Already good, now better.

by John Pearley Huffman

Mazda's Protege was already one of the best small cars. And since it was new back in '99, it's not really that old in the marketplace either. Still the company has decided it's time for significant revisions to their smallest sedan.

What's resulted is a better car in a market where its corporate cousin, the new-in-2000 Ford Focus, has emerged as the leader and standard-setter, and Honda has just introduced a new version of the traditionally best-selling Civic. The question is whether a better Protege can catch, equal, or better the Focus and Civic.

Stronger, faster, heavier

The big Protege news comes in the form of a big engine. Gone is the 122-horsepower, 1.8-liter, DOHC four that powered the top-of-the-line ES and was optional on the mid-grade LX in favor of a new 130-horsepower, 2.0-liter, DOHC four. It's more than a simple increase in displacement; the 1.8 was shared with the Miata sports car, while the new 2.0 comes from the same engine family as the base engine in the larger 626 sedan. A 103-horsepower, 1.6-liter, DOHC remains the base engine in both the bottom-line DX and the LX, and should be avoided by anyone interested in merging successfully into freeway traffic.

The new engine isn't the rip-snort sportster the same-size powerplant was in the much beloved '91-'94 Nissan Sentra SE-R (which was rated at 140 horsepower), but it's comfortable moving the Protege. Peak power comes at 6000 rpm, but the peak 135 lb-ft of torque comes at a significantly more relaxed 4000 rpm. This engine doesn't zing to its redline eagerly, but doesn't feel flabby either. It's a quiet sedan engine with an anonymous exhaust note and its easygoing torque production is probably as well, if not better, suited to the optional four-speed automatic transmission as it is to the standard five-speed manual.

The engine may be happy hooked to the serene automatic, but the five-speed is impressive. The ratios are perfectly chosen with a slight 0.97:1 overdrive in fourth leading to a 0.755:1 fifth and all feeding a 4.105:1 final drive ratio, and the shifter feels fantastic for a front-driver, approaching Honda levels of shift quality.

It's likely the power increase will mean the 2001 Protege is quicker than the 2000, but it's only an eight-horsepower increase and the revised car is heavier. With the new powertrain Mazda has modified the front of the car from structure to sheetmetal. Obviously there are new engine mounts; a transverse member was added for extra stiffness across the front MacPherson strut front suspension. Increased sheetmetal thickness around the struts and in the front crossmember further stiffens the structure.

Beyond that the ES also gets five-lug hubs, larger front and rear anti-sway bars and an additional roll dampening engine mount. Throw in rear disc brakes (ABS is optional on 2.0-liter models) and some additional sound deadening material and it winds up that a 2001 Protege ES weighs in at 2634 pounds, up 97 from the 2000 model. A run through the calculator indicates that each of the 122 horsepower in a 2000 Protege had 20.8 pounds to push, while each of the 130 in the 2001 model has about 20.3 pounds. That's a half-pound improvement in power-to-weight ratio, which is good, but the 2001 still shouldn't be a rocket ship.

But that extra structure, combined with the ES' generous-for-the-class 195/60R16 tires, does result in noticeably better handling and ride characteristics. Mazda also added a metal support yoke to the steering gear mechanism for greater rigidity and while that does add some accuracy to the system, it also transmits a bit more vibration through the wheel and to the driver's arms.

As it was before, the Protege is a delightful car to drive. It feels light, precise and tossable and the new engine is flexible and easy to keep in its powerband. Like every front-driver on Earth, it'll push its nose into corners but it takes some real determination to produce the tire squeal that indicates the limits of adhesion are being approached. And in regular driving it rides well, if not plushly. Without a Focus or Civic around with which to compare it, it's tough to make definitive conclusions, but it's in the ballpark.

Better looks, better sounds

Revisions to the Protege on the outside are modest but noticeable. The grille shape is more pronounced with a humongoid Mazda logo overlaying its center and the compound headlamp units are larger. The front bumper and hood are also new, and out back the taillights have been revised. Nothing here is startling. The car remains a conservatively styled, mostly anonymous design that looks better with the new five-spoke 16-inch wheels. Don't expect the Museum of Modern Art to suddenly start clearing gallery space for its display.

Inside the design theme is cleanliness rather than excitement. The front seats have been redesigned to provide better lumbar and lateral support and to transmit less vibration to the occupants. The dash itself is straightforward with three gauges in a binnacle directly in front of the driver and a center blister containing the audio system and ventilation controls. The steering wheel feels suitably hefty in hand and the faux-brushed metal trim is less disturbingly phony than would-be faux wood. The ES also gets white-faced gauges, which now officially qualify as a performance sedan cliche.

The star of the interior is a new modular audio system. Filling a standard two-DIN hole, the standard AM/FM radio's faceplate can be removed and a CD player or six-disc CD changer can be added to an upper bay. There's also a lower bay, which can accommodate a cassette player or MiniDisc player. For dealers, it lets them tailor the sound system to customers' desires even if the car is already in their inventory. And it sounds majestic.

More to come

No big surprise, the Protege remains one of the elite entry-level sedans. But Mazda's plans for the car don't stop there. Sometime this spring, they'll add the Protege 5, which is a short-coupled sport wagon version emboldened with even sportier trim (a three-spoke steering wheel and a deep front fascia with oversize driving lights) but carrying the ES' drivetrain. There's also a sportier version of the sedan coming, with tuning done by California's famed Racing Beat firm, that should include a more aggressive sounding exhaust system.

Whatever the future holds for the Protege, the present is pretty good already.

2001 Mazda Protege ES Sedan

Base price: $12,765; ES, $15,535
Engine: 2.0-liter four-cylinder, 130 hp
Transmission: five-speed manual; four-speed automatic (optional)
Wheelbase: 102.8 in
Length: 175.3 in
Width: 67.1 in
Height: 55.5 in
Weight: 2634 lb
Fuel economy (city/hwy): 25/31 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags
Major standard equipment: Power steering, dual side mirrors, remote hatch/trunk release, remote fuel release, rear window defroster, tilt steering
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles

© 2000 The Car Connection

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