A dripping wet Kevin Davis eyes the bright yellow 2002 Mazda Protegé5 parked near White Sands Beach here.

"Can you pop the hatch?" asks Davis, whose body is adorned with Chinese and Hawaiian tattoos. "I've got to see if I can stack my body board." The hatch goes up and Davis, a 25-year-old cook at a local restaurant who says his current ride is "a pair of slippers," squeezes in his fluorescent orange board. It's about half the size of a conventional surfboard and it just fits sideways into the smallish rear cargo area. His friend Cody Okuhara, 17, throws in his own board. "You'll have no problem picking up girls in this," Davis tells his pal.

It's an amazing assessment, considering the Protegé5 (the number stands for five doors) is a variation of that old stalwart, the family station wagon. The Protegé5 is also one of the first in a slew of upcoming vehicles, including the Pontiac Vibe and the Toyota Matrix, designed to turn the old mom-mobile into an automotive status-sex symbol that's meant to appeal to young guys who may be tired of SUVs and sports cars.

The five-passenger Protegé5 goes on sale Thursday. It has a base price of $16,815, which includes a destination charge of $480. Mazda hopes to sell at least 15,000 of the new compacts in the first full year.

So skeptical were we that the whole MTV crowd would fall for this glorified wagon that we customized our own test drive. On a weekday afternoon in early May, we took the Protegé5 and hit three beaches on Hawaii's Big Island, canvassing the crowds for reaction. Among the overwhelmingly positive comments: "Aggressive." "Cute." "Cool." "Hot."

At Kona Coast State Park, we caught up with Shaun Trimble, a 24-year-old Pontiac salesman from Fresno, Calif., on vacation with his wife Samara, 21. Or rather Shaun caught up with us. He followed the Protegé5 in a rented Ford Escape along nearly two miles of unpaved road on a desolate lava bed. "The whole time Shaun was saying, `That's a cute car,' " said Samara after the mini-chase. "Besides, we want something bigger for when we have kids." Trimble currently owns a 1998 Mitsubishi Eclipse turbo and is shopping for a new vehicle.

"I don't see a family wagon when I look at this," he said. "Now, if it was a Taurus wagon, yuk. But this would be good for us. It would make Samara happy and it fits with my image."

He added: "This is really a sport recreational vehicle."

Or maybe just a cleverly packaged station wagon. The Protegé5, a spinoff of the inexpensive Protegé sedan (which has a large female following), is jazzed up with several key exterior features, although it is more conservatively styled than the Vibe and Matrix.

The Protegé5 sits on 16-inch alloy wheels with low-profile, high-performance tires. The front end has large foglamps and an oversized air dam to make it look low to the ground. The rear is defined by a roof spoiler and a roof-mounted antenna. The wagon al so has a standard removable black roof rack. The only exterior option is $500 polished wheels.

Expect to pay less than $18,500 for a well-equipped Protegé5 with the standard five-speed manual transmission (the optional four-speed automatic costs $800). We tested two versions in Hawaii, including a metallic silver model decked out with a $700 moonroof, $80 floor mats and an $800 package that bundles side air bags and antilock brakes.

The Protegé5's twin-cam 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine makes an acceptable, but not sensational 130 horsepower and 135 pounds-feet of torque. The EPA estimates the car will get 25 miles per gallon in city driving and 31 mpg on the highway with the manual transmission.

We found a few oversights on our test cars. Our concerns were echoed by the consumers who checked out the vehicles. First, there are no rear cupholders. Worse, there are no rear vents. Also the glass in the rear hatch does not pop open; to access the rear cargo area you must raise the entire tailgate. And the rear cargo area lacks a standard rubber mat, something that would have made sense with the damp body boards and wet swimsuits we encountered. We also noticed excessive wind noise at higher speeds.

Mazda said it is working to add the rear cupholders, perhaps by next year. A heavy-duty rubber mat may be an aftermarket option in the future. The Protegé5's cabin should please the target audience - 62 percent male, 41 percent married, with an average age of 31 and an average household income of $62,000.

The interior has a techy look, with off-black cloth seats, a three-spoke leather-wrapped steering wheel, silver accents and a split folding rear seat. An AM-FM stereo with CD player is standard, with a $500 in-dash six-disc CD changer available. Mazda plans to offer a mini-disc player in the future. Mothers of Protegé5 buyers should approve of the car's ride and handling. After several hours of scouring Hawaiian beaches for young guys, we were grateful for a vehicle that had a smooth ride (even on the lava bed) and was a snap to handle as we prowled the crammed parking lots at the Kona Pier and the highways of the Big Island.

It took the Americans at Mazda five years to persuade their Japanese counterparts to bring the five-door Protegé to the United States. After our unscientific poll, it appears to be a good idea.

"I know Protegé," said Kevin Davis, who plopped his wet behind in the driver's seat of our test car. "I know a couple of people who've owned them. They have guts. What I'm trying to say is I like this. I would buy it - if I had the money."