Pint-sized fun from across the other pond.
by Bob Storck
INDEPENDENCE, Mo. - Once the crossroads of the way west, this fabled way station has been lost in the confusion of modern urban America. In the same way, what was heralded as a smart, spunky enthusiast car has been lost in the marketing and buying conformity of the modern purchasing process.
The Mazda Protege deserves better. It shares the same basic engine with the Miata, and has the same fun and passion for the road. If you aspire to the fun of a European sports sedan with none of the sticker shock, the Protege is a reasonable choice.
The Protege traces its heritage back to the 1977 Mazda GLC - marketed as the 'Great Little Car' - a three-door hatchback. In 1986, Mazda introduced a new name: GLC was out and 323 was in. In 1990, Mazda gave us the first Protege four-door sedan, marketed as a slightly more upscale model but built on the same platform.
This latest Protege was designed with input from Japanese, the European and U.S. design and development facilities. What's most noticeable about the car, at least from the inside, is the perceived amount of room. Mazda has defined their interior modeling process as "OptiSpace," and while all companies do this in some form, it is especially successful on the new Protege. OptiSpace attacks every component from bumper to bumper, seeking to shape and place them so as to squeeze as much room as possible for people. The result is the largest interior of any car in the compact class, and that includes the Chrysler Neon and the Honda Civic. All of the interior components have been carefully shaped to adapt to the human form - all of it subtle, but the end result is substantial. In addition there is a 60/40 split rear seat that can fold down to accommodate all but the biggest urban headaches.
The chassis utilizes a stronger and stiffer Triple-H construction to enhance ride and safety, yet through careful attention to componentry, the car is even lighter than before. The reinforced frame creates an extremely strong passenger compartment structure that ensures excellent protection for Protege occupants in side impacts or rollovers. Dual de-powered airbags are standard, as are three-point seatbelts for all five seating positions. Front seat side airbags are available on LX and ES models.
For 2000, the Protege's optional LX and ES Packages include front seat side airbags and an improved ABS system with Electronic Brake Force Distribution (EBFD). The EBFD system automatically adjusts the braking force of the rear brakes depending on vehicle load, ensuring shorter stopping distances when fully loaded. Anti-lock brakes were standard on previous ES models, but Mazda economizing has changed them to options.
With recent gas hikes, Protege should be on a lot of shopping lists. There are two engines, and the new 1.6-liter four has enough power to satisfy all but the most power hungry. True, the larger 1.8-liter engine in the ES is much better with the automatic transmissions, but there is not the disparity between engines that most models have. The 1.6-liter engine achieves Ultra-Low Emission Vehicle (ULEV) status in California, making it the first vehicle in its class to achieve this distinction. Both engines may be mated to either a five-speed manual transmission or an electronically controlled four-speed automatic.
The Protege is important to Mazda, as it is their bread-and-butter car. While they can't claim to sell a quarter-million or more copies as can Honda and Ford, they depend on the Protege's solid appeal to keep them in the econobox hunt. This latest edition easily maintains Mazda's stature among the little guys.
2000 Mazda Protege
Base Price: $11,970
Engine: 1.6-liter in-line four, 105 hp; 1.8-liter in-line four, 122 hp
Transmission: five-speed manual, four-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 102.8 in
Length: 174.0 in
Width: 67.1 in
Height: 55.5 in
Weight: 2600 lb (est.)
Fuel economy: 29 city/ 34 hwy (1.6-liter, five-speed)
Major standard equipment:
Dual front and side airbags
© 2000 The Car Connection