Small sedans can be rather uninteresting cars that people buy out of necessity. Low price and good fuel economy are positive aspects, but the fun factor can be lacking. The Mazda Protege has been a ray of sunshine in the small sedan class, combining a spacious interior for its exterior size with a sporty, performance-oriented personality. The Protege has been extensively reworked for 1999, with new styling and chassis and engine upgrades. And, thankfully, no loss of energetic personality.
As before, three trim levels are offered in the Protege lineup. All are powered by dual-overhead cam, 16-valve four-cylinder engines. The DX and LX now have a 105-horsepower, 1.6-liter in place of the previous 92-hp 1.5-liter motor. The ES has a 122-hp 1.8- liter engine that is the same size and power output as before but quieter and more refined. There are chassis and suspension revisions to improve the ride comfort and handling, and decrease interior noise levels. All levels are very well-equipped.
A week with a new Protege ES left a very good impression. It was conveniently-sized outside for city parking and maneuverability in traffic, with plenty of room inside for its size. Its nimble handling and quiet refinement was complemented by a joyously snarling exhaust note. It hasn't lost its sporty character. Anyone for a Miata sedan?
APPEARANCE: The new Protege is edgier and more defined than the previous version, but still low-key and conservative in styling. The styling is truly international, with input from Mazda research centers in Southern California, Germany, and Japan. Large, bright, "jewel" multifaceted headlights flank a chrome-trimmed Mazda grille for a bright, cheerful face. Sharply-edged character lines that sweep back from the sides of the grille through the hood, and a high shoulder-line crease offset the generally rounded contours of the new Protege. The truncated, undercut tail panel is very German in appearance, and features huge taillights. The ES trim level has standard 5-spoke alloy wheels and low-profile tires for a sportier look.
COMFORT: According to Mazda, the 1999 Protege is slightly smaller inside than last year's model. But it's hard to tell. Like the exterior, the interior is conservative with a slight twist, and well-executed. The "OptiSpace" interior design makes the most of available room with excellent attention to small details. The large glass area contributes a feeling of spaciousness. The velour-type upholstery adds to seat comfort. The bucket front seats in the ES are manually adjustable for cushion height as well as the usual fore-and-aft and seatback tilt. Relocated mountings increase legroom, and a concave lower instrument panel improves knee room. Controls and instruments are placed for visibility and ease of use. The rear seat has more leg and head room than is found most other small sedans, and folds 60/40 for extra cargo capacity. The design of the backs of the front seats adds available rear-seat legroom. There are plenty of useful storage areas around the interior, and a large trunk. All Protege models are well- equipped; the top-of-the-line ES has power windows, mirrors, and door locks with remote keyless entry, air conditioning, cruise control, and a good AM/FM/CD sound system as standard equipment.
SAFETY: Mazda's newest Protege has a reinforced safety cage around the passenger compartment, front and rear crumple zones, side-impact door beams, dual depowered airbags, and three-point safety belts for all seating positions. Anti-lock brakes are available on LX and ES models.
ROADABILITY: The Protege ES may not officially be called a "sports sedan" but it has the nimble handling abilities to be one. Increased chassis rigidity and revised geometry and tuning of the fully- independent MacPherson strut front and "Twin Trapezoidal Link" rear suspension give it very good handling abilities and a comfortable ride. The ES has larger, 15-inch, wheels and low-profile tires for crisper steering and better cornering. Better sound insulation than is usually found in cars in its price class makes the 1999 Protege ES comfortably quiet.
PERFORMANCE: The 1999 Protege ES's heart is a torquey 1.8-liter twincam four-cylinder engine with 122 horsepower and 120 lb-ft of torque (or 120 hp and 119 lb-ft in low-emissions states). It has great low-rpm power for maneuverability in traffic and spirited driving on back roads, and a frugal appetite for fuel. Its muted snarl under acceleration helps define the Protege ES's sporty character. A 5-speed manual transmission is standard, and my test car was so equipped. A light clutch and the engine's good power characteristics made traffic bearable, and uncrowded road pleasurable. A 4-speed electronically- controlled automatic is available.
CONCLUSIONS: No boredom here. The new-for-1999 Mazda Protege is a well-equipped, refined small sedan with all of the entertainingly sporty character of earlier models.
SPECIFICATIONS 1999 Mazda Protege ES Sedan Base Price $ 14,925 Price As Tested $ 15,555 Engine Type Dual overhead cam, 16-valve inline 4-cylinder Engine Size 1.8 liters / 112 cu. in. Horsepower 120 @ 6,000 rpm Torque (lb-ft) 119 @ 4,000 rpm Transmission 5-speed manual Wheelbase / Length 102.8 in. / 174.0 in. Curb Weight 2537 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 21.1 Fuel Capacity 13.2 gal. Fuel Requirement unleaded regular, 87 octane Tires P195/55 VR15 Bridgestone Potenza RE92 Brakes, front/rear vented disc / drum Suspension, front/rear independent MacPherson strut / independent twin-trapezoidal link Drivetrain front engine, front-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 26 / 30 / 26 0 to 60 mph 9.4 sec 1/4 mile (E.T.) 16.8 sec Coefficient of Drag (cd) 0.32 OPTIONS AND CHARGES Carpeted floor mats $ 80 Low-emissions equipment $ 100 Destination charge $ 450