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New Car/Review

Mazda Protegé LX

by John Heilig


ENGINE:                  1.6-liter DOHC 16-valve four
HORSEPOWER/TORQUE:       105 hp @5500 rpm/107 ft-lbs @ 4000 rpm
TRANSMISSION:            Five-speed manual
FUEL ECONOMY:            29 mpg city, 34 mpg highway, 25.3 mpg test
WHEELBASE:               102.8 in.
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT: 174.0 x 67.1 x 55.5 in
CURB WEIGHT:             2449 lbs
FUEL CAPACITY:           13.2 gal.
LUGGAGE CAPACITY:        12.9 cu. ft.
TIRES:                   185/65R14
INSTRUMENTS:             Speedometer, tachometer, fuel gauge, 
                         water temperature, digital clock.
EQUIPMENT:               Power windows, power door locks, 
                         power mirrors, cruise control, air conditioner, 
                         AM-FM stereo radio with in-dash CD player, 
                         dual front air bags.
STICKER PRICE:           $14,825 

The redesigned 1999 Mazda Protegé, while it has crisp "European" styling, isn’t going to fool anyone. It’s still a Japanese compact sedan. As always, it’s a pretty good Japanese compact sedan.

We’ve all heard about the problems Mazda has undergone in recent years and how the company was at the verge of bankruptcy. Ford increased its share of Mazda stock to 30 percent and gave the company some stability.

Stability is the one thing the company did need. Engineering has always been inventive, from the first RX7 with the Wankel rotary engine, to the Millenia with its Miller cycle engine. It’s just that with the overabundance of quality Japanese compact sedans, Mazda somehow got lost in the shuffle. When it was time for the company to expand rapidly, it didn’t.

The Protégé isn’t a new car in the Mazda lineup. It’s been around for a couple of years as the replacement for the 323. I liked the 323 and like the Protegé. I would have liked it more if it was slightly bigger, but that could be my fault and not the car’s.

Protegé is powered by a 1.6-liter DOHC inline four that develops 105 horsepower. It drives the front wheels through a five-speed manual transmission. This engine uses a special swirl control valve on the intake manifold that helps it achieve Ultra-Low Emission Vehicle (ULEV) status in California. It is the first vehicle in its class to achieve this level.

But the engine is more than just economical and clean. Thanks to the five-speed gearbox, I was able to extract the best performance out of it. Acceleration was decent and on-highway performance capable. This isn’t a big engine, and 105 aren’t a lot of horses, but thankfully they were connected to a manual gearbox. An automatic would have strangled the engine and cut back on whatever performance was available. In addition, we averaged more than 25 mpg. EPA ratings are somewhat higher, and I’m not sure why we were so low.

We drove an LX. The ES gets a 1.8-liter engine that’s rated at 122 horsepower. This is more than enough for the car and would probably be enough even if it had an automatic transmission.

Handling of the Protegé is small-car decent. Up front is a MacPherson strut independent suspension. In the rear is Mazda’s patented Twin-Trapezoidal Link suspension. In addition, the front roll center was lowered by 24 mm and the rear raised by 21 mm for improved feel and linear steering response. We took the car on some of my favorite twisty roads and enjoyed the ride.

Behavior on the highway was good as well. The Protegé had good straight-line handling and didn’t want to wander off the straight line. It has power rack-and-pinion steering that is responsive.

Mazda is hot on the styling of the 1999 Protegé. The car was styled with input from all four of Mazda’s R&D centers - Irvine, California, Frankfurt, Germany, and Yokohama and Hiroshima, Japan. So it’s a true - world car.

The styling results in a spacious interior that didn’t give me the cramped feeling I get in some compacts. Protegé has 92.6 cubic feet of interior room and 12.9 cubic feet of trunk space, good numbers for the class. It’s actually slightly smaller inside to provide added side impact protection, and I can deal with that.

Mazda says the new body is also stronger than its predecessor, with 22 percent greater bending rigidity and 12 percent more torsional rigidity. The body is about 50 pounds heavier than the model that preceded it, but the overall weight of the car is down.

As I get older, I find I like compact cars less and less. So I’m always pleased when I get out of a compact car such as the Protegé after a week and I’m not complaining. This car looked good, it had decent power and handling, and I didn’t feel uncomfortable driving it. When you factor in the 25 mpg economy, and under $15,000 sticker price, this car has a lot going for it.