A compact sedan with luxury car quality. by Kevin Ransom
Base Price $15,745
As Tested $17,845
Mazda's Protege shows that subcompacts aren't the barren transportation devices they used to be. Buying a subcompact just a few years ago meant settling for a spartan, low-quality econobox that lacked power and handled poorly.
Today, makers of economy cars know they have to deliver the goods to consumers. Chrysler recently learned this the hard way. Consumers who attended their product clinics said they wanted a five-cent cigar -- an economy car that was cheap, inexpensive, economical. Chrysler listened to its customers and designed bare-bones Neons that retailed for less than $10,000. It was a mistake. Few bought these inexpensive models. Instead, people bought small cars that offered quality and features that approached the levels of larger, more expensive cars.
Mazda's Protege is a great example of this latter category. The Protege offers a luxurious ride quality, sporty handling, respectable performance and more interior space than many luxury cars. Quality is at luxury car levels because the Protege is built at a state-of-the-art assembly plant designed to produce Lexus-like luxury sedans.
Mazda completely redesigned and re-engineered the Protege for 1995. It was strengthened with an extremely rigid, but lightweight, chassis, which substantially improved ride quality and handling. Mazda's engineers employed some clever space-management techniques to increase interior space. The Protege is roomier than the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and Nissan Sentra. In fact, it's roomier than some mid-size and luxury cars. While they were at it, Mazda's design team improved the Protege's aesthetic appeal by giving it a more ovoid shape.
The Protege comes in three trim levels: entry-level DX, well-equipped LX and more powerful ES. All are equipped well, including a tilt steering column, adjustable front seat belt anchors, dual cupholders and rear-seat heater ducts. LX and ES models come with cruise control, power windows, power mirrors and power door locks and a split fold-down rear seat.
DX and LX Proteges are powered by a highly efficient 1.5-liter in-line four-cylinder engine. It's rated at 37 mpg on the highway when equipped with the standard five-speed manual gearbox. Equipped with double overhead-camshafts (dohc), it produces a respectable 92 horsepower and offers good performance.
ES models come equipped with a more powerful 1.8-liter engine that produces 122 horsepower. This engine is also used in the Miata and turns the Protege into a small luxury sports sedan.
Either engine can be ordered with a five-speed manual gearbox or a four-speed automatic transmission.
Safety is enhanced by high-strength steer bars in the doors, dual airbags, and available anti-lock brakes (ABS).
We drove the ES, which has a base price of $15,745. (All prices include the $450 destination charge.) Our Protege ES came with a high level of standard equipment, including air conditioning, AM/FM/CD stereo, cloth sport seats, and reclining front bucket seats with adjustable thigh support and seat height on the driver's side.
Our test car came loaded with options: carpeted floor mats and armrest guards ($105), automatic transmission ($800), and the $1,195 ES Premium package, which includes power sunroof, alloy wheels with locks, keyless entry and alarm. All of this boosted the total price to $17,845.
Styling is a relative term in the subcompact world. Obviously, the lines of a subcompact won't be as long nor as sleek as those of a sport coupe or mid-size sedan. Nor should they be. When purchasing a subcompact, such matters usually take a back seat to durability, ride quality, and value. That said, the Protege's taut, self-contained styling is attractive and looks a bit more sophisticated than most subcompacts.
The front end is stately looking in a subtle way. Flush-mounted halogen headlights complement the narrow grille and understated front air dam. The black lower fascia, door trim, mirror housings, body-side moldings and recessed door handles contrasted nicely with the silver paint on our test car for an elegant look.
The rear wraparound taillamps are large and highly visible. This makes a strong styling statement. It also enhances safety: When the Protege's large brake lights illuminate, drivers following along behind should have no trouble seeing them, which could reduce the chance of a rear-end collision.
The Inside Story
This five-passenger sedan offers a surprising amount of space for its size. With 95.5 cubic feet of interior room, the Protege is one of the roomiest vehicles in its class. This gives it an edge over the Nissan Sentra (87.2 cubic feet), Toyota Corolla (88.0), and Honda Civic (89.8).
Tall drivers should find plenty of head room up front and there's even more head room in the back seats. In the legroom department, the driver's seat can be adjusted to provide more than adequate space for a six-foot driver, while leaving enough breathing room for the passenger sitting directly behind.
All instruments are highly legible and easy to read. Cruise control switches are conveniently situated on the steering wheel, and the power-window buttons can be easily flicked while laying your left arm comfortably on the armrest. A small change compartment on that armrest is ready for toll booths. Cupholders are nicely integrated, an improvement over the flimsy, slide-out versions we see in many cars.
The glove box can be easily reached from the driver's seat. We would have liked a little more storage space in the console. There's enough room for five cassette tapes and another small storage compartment under the stereo affords enough space for two or three more tapes.
Aesthetically, the interior of our Protege was an attractive, monochrome design, with four matching shades of gray. Two-tone cloth seats offered a rich appearance, particularly for subcompact standards.
Owners of small cars are often concerned about cargo space, but the Protege offers 13.1 cubic feet of trunk space. That's plenty of room for a major grocery run or luggage for several people.
Ride & Drive
Subcompact buyers sometimes say they want a cheap car, but what most of them really want is a smooth ride quality and responsive handling.
The Protege rides as smoothly as many top-notch midsize sedans. It's extremely stable at speeds over 75 mph, a benefit of its stiff chassis.
It also offers sporty handling, making it a lot of fun to drive. The steering is precise and transient response is crisp, a benefit in lane-change maneuvers or on winding backroads. In this regard, the Protege compares very favorably to the Civic, Corolla and Sentra. These are benefits of the rigid chassis, four-wheel independent suspension and rack-and-pinion power-assisted steering. The front suspension uses MacPherson struts with an anti-roll bar. The rear suspension employs Mazda's twin-trapezoidal link design; the ES model benefits further from a rear anti-roll bar, which reduces body lean in corners and sharpens transient response.
Equipped with an automatic, our ES offered quick acceleration. Those with the standard five-speed manual transmission accelerate even more rapidly, offer better fuel economy, and are capable of using the available power more efficiently.
The Final Word
The general high quality of the Protege is no happy accident. The car is built in Mazda's Hofu plant, which is one of the auto industry's truly world-class assembly plants. It was built just a few years ago and was to be the assembly facility for Mazda's luxury channel -- Lexus is Toyota's luxury channel -- before that plan was abandoned. The plant was completed, however, and produces Mazda's high-quality Millenia luxury sedan alongside the Protege. Clearly, the same attention to detail that makes the Millenia such a triumph has carried over to the Protege. That's good company to be in.
Overall, the Protege is a great choice for buyers who want a roomy, high-quality small sedan that offers crisp handling and performance. Mazda's biggest challenge is to get the Protege on the shopping list of people who are looking at Hondas, Toyotas and Nissans. It's well worth adding Mazda to this list.
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