New Car/Review

MAZDA PROTÉGÉ ES

by Annabelle Frankl - ex-European Correspondent

Get in. Be moved. This is Mazda’s catchphrase - the one that speaks out from it’s number plates. Well, I got in and I was moved. But not quite in the way that Mazda had in mind, I fear. Bored to tears is a term that springs to mind. Average in every way, another. The only image I can summon for you of this car is a computer-generated one, ie: they put in all the numbers for fuel efficiency, design, style, capacity blah, blah and this is what got spat out. This car is painting by numbers but without the fun of being able to go over the lines.

The press blurb says that the Protégé delivers "reliable individuality" for a driver who is "not a me-too buyer" and for those who "are not reckless in their decision making process". The only thing individual about this car is that it was the only one I have seen on the road (is that a sign?). Furthermore, I can but imagine what would constitute ‘reckless’ for the buyer of this car - buying full-fat milk perhaps, or paying the gas bill a week after you get it? For those of you who watch ‘Friends’ on television, I would aliken this car to Monica Geller’s character - anally retentive.

OK, that’s a bit harsh. I mean, it’s actually not a bad-looking car - the number crunchers done good! - and in the Black Mica metallic, which I tested, the Protégé ES did, in fact, look quite stylish. Well, you know me and black. I’ll come to the grey interior later! The lines of the car were slightly reminiscent, to me anyway, of one of the smaller Audis (which is meant as a compliment), and the compact style of the car actually belies the room which one encounters once inside.

The interior was all nicely laid-out in an unremarkable sort-of-way, with the dreaded grey cloth, dash and trim, although I have to admit that it didn’t look too drab. Subtle shading perhaps, or am I just being generous? As I am coming to expect in cars I test here, dual airbags were a standard feature, along with electric windows and mirrors and cruise control. I again had the advantage of an AM/FM/CD player and all the usual cup holders and hide-aways.

I also had a 5 speed manual gearbox which I hated. This was possibly what I disliked most about this car. The gearbox was stiff, clunky and diesel-feeling. It vibrated in the hand - let’s remember this is an automotive site - and was generally unpleasant. I love driving manuals, as I will attest to time and again, but this was no fun. It was driving for the sake of going from A to B, and with no enjoyment attached. It was like being in some sort of dictatorial state - don’t let me catch you smiling, boy! We’re watching. I had the feeling that a traffic jam would actually be a welcome, daily encounter for the driver of this car. The clutch was not firm, not light, just in-between, as one might expect.

The 1.8 litre DOHC 16-valve engine was responsive enough. Producing 122 bhp and 120lb-ft of torque, I was easily able to pull away at the lights or accelerate to a comfortable speed on the freeway, but without ever obtaining any joy from it. The grip which the car retained with the tarmac was verging on the tenuous and I slowed perceptibly for each cornering opportunity, knowing that the car would be unable to cope with most corners at any real speed, without getting bent out of shape or simply sliding. Again, according to the blurb, the "Mazda’s patented independent Twin-Trapezoidal Link (TTL) suspension [is] used for a smooth ride with sporty handling response". What? When? I must have been asleep when that came into play, because the only sport which this handling was reminiscent of was mud-wrestling and that’s certainly nothing to trumpet about. The brakes were good, if slightly too touch-sensitive for my liking. The smallest depression of the pedal resulted in a jarring breaking, but then there certainly wasn’t an option that you wouldn’t stop in plenty of time.

The strangest sensation of driving this car was of feeling very low down. This felt particularly weird having just handed back the Mitsubishi Mirage, which sits much lower to the ground. I did all the usual seat adjustments, but was unable to overcome the feeling. The seats themselves were fine, a terrible word to use in a descriptive sense, for which I apologise, but that’s what they were. Not too firm, not too soft, not too wide, not too narrow, just...fine. Visibility was good all round with no major blind spot and good mirrors. I didn’t have a chance to properly test the wind-screen wipers, LA weather being fantastically beautiful that week.

As with the previous cars I was glad to see a large trunk, which was certainly unobtrusive in the exterior design of the car, and it more than capably housed all of my luggage, again. Happily, I was able to unload all this stuff into my new apartment (hurrah), which I found and was able to move into after 2 weeks of random, sofa sleep. My lovely, new flat mate, Gavi, (or should that be room mate?) was quite excited at the prospect of having a British room mate - it still amazes me, how much of an impact an English accent makes over here - and has made me feel extremely welcome.

So, the Protégé ES. What can I say, it’s not my favourite car. With the amount of competition that exists in the car industry these days, I would have thought that a company such as Mazda could come up with something a little bit more inspired to nab the Mr & Miss Ordinary Rep. Driver. But then, maybe they don’t need to. Perhaps the sort of people to which this car will appeal are deserving of it’s mediocrity, in that this represents their aspirations and outlook on life. But isn’t that all rather depressing? Wouldn’t we all like to believe that there is something better out there, somewhere, and we just have to keep looking for it, striving for it? If there was ever a case of settling for second best then, in my eyes, the Protégé is it. Get in. Be moved. More like, Get out. Be glad.

FACTS AND FIGURES

Engine	FPD 1.6L DOHC 16-valve 14
Horsepower	122 @ 6000rpm (120 @ 6000 CA emission)
Torque 	120 @ 4000 rpm (119 @ 4000 rpm CA emission)
Redline	6,500 rpm
Transmission	Type-F5M 5 speed manual
		4 EC-AT w/ overdrive
Fuel econ	Manual - city/highway - 26/30
		Automatic city/highway - 24/29 

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