is a credible entry — the trick will be to snare consumer interest and avoid head-to-head competition with the 5-door Ford Focus ZX5, which goes on sale this fall. Ford Motor Co. has a 33.4% stake in Mazda Motor Corp. but the two vehicles do not share any components. Mazda officials say it will not be an issue: the Protege5 will appeal to import buyers while Focus is geared to those who prefer domestics.

The Protege 5 may not generate a doubletake as it zips by, but it is pleasing to look at and to drive. At least one early customer loves her purchase for the utility and comfortable seats.

Officials in North America, anxious to sell the wagon, have been researching the market since 1995 when some European models were shipped over to gauge consumer response. “They thought it was sporty and European, but they were not ready to buy,” says Gary Roudebush, manager of product marketing plans.

By late 1999, market acceptance and a clearer buyer group (young males) was emerging. When the research was finalized earlier this year, “it showed everything was all lined up,” says Mr. Roudebush. “People in the U.S are ready for this vehicle.”

The targeted demographic is buyers in their early 30s — 62% male, 41% married, 71% college graduates — with a household income of $62,000.

Along the way, the name changed as well. The working name: Mazda Sport Wagon, gave way to Protege5, denoting the five doors.

Off-road capability was considered and decided against, leaving that end of the market to the Mazda Tribute compact sport/utility vehicle, says Mr. Roudebush.

The result is very much on-road, with an aggressive front fascia and integrated air dams to draw the eye down, below the new, full headlamps.

The base 2L 4 cyl. engine produces 130 hp and 135 lb.-ft. (183 Nm) of torque. It meets 2002 ULEV standards. At lower speeds, you could almost feel the tug of the emissions control equipment working. Mileage is 25 mpg in the city and 31 highway (9.4L/100 km to 7.6L/100 km). Price for the base package is $16,815, including delivery and destination charges,

Shifting the manual transmission is a smooth treat, and the cabin is quiet. Features such as antilock brakes and side air bags are options, while the removable roof rack is standard.

The rear spoiler sports a high-mounted stopping light. The entire liftgate must be raised for access to the finished cargo area (a rubberized mat is optional) of 19.8 cu. ft. (561L) with the rear seat intact and 24.4 cu. ft. (691L) with the split rear seat folded.

To add further pizzazz to the Protege name, Mazda buffed up 1,500 units and outfitted them with $1,200 sound systems — complete with Kenwood MP3 players — for sale as the ’01 Mazda MP3, the first vehicle named after a feature. At $18,500, they are all sold, including the four in the press fleet.

Made in Japan, the MP3 is an unprecedented collaboration with the aftermarket and harkens back to the Protege Street 2000 concept of a few years ago, says Rubin Archilla, manager of the product excellence team. Tweaked inside and out, it is the first of a series of performance vehicles for the North American market over the next few years.

The first 1,000 laser blue mica MP3s were equipped with a first-generation factory-installed MP3 player to play condensed audio files. The final 500 are vivid yellow and outfitted with second-generation MP3 players that are Sirius satellite radio capable.

The tweaked DOHC, 16-valve, 2L, 4-cyl. engine puts out 140 hp and 142 lb.-ft. (193 Nm) of torque, which is less than might be desired. The control module has been modified for better throttle response. Also tweaked are the ignition time, air-fuel ratio, intake manifold and steel catalyst exhaust system. Features include 17 in. Racing Hart alloy wheels with Dunlop performance tires and steel speed pedals. The performance chassis has spring rates boosted 16% up front and 19% in rear, while the ride height has been lowered by half an inch. Tokico shocks and European spec steering gear help complete the package.