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It's not easy being an afterthought.
There are nearly 40 different nameplates vying for the attention of the American auto buyer, who often never even thinks about the smaller brands. That's the problem facing the newly redesigned Mazda Protege.
Mazda has flooded the market with new products over the last few years. Unfortunately, it hasn't had the money or marketing muscle to make its presence felt. In fact, you probably can't remember the last time you saw an ad for a Protege. It doesn't have the image or name recognition of cars such as the Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic or Plymouth Neon.
According to the marketing experts, car buyers tend to seriously consider only the top two or three cars on their list. that's too bad for buyers who might otherwise find a pleasant surprise in this stylish, sophisticated package.
By definition, the Protege is classified as a subcompact. But slip inside and you're in for a shock: There's nearly as much room inside as in a luxury car. Chrysler has been billing this concept as cab forward engineering. Mazda prefers the term OptiSpace. You'll just call it roomy.
The price tag is, unfortunately, nearly as big as the interior. Unless You're willing to live with a stripped-down package, you'll pay a premium to drive this one off the dealer's lot. Is the Protege worth the money? Here's a closer look.
Spawning from the aging Mazda 323 line, Protege has become Mazda's best-selling model line, though the numbers remain small compared with other Japanese models such as the Civic.
The old Protege was a stodgy looking sedan. The 1995 model, however, looks as if it was sculpted in the wind tunnel. Although it's certainly a lot more handsome than before, it's still sort of generic. The redesigned Protege has the same sort of jelly-bean styling that seems to characterize almost everything coming out of Japan these days.
The Protege will look good in your driveway but your neighbors may confuse it with a lot of other Asian automobiles. Of course, that may not be all bad. Some may mistake it for the hot new Mazda Millenia, a significantly more expensive and luxurious automobile.
It would take an engineer to see some of the biggest changes in the Protege's new unibody structure. Mazda claims the car has been stiffened a great deal. That means less flexing on rough roads and translates into both better handling and improved isolation.
To further reduce passenger compartment noise levels, Mazda has added sandwich sheet metal to areas like the engine compartment fire wall.
Side by side, You'll find the new Protege to be noticeably larger than the car it replaces: more than 3 in. longer, to be precise, with extra inches in length, width and wheelbase. Thankfully, the new Protege is also lighter. So we got more kick from the hard-working 1.5-liter engine in the Protege LX we test drove.
The Protege certainly measures up - at least when you're sitting inside. In the front or back, there's enough head- and legroom for a college basketball star. OptiSpace translates into 95.5 cu. ft. of passenger volume.
That's the largest in the subcompact segment, and only 2.5 cu. ft. less than the longer and more expensive Mazda 626.
Indeed, Mazda officials like to boast that the Protege has nearly the interior space of the Acura Legend, the BMW 5-Series, even the full-size Infiniti Q45.
The trunk is equally impressive, by the way, with 12.9 cu. ft. of cargo space - more than enough for an extended outing.
Space certainly isn't the only measure of luxury, and this car isn't in a class with BMW or even the Millenia. But Mazda did pay careful attention to the styling and fit-and-finish of the protege's interior.
The color coordination of the various plastics, vinyls and fabrics will please even the eye of a decorator.
Controls are generally quite well-placed, except for the radio, which is positioned near the bottom of the center console and requires a considerable stretch to operate. This is a weakness in many cars. You're likely to adjust the volume or change stations far more often than You'll tinker with the heater controls, so wouldn't it make sense to put the radio on top? The radio on our entry-level sedan, by the way, could best be described as tinny. It cried out for an upgrade.
One big gripe: a flimsy cup-holder that's too close for comfort to the stick shift. It could make things a little awkward, especially in stop-and-go traffic.
We found the seats to be good, on the whole, for what is classified as an economy car. Up front they're a little harder than we like, but they offer excellent lateral and lumbar support.
It's interesting to watch how Japanese carmakers are responding to the weak dollar. To keep their cars competitive, they're occasionally cutting corners. Usually these cutbacks are minor and well-hidden. On the Protege, you'll find one example when you flip down the sun visor: it's covered in a cheap vinyl with a fold-over vanity mirror flap like the ones the American automakers used to install in the '60s. It feels like it will crack and tear off after a few years of use.
That's not the only place Mazda has cut back. you'll have to spend around $14,000 to get some simple creature comforts, such as power mirrors and door locks, that are standard these days on less expensive American-made products.
It may be small, but the 1.5-liter engine on the DX and LX models is peppy. This in-line 4, capped by a dual overhead camshift, produces 92 hp at 5500 rpm and 96 lb.-ft. of torque at 4000 rpm. You won't win many races, but with the lighter body, you won't be left sitting at the stoplight, either.
Better yet, Mazda has taken great pains to improve both the emissions and fuel economy of the powertrain. The EPA numbers run 31 mpg in the city and 39 mpg on the highway for the 5-speed manual transmission. Also available is an optional 4-speed automatic.
We did find that the smaller engine tended to be a bit rough idling at stoplights - probably in need of some minor adjustment - but it was surprisingly smooth under most other driving conditions.
The base car's 13-in. tires are a big weakness, especially when cornering. They just can't handle the load, even though the protege's suspension seems up to the challenge. There are front and rear stabilizer bars, and the rear suspension is an all-new design. Except in tight corners, you'll appreciate the tight and precise steering.
If you like a little more performance, you might consider the top-of-the-line ES model, with its larger 14-in. wheels and 1.8-liter DOHC engine. That will pump the pony count up to 122 hp and 117 lb.-ft. of torque. But mileage will be cut back to 26 mpg in the city and 32 mpg on the highway when paired with the manual transmission.
The spongy brakes deserve a complaint, though. They were effective but they didn't inspire confidence; we found ourselves braking a little earlier than normal just to be safe.
Did we mention that this is, technically, an economy car? That phrase is hard to use with a straight face when describing a vehicle that starts somewhere around $12,000 at the base end and goes for more than $16,000 for a well-equipped package.
The Mazda Protege is, on the whole, a very nice automobile. But its competence can't belie the fact that it is also an expensive automobile. For the money, there are other cars on the road that will offer you more. Maybe not as much interior space, but you'll be able to find a bigger engine, larger tires and more creature comforts.
In the end, it may be the protege's hefty price tag that reinforces this car's anonymity.