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Big news for economy-car buyers: The Mazda Protege has been totally redesigned for 1999. If you liked the previous incarnation of the Protege--which was last overhauled in '95--you'll love the new version.
For 1999, Mazda's engineers have not only given the Protege a spiffy new suit of clothes--the new body design has a distinctly European look--they've also given it a new frame, two new engines to choose from and a re-designed transmission.
That ground-up rebuild is even more admirable in light of the fact that the previous Protege was so fundamentally sound and aesthetically pleasing that Mazda could have gone a few more years without a redesign--and the Protege would still have been one of the leaders in its class.
Every time a world-class carmaker--and Mazda certainly qualifies--re-designs a stellar performer, they face a new challenge: How do you improve on a sure-fire winner? In the case of the Protege, Mazda has risen to the challenge by raising the bar--they've built luxury-car styling, comfort, and roominess into an economy car. The result is a compact car that's so far improved over the spartan econo-boxes of the 1980s and early-1990s that it seems like a different species.
The Mazda Protege comes in three trim levels: Top-line $15,375 ES, mid-line $13,580 LX and entry-level $12,420 DX.
ES is powered by a 1.8-liter, 4-cylinder 122-horsepower engine that is essentially a slimmed-down version of the 2.0-liter engine that powers the 626. The ES model also comes with bigger front disc brakes and a higher level of standard equipment.
LX and DX models come with a 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine that puts out 105 horsepower. (For California buyers, the 1.6-liter engine meets that state's standards as an ultra-low-emissions vehicle.)
A five-speed manual transmission is standard. A 4-speed automatic transmission can be added as an $800 option.
We drove the LX, which carried a base price of $13,580 (including the $450 destination charge). For that modest amount, the Protege LX came equipped with such standard-equipment items as power windows/door locks/exterior mirrors, tilt steering column, rear defogger, power rack-and-pinion steering, front-wheel drive, cruise control, reclining front bucket seats and 60/40 fold-down rear seats.
By comparison, the mid-line Toyota Corolla CE, with a 1.8-liter engine and manual transmission, goes for a comparable base price of $13,328, while the mid-line Honda Civic LX sedan--with a 1.6-liter engine and manual transmission--is steeper, with a base price of $15,245.
Our LX came equipped with the LX Comfort Package option--air conditioning and carpeted floor mats--for an extra $1,145, bringing the total vehicle price to $14,725. Keyless entry is available for an additional $100 -- a convenient option. An optional power moonroof costs $700. A $1,350 LX Premium Package comes with anti-lock brakes.
This newest generation Protege is based on the narrow-platform version of the Mazda 626 sedan that's sold in Japan and Europe. Mazda's designers have made no secret of the fact that they drew their styling inspiration from European cars. It shows. The new Protege's rounded corners, sculpted hood line and clean, uncluttered shape suggests a variation on BMW's stately and sporty visage.
That feel is enhanced by the compact, chrome-accented grille, the distinctive front badging and the monochromatic body-side mouldings and recessed door handles.
We loved the big, bold wraparound taillamps in the rear. This touch is more than just a vivid styling statement, although it's all of that: In a small car, which is obviously more vulnerable in rear-end crashes, big taillights are always a good idea, because they're that much more visible in heavy nighttime downpours and wintry blizzards.
The Protege offers an impressive amount of headroom and legroom. It's as roomy as longer, wider and pricier mid-size sedans. Space is important for taller buyers and it's something many compacts don't offer. Front-seat roominess is comparable to that of a Honda Civic LX sedan.
The rear seats are also roomy. Mazda's engineers cleverly mounted the front-seat tracks in a way that yielded more space for rear-seat passengers, whose knees are now mercifully spared from being scrunched up against the back of the driver's seat.
Just as important, the interior is friendly with controls that are easy to operate. The stereo is placed higher up on the dashboard than on many cars, which means music freaks can flip stations and fast forward to favorite tracks without taking their eyes off the road for a nanosecond longer than they have to.
We applaud the sturdy grab handles above the rear passenger windows. If you're on the go and need to take along a change of clothes, these handles function much more efficiently for hanging up a sport coat, or dress, than the puny plastic clips that come in many other cars. Another nice design touch is the use of a dimpled pattern--much like you'd find on the surface of a golf ball on the door handles for extra palm-gripping action.
The seats are comfortable and supportive. We found it a bit hard to turn the knob to adjust the back of the driver's seat. Rear-seat headroom was not nearly as plentiful as in the front; at 5-feet, 11-inches, I was brushing my head on the headliner.
When they redesigned the Protege for 1999, Mazda's designers in Hiroshima made a number of chassis-strengthening improvements. They increased the bending strength by 22 percent and torsional rigidity by 12 percent. Protege's crash protection has been improved by the addition of side-impact reinforcements that Mazda calls "Triple-H" construction.
This stiff unitbody chassis, working in concert with its responsive rack-and-pinion steering and four-wheel independent suspension, translate into a comfortable ride, good high-speed stability, and excellent handling.
We tested the Protege in early January, when Mother Nature dumped more than 20 inches of snow on the Detroit area in just 10 days. Not all compact cars handle snow particularly well. Starting out after a night of heavy snowfall, the Protege was able to plow its way out of a foot of snow--with no prior shoveling.
Out on the highway, whether the pavement was wet, dry or covered with snow and ice, the Protege offered crisp predictable handling and offered good grip under acceleration.
Working with its 5-speed manual transmission, the 1.6-liter engine in our LX allowed us to pick through traffic without unnecessary theatrics. The Protege offered good acceleration performance whether starting from a standstill or accelerating out of corners. (With its 1.8-liter engine a Protégé ES offers even better performance.)
The Protege's brakes--disc in the front and drums in the rear--bring the car to a quick stop. This car is stable under hard braking and the brakes showed no evidence of fading or locking.
Road noise and engine noise can be a problem with small cars, especially on the freeway, but Mazda has expertly damped it out, making the Protege one of the quietest cars in its class. It seems quieter than an INFINITI G20.
Every couple of years, one of the automakers designs a new compact car to test the strength of car buyers' brand loyalty. This year, it's the Protege's turn to play the seducer's role.
For years, the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla have been the kingpins of the economy car market, and with good reason: They offer a high-quality, reliable, durable product. But even before it was redesigned, the Protege represented a high-quality car that could compete with the Civic and Corolla. The Mazda comes with a 50,000-mile warranty, compared to the 36,000-mile coverage offered by most carmakers.
Now, with all of its improvements--from interior space to ride quality to quietude to handling--the Protege has earned the right to be dubbed one of the best in its class.