When it comes to small cars, the domestics are finding it increasingly difficult to make the sale.

While Korean, Japanese and European nameplates continue to sell, Ford Motor Co., General Motors Corp. and DaimlerChrysler AG are having trouble moving small sheetmetal in a segment forecast to reach 2,255,300 sales in 2002, down 2.7% from this year's 2,317,500.

Although there aren't huge profits to be reaped in this segment, it is critical because it usually represents that all-important first purchase and the potential to secure a loyal buyer for life if the experience is a positive one.

For the '02 model year, few carmakers have invested in all-new entries. Among the exceptions: Mitsubishi replaced the Mirage with Lancer and Mazda brought the Protege5 and MP3 to North America. The Ford Focus ZX5 5-door hatch makes its debut after strong reviews in Europe, and the Focus family embraces, for '02, the SVT Focus: a 3-door hatch with 170 horsepower and a 6-speed gearbox.

The SE-R version of the '02 Nissan Sentra returns for the first time since '94. The SE-R, and SE-R Spec V ultra-performance version, are sport-tuned versions of Nissan's compact car, including a 170-hp 4.cyl. engine — 180 hp for the Spec V — a performance-tuned suspension and sport-inspired design features.

Subaru makes a splash with the Impreza WRX Turbo and its more powerful, turbocharged 2L boxer 4-cyl., rally-tuned suspension, plus an eye-catching look that sets it apart from the more mainstream Impreza models.

Acura introduces the RSX to replace the entry-level Integra coupe. Based on the Civic, it comes with a choice of 2L 4-cyl. engines. Hyundai has a redesigned Tiburon with a 2.7L V-6 for greater performance.

They enter a field where the Kia Rio, noteworthy for its price but not its ride, sold 36,093 units from January to August of this year, outselling contenders including: Toyota Echo and Celica, Chevy Prizm, Volkswagen Golf, Subaru Impreza, Lancer/Mirage, as well as other Kia and Hyundai nameplates.

Volume sellers in this segment continue to be, in descending order: Honda Civic, Ford Focus, Toyota Corolla, Chevy Cavalier, Saturn S Series, Dodge Neon (the Plymouth version is officially retired for '02), Hyundai Elantra and Nissan Sentra.

But if you look at those enjoying the greatest sales gains, newcomer Rio leads the pack, followed by Kia Spectra, Subaru Impreza and Hyundai Tiburon. Among those losing the race are such stalwarts as Pontiac Sunfire, Ford Focus and Dodge Neon.

In a bid to boost sales, look for Toyota to unveil a new Corolla next year, and the partnership with GM yields the '03 Toyota Matrix and Pontiac Vibe sport wagons. Down the road, DC teams with Mitsubishi for a new shared platform for future Neon and Lancer.

Protege5, MP3 and Lancer small newcomers

With few new small car entries, Mazda Motor Corp. brings the 5-door Protege5 sport wagon to North America, having decided the market is ready to embrace the hatch once again.

The Protege5, which bases at $16,815 including delivery, features an aggressive front fascia and integrated air dams. The 2L DOHC 4 cyl. engine produces 130 hp and 135 lb.-ft. (183Nm) of torque and meets 2002 ULEV standards. Mileage is 25 mpg in the city and 31 highway (9.4 and 7.6L/100 km). It offers a quiet ride, optional antilock brakes and side air bags, while the removable roof rack is standard.

The entire liftgate must be raised for access to the 19.8-cu.-ft. (561 L) finished cargo area with an optional rubberized mat for the active buyer it is designed for. Fold the split rear seat to create 24.4 cu. ft. (691 L) of cargo space.

To add further pizzazz to the Protege name, Mazda buffs up a limited number of coupes and outfits them with $1,200 sound systems complete with Kenwood MP3 players, for sale as the Mazda MP3. Priced at $18,500, it is powered by the same 2L DOHC, 4-cyl. engine that puts out 140 hp and 142 lb.-ft. (193 Nm) of torque. The control module has been modified for better throttle response. Also tweaked are the ignition timing, air-fuel ratio, intake manifold and steel catalyst exhaust system. Features include 17-in. (43-cm) alloy wheels, performance tires, steel speed pedals, performance chassis and Tokico shocks.

Another newcomer for '02 is the Mitsubishi Lancer, a global compact that comes in three trim levels and fills the gap when the Mirage subcompact is phased out. The new contender, which is 4 ins. (10 cm) longer, more rigid, and powered by a 2L, 16-valve inline 4-cyl. engine, produces 120 hp and 130 lb.-ft. (176 Nm) of torque at 4,250 rpm. It comes with either a 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic transmission.
Alisa Priddle