One of the best cars in its class.
by Kevin Ransom
Base Price (MSRP) $12,765
As Tested (MSRP) $18,395
The commercials showing a Mazda Protege whipping down a winding desert road, filling the mirrors of a wildly flailing Miata aren't off the mark. The 2001 Mazda Miata delivers sprightly performance and can maintain its own against all comers in this price range. Zoom! Zoom! Zoom!
Though already outstanding, the Mazda Protege got a major makeover for 2001.
More power is available through the addition of an optional 2.0-liter engine. Four-wheel disc brakes are available. Ride and handling, already excellent for this class, is further improved through significant chassis and suspension reinforcements. The interior is more hushed with substantially improved insulation and anti-vibration measures, and the interior has been revised for enhanced convenience.
The mighty Protege offers as much interior roominess as many higher-priced mid-size sedans, and it's as comfortable as it is spacious. Ride quality is comparable to larger, pricier cars. Sporty handling makes it fun to drive and easy to maneuver in today's crowded world.
Protege comes in three trim levels with two different engines: DX ($12,765); LX ($13,485); LX 2.0 ($13,885); ES 2.0 ($15,535).
LX and DX models come with a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine that puts out 103 horsepower. (The 1.6-liter engine meets California's ultra-low-emissions vehicle standards.) A five-speed manual transmission is standard. A 4-speed automatic transmission can be added as an $800 option.
ES and LX-2.0 are powered by a 2.0-liter engine that produces 130 horsepower. ES comes with four-wheel disc brakes, 16-inch alloy wheels with P195/50R16 tires, a black-chrome grille treatment, a rear spoiler, fog lights, white-faced gauges and monochrome interior trim.
We highly recommend the $800 package that combines front side-impact air bags and anti-lock brakes with brake force distribution. ABS helps the driver maintain control of the steering during panic stops; just hold the brake pedal hard to the floor and steer around obstacles.
For 2001, Mazda has redesigned the hood, front fenders, and front fascia. New headlamps and combination lamps along with a more integrated grille with mesh inserts give it a fresh new look. The Protege was totally redesigned just two years ago (for 1999) with a brand-new body style, and Mazda's designers drew styling inspiration from European cars. We love the big, bold wraparound tail lamps. More than just a vivid styling statement, these big tail lamps improve safety, making the car more visible to other drivers in rain, snow or fog.
This is a comfortable car. The Protege offers an impressive amount of headroom and legroom. It's as roomy as many mid-size sedans. Space is important for taller buyers and it's something many compacts don't offer. Front-seat roominess is comparable to that of a Honda Civic EX sedan. The seats are comfortable and supportive, though we found it a bit hard to turn the knob to adjust the angle of the driver's seatback.
The rear seats are roomy. Mazda's engineers cleverly mounted the front-seat tracks in a way that yielded more space for rear-seat passengers, whose knees are now mercifully spared from being scrunched up against the back of the driver's seat. Rear-seat headroom is limited, however; at 5-feet, 11-inches, my hair brushed the headliner. The standard 60/40-split fold-down rear seatback now comes with a locking feature.
Trendy white-faced gauges are new for 2001. A new modular AM/FM audio system comes on all models (with standard CD on LX, LX-2.0, and ES-2.0). Mazda has revised the center panel and improved the cupholders. A new center console provides covered storage. Dual front map lights were added. DX and LX models get new two-tone interior trim.
Interior controls are easy to operate. The stereo is placed higher up on the dashboard than on many cars, which allows drivers to flip stations and fast forward to favorite tracks with just a quick glance away from the road.
Sturdy grab handles above the rear passenger windows work better for hanging up a sport coat or a dress than the puny plastic clips that come in many other cars. Another nice design touch is the use of a grippy dimpled pattern -- much like you'd find on the surface of a golf ball -- on the door handles.
The Protege offers excellent handling and decent acceleration performance. It's an affordable sports sedan. We tested the Protege during a wintry week in Detroit. Not all compact cars handle snow particularly well, but the Protege was able to plow its way out of a foot of snow -- with no prior shoveling.
Out on the highway, whether the pavement was wet, dry or covered with snow and ice, the Protege offered predictable handling and good grip. Anti-roll bars on the ES-2.0 model are larger to reduce body lean in corners. Mazda has thoroughly revised the entire steering system for improved feel. Steering is precise; the car seems to turn in a bit quicker than before.
With the 2.0-liter engine, the Protege delivers good acceleration whether starting from a standstill or pulling out of corners. Producing 130 horsepower, the 2.0-liter engine (taken from the Mazda 626 midsize sedan) offers 8 more horsepower than last year's 1.8-liter engine. In terms of acceleration performance, the horsepower increase is largely offset by the increased weight of the 2001 model. The real gain is in the increased mid-range torque (135 pound-feet), making the car more responsive and easier to drive around town. That should particularly benefit models with automatic transmissions. At the same time the horsepower was increased, Mazda managed to improve the fuel economy (to 25/31 mpg with 5-speed).
The base 1.6-liter engine, which produces 103 horsepower, struggles when pressed.
Four-wheel disc brakes are now standard on the top-line ES model. The brakes bring the car to a quick, stable stop under hard braking.
Mazda has expertly damped out road noise and engine noise, often a problem with small cars, making the Protege one of the quietest cars in its class. Insulation has been added to the floor, under the hood, behind the firewall, and around the wheel housings. Plus the body and chassis have been enhanced by structural improvements, like thicker sheetmetal in the suspension towers, which yield greater stability and control.
When it was redesigned, the Protege received a number of chassis-strengthening improvements. Bending strength was increased by 22 percent and torsional (twisting) rigidity by 12 percent. Protege's crash protection was also improved by the addition of side-impact reinforcements. This stiff unitbody chassis, working in concert with responsive rack-and-pinion steering and a four-wheel independent suspension, translates into a comfortable ride, good high-speed stability, and excellent handling.
Mazda Protege is a prime example of ever-increasing levels of refinement in base offerings. For years, the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla were the kingpins of the economy car market and with good reason: They offer high-quality, reliable transportation. But even before it was redesigned, the Mazda Protege was a durable, refined sedan that could compete with those standard bearers. Mazda's faith in the quality of its product can be seen in its warranty: 50,000 miles compared to the 36,000-mile coverage offered by most carmakers.
Continual refinements and a touch of style maintain the Protege's status as a sporty, seductive alternative.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.