Injecting a little class into the econobox.
by Bob Plunkett
Leave it to Mazda - the Japanese automaker with a flair for developing sporty performers like the Miata roadster - to figure out a way to inject excitement into the basically boring automotive proposition known as an economical compact sedan.
Mazda's solution: borrow an existing compact platform, carve out generous space for passengers, add precise mechanical components, then decorate the package in a sophisticated manner with touches of creative automotive elegance.
Mazda calls the resulting product the 1999 Protege. Frankly, it emerges as an impressive new design which looks classy and feels fun to drive. The compact four-door in familiar sedan notchback form breaks the mold of the typical inexpensive but dull econobox due to its zippy engine, tight suspension and rigid chassis. All the ingredients combine to induce a highly sporty demeanor.
With this new treatment for Protege, Mazda's designers managed to create maximum interior space for people, pile on comfort features usually carried by more expensive models, then offer perky acceleration but also bring home the fuel economy figures of a miserly commuter car.
And in the process of matching or exceeding best-in-class figures in a number of different categories to measure interior space and safety assets, Mazda's team also produced a classy piece of work.
The formal look of Protege seems vaguely like a reduced image of the staple Mazda sedan, the mid-size 626. Protege's narrow grille flashes bold chrome accents, set between prismatic wrap-around headlamps and underscored by the body-colored bumper. A slanted hood line and sharp rake to the windshield initiate a fluid aerodynamic profile for Protege, which shows flat side panels interrupted only by sculptured lips as inscribed in arches over wheel wells.
Then at the tail there's a fairly flat trunk deck capped by crisp metal which cascades to body-colored bumper, with taillamps at back corners. As sophisticated and classy as this exterior styling may be, don't judge Protege by the slant of its prow or the curt cut of its tail. Instead, climb inside to find the heart of this car.
Big-time cabin space has been crafted from the car's compact chassis. Inch for inch, Protege contains more usable room for legs and elbows and heads and hands than many pricey mid-size imports. There's so much space — 92.6 cubic feet in all — that this car moves up in class when measured by interior volume. You'll feel the extra roominess in the cockpit where the driver's bucket wraps around your backside. You'll also notice the comforting swirling curve of the armrest on the driver's door, placed perfectly to catch your left elbow. Stretch your right arm across the rider's seat and you must lean to reach the door latch — it's that far away.
Then check out the available head room. With my long torso and six-foot frame, I still found enough room atop head to wedge left palm on top of right fist. By this method, that's well over four inches of spare head room. The official front head room figure amounts to 39.3 inches, if you're counting. Now move to the rear seat, where the true test of a compact sedan may be assessed. In Protege, I could still stand a fist on my head to demonstrate how much space remained (total rear head room reaches to 37.4 inches).
But where this car's interior dimensions most amazed me occurred when I crossed my legs in that back seat. Usually, I can only cross limbs in the rear compartment of full-size models with a stretched wheelbase. Protege, with rear leg room officially measuring 35.4 inches, could be the only compact in which I would not object to riding in the rear for a hundred miles or more.
And if you travel in a Protege, you'll find another spacious surprise when you pop the rear decklid: about 13 cubic feet of cargo room in the boxy trunk.
How did Mazda manage to extract such a spacious passenger compartment from a compact frame? By bringing together stylists, engineers and product planners, Mazda's design team went beyond the popular cab-forward concept to address a range of aspects about the car's overall design and function. They tackled the problem by packaging the interior compartment in a spacious manner, developing a congruous niche to house the engine, making the cabin more functional for driver and riders, then beefing up the overall structure and installing critical safety elements.
Mazda calls this process an "OptiSpace" design. Its roots come from experience in developing bigger and more expensive Mazda sedans like Millenia and 626.
Computerized anti-lock action for brakes is available, but as an optional item. Mazda produces three levels of trimmings for Protege — the entry model DX, plush LX and a forceful ES. The DX and LX models use a dual-cam 1.6-liter inline four engine rated at 105 hp, yet Protege ES gets an aggressive 1.8-liter twin-cam engine, bumping power to 122 hp.
For California and other states with laws controlling engine emissions, special versions of these engines trim output by 2 hp to qualify as a Low-Emission Vehicle (LEV). A manual five-speed transmission or an optional four-speed electronic automatic will mate to each engine.
In a Protege test drive, you too may detect traces of the luxurious. These nuances arise in subtle ways, like the firm and supportive fit of driver's seat, a functional cockpit design with easy-to-view placement of instruments in the eyebrow curve of a dash panel, or even the quiet isolation of the cabin.
The driver's seat adapts well to body due to height adjustments as well as fore and too-far aft tracking, and there's foot room for a rear rider beneath the front seat because seat tracks are mounted to the side of the center tunnel, leaving space in between for rear feet.
Dual airbags are aboard, along with concealed safety assets such as strong steel bracing in side doors to shield against a side impact.
There's obvious value in the 1999 Protege, with a raft of standard features even on the DX version, which lists for only $14,995.
© 1998 The Car Connection