New Car/Review

The Mazda Protege, The econo BMW?

by Larry Weitzman

Mazda

The new Mazda Protege expands the envelope of small cars. Consumers don't have to settle for a funless econobox just because they need an inexpensive car that gets good fuel mileage. The new Protege has added, to the plentiful mix of small cars, an all-new design with newfound power, new suspension, new comfort and new sheet metal packaging.

My test vehicle was a top of the line Protege ES. With the ES comes the larger 1.8L four-cylinder inline DOHC 16 valve engine. It produces 120 hp at 6,000 rpm and 119 lb-ft of torque @ 4,000 rpm. The lesser equipped (and less expensive) DX and LX models come with a new larger and more powerful 1.6L DOHC 16 valve four with an output rating of 103 hp @ 5,500 rpm and 106 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm. The DX and LX get the welcomed benefit of a needed 10 more horsepower over the previous 1998 model.

The exterior sheet metal of Protege has a unique shape that is almost totally devoid of chrome. The front end consists of some gorgeous clear lens jewel-like headlights that are divided by a grille that has the only bright metal on or in the car (except for rear badging and seat belt inserts) in the form of an bar across the top. There is no bright metal trim around the windows, lights or anywhere else. Flat black is used in place of chrome. This treatment adds to the cleanliness of the overall design and a businesslike demeanor.

Designed by an international team, the shape is distinguished by a full length body crease and chopped off tail with an upper crease and large good looking taillights. Its sharp looks has a flair that leaves one thinking in German.

Inside you will find a most voluminous interior. It is 3-4 percent larger than anything else in its class while maintaining an exterior size that is nearly identical with its competitors. Headroom is especially good. The Mazda rides on a relatively long 102.8 inch wheelbase with an overall length of 174 inches, width of 66.7 inches and height of 55.5 inches. Because of the large interior, the EPA classifies the Protege not as a sub compact but as a compact car.

With performance being a significant issue of every vehicle, this Protege is no slouch. My test vehicle with the standard 5 speed manual tranny scooted from 0-60 in 9.6 seconds. In doing acceleration runs, careful attention had to be paid to prevent wheel spin. This powerful 1.8L engine could easily smoke the tires, even with front wheel drive and a front weight bias. In passing tests the Protege was able to accelerate from 50-70 in 5.7 seconds (third gear) and up hill slowed that time to 9.5 seconds.

These are the best performance times I have recorded in this class of cars. This silk motor is very willing and loves to rev. With a redline of 6,500 rpm, I found myself using normal driving shift points of 4-5,000 rpm which gave a sprightly performance to say the least. The engine never feels strained or raucous. The butter smoothly tranny made flicking through the gears more fun than work. The clutch was light, smooth and progressive. The whole package felt more like a sports car than an econobox.

Being an econobox, fuel consumption should be a paramount attribute of this car's character. It is EPA rated at 26/30 city/highway. Fuel mileage during my test period was 27 mpg, which included extensive use of the throttle and upper rpm ranges of this very smooth four banger. The large (for its class) 13.2 gallon fuel tank should give a pit stop busting highway range of over 400 miles. The smaller engined DX and LX should do about 10% better, with performance times off a commensurate amount.

The new, more rigid chassis (22 % greater bending rigidity and 12% more torsional rigidity), combined with fully independent suspension (MacPherson struts up front and patented "twin trapezoidal link" in the rear) have given the Protege excellent ride and handling characteristics. Ponderosa Road was smoothed out nicely with no rattles from the washboard. Larger bumps showed off the suspension's suppleness and control. In the two 90 degree bumpy corners, the rear end stayed planted, even at speed.

In a quick trip to Swansboro over Mosquito Road, the Mazda performed admirably. The corners were flat and easy. Its small size and surefootedness allowed for confident cornering without any intimidation. I made extensive use of second and third gear. The ride was surprising smooth.

Green Valley and Bass Lake Road were like freeways after Mosquito Road. They were handled effortlessly. This Protege corners as front and rear antiroll (stabilizer) bars are standard and the steering is variable assist power rack and pinion. It is as good as it sounds, accurate with the appropriate road feel. Highway cruising also exhibited the quietness of this new Mazda. Not only was it very smooth with no intrusion from tar strips and expansion joints, it was remarkably silent, except for the CD stereo, of course. Even spinning 3,500 rpm at 70 mph, the engine was inaudible. There was almost no wind noise and road noise.

In Mazda's quest to quell unwanted sound and vibration, new design techniques were incorporated such as flat floors with considerable sound-damping and roof pillars that are filled with urethane foam.

Interior of this previously mentioned large for a small car is a real plus. I was able to take three buddies and myself on a golf trip with our four bags fitting easily in the trunk with room to spare. Thank goodness for the near luxury ride to comfort us after 18 painful holes at Ancil Hoffman.

The rich cloth covered front seats offered firm, but comfortable seating for the driver and passenger. The rear seaters will find reasonable room for two, tight room for three. The rear seatback is a 60/40 split pull down affair for those large objects that need more room than the already good size trunk. The Protege's generous headroom is an attribute normally not found in a compact car.

The dash is a simple affair. The driver dash pod contains a large 140 mph speedo with a large 8000 rpm tach to the right and a combined fuel and temp gauge to the left. There are two stacks of principal warning lights (brake release, check engine, seat belts, etc) nicely placed at the left and right edge of the pod.

In the center are the sound system with a standard single play CD and easy to use HVAC controls. Behind the shift stick is the parking brake lever and to the rear of that is a small armrest/storage console.

The price of admission will also surprise you. The top of the line ES lists for $14,925 plus $450 for destination. Standard equipment includes power windows, locks, mirrors, steering, and brakes (front discs). Additionally there are good looking five spoke alloys shod with 195/55X15 radials (low profile for a compact), keyless remote entry and a host of other nice features all included the for foregoing price. There are only five extra cost factory options. My test vehicle only had one and that was the carpeted embroidered floor mats ($80). My test vehicle totaled at $15,455.

The only other option I would purchase would be the ES premium package with includes the power glass moon roof, antilock brakes and the aforementioned mats for the bargain price of $1330. I would never buy a new car without antilocks, so this is a mandatory option.

Automatic transmission would add $800 for those who drive is heavy traffic or unwilling to shift, but the manual is so easy to use, it would be my tranny choice.

The base DX starts at $11,970 but if you want AC and a radio, you will have to spend $1,575 for the DX convenience package, so the real price is $13,995 with destination.

This is an entertaining small car worthy of consideration is the highly competitive small car arena.

SPECIFICATIONS

Price                     $11,970 to about $17,000

Engines

ES
1.8L DOHC, 16 valve,             120 hp @ 6,000 rpm
inline four                      119 lb-ft of torque @ 4,000

DX. LX
1.6L, DOHC, 16 valve,            103 hp @ 5,500 rpm
inline four                      106 lb-ft of torque @ 4,000 rpm

Configuration

transverse mounted front
engine, front wheel drive

Transmissions

5 speed manual

4 speed electronically 
controlled automatic

Dimensions

Wheelbase                         102.8  inches
Length                            174.0  inches
Width                             67.1   inches
Height                            55.5   inches
Weight                            2537   pounds
Fuel Capacity                     13.2   gallons
Tow Capacity                      not recommended     
Trunk Capacity                    12.9   cubic feet

Performance

0-60                              9.6    seconds
50-70                             5.7    seconds
50-70 uphill                      9.5    seconds
Top Speed                         I don't have enough money in the bank
                                  to find out
Fuel Economy                      EPA 26/30 city/highway.  I estimate
                                  28 plus in El Dorado County and 30
                                  plus at legal highway speeds

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