By Jim Bray
The Mazda Protegé is far more fun to drive than it has any right to
After all, its Mazdas entry level vehicle, a supposed econobox
that competes with the likes of the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Hyundai Accent
and the rest. Yet when you get behind the wheel and take off, even if the cars
handicapped by an automatic transmission as my tester was, you find yourself
having a really good time driving the thing.
Actually, this is exactly what Mazda wants you to discover about the car.
The first page inside its brochure for the Protegé reminds you, however
ungrammatically, that fun is both a noun and a verb, and that its
time to put your foot down.
Now, Ive never owned a fun, but Ive owned fun things. And Ive
never funned, though Ive had fun. So while I might argue with Mazdas
use of the Queens English, I wont argue with its point: the Protegé
is a hoot if you want to put your foot down.
On the other hand, 130 horses @6000 rpm (I tested the upmarket
LX trim level; the base SE claims 103 horses) do not make a stampede, and 135
lb.ft. of torque @ 4000 rpm (the SE has 106@4000) isnt the most twist
short of a Chubby Checker marathon, but theyre quite respectable and
competitive in this market segment. The Corolla, for example, boasts 130
and 125 horses and torquey things respectively, at similar revs, while the
top line Civic Sedan EX offers 127 and 114 respectively.
Notice that the Mazda has the most torque, and its torque that pushes
you back in your seat when you put the spurs to it.
But horsepower and torque only tell part of the story. What really makes the
Protegé (approx. $16000 US/ $19000 Cdn) fun is the way it handles and
the overall way it feels to drive.
The LX's engine (shared with the ES trim level) is a two liter, DOHC inline
four cylinder (the base model engine displaces 1.6 liters) featuring electronic
fuel injection. It burns regular unleaded gas.
My LX had only a few options, that darn automatic transmission, keyless entry,
and air conditioning among them. I have to admit I missed such conveniences
as power windows and mirrors and cruise control, but it wasnt hard living
without them - especially since I only had the car for a week.
Obviously, I missed the standard 5 speed manual transmission which would have
added a lot more to the Protegés fun to drive quotient, but to
be fair I have to comment about the four speed automatic with which my tester
came: Mazda has actually done a very nice job of it; its well programmed
so that you can run the thing almost up to the engines redline before
it upshifts, and it upshifts and downshifts very well even when you arent
screaming up through the revs. I have yet to find an automatic thatll
make me a convert - short, possibly, of a continuously variable transmission
- but if you have to have a slushbox, the Protegé's is a
And the top line ES model has an optional sport mode that I imagine would
be even better because it offers a pretend manual mode. That would
be similar, if not identical, to the one I experienced in a Protegé
5 and I thought it did a good job once you got out of first gear.
The front wheel drive, front engine Protegé features unit body construction
with side door impact beams, independent strut type suspension with coil springs
and a stabilizer bar up front and independent, strut type suspension with twin
trapezoidal links, coil springs and stabilizer bar at the rear. Steering is
variable power-assisted rack and pinion and the car uses power assisted, ventilated
front disc and rear drum brakes to stop. Four wheel discs and/or ABS are optional
on the ES model. The Mazda's fifteen inch wheels (the base model gets 14 inchers)
wear 195/55R all season radial tires.
All this stuff combines to make the Protegé feel tight on the road,
taut and ready to rumble. It loves to corner and, while its no Miata,
this is a relative blast on twisty bits. You wont win many drag races,
but theres more to life than straight line acceleration.
Inside the comfortable cabin youre treated to a very good greenhouse
and a very good driving position. You can also passenge in comfort
either up front or in rear (though its a tad tight for three across in
the back), thanks to seats that grow on you: initially, they feel a bit hard
and the front buckets backs feel a bit short, yet I drove on an all day
trip in this Protegé and never got uncomfortable.
The LXs seats are cloth covered and nicely bolstered to the sides for
adrenaline-run driving. Since my legs are relatively short (but they still
reach the ground, so how long do they need to be?), I had to move the drivers
seat forward enough that the arm rest on the center console was useless, but
taller drivers may not have this problem. Besides, its rare for
me to use an arm rest anyway, preferring to keep to the ol nine and three
oclock positions on the wheel, so that's a pretty nitpicky criticism.
Its a nice steering wheel, too, thick enough to offer substance, handsome
in a faux carbon fiber way (and with the usual airbag inside), and imparts
terrific road feel for an inexpensive car. Point the Protegé where you
want to go and it goes there, with élan.
The driver also has a nice dead pedal for bracing in the twisties, and the
brakes feel just fine, thanks, despite the lack of rear discs in my tester.
Everything is close to hand and well labeled - except for the handle that adjusts
the passenger side mirror (which could easily be fixed by ordering the optional
Driving position is excellent, even without a tilt wheel, and the analog instrument
panel is well laid out and very legible.
The stereos pretty good, too, with nice tone, good bass, and it plays
pretty loud if you want it to. Its an AM/FM single disc CD unit (that
also plays home made MP3 discs) to which you could also add a 6 disc changer
and/or cassette and/or minidisk player - if youre one of the half dozen
people whove bought that excellent but virtually dead consumer format.
Gas mileage is estimated at 9.9 l/100 km city and 7.4l/100 km highway in Canadian
spec and 25/30 mpg respectively US. These figures are for the 2 liter engine
with the automatic tranny. Your mileage may vary. Mine sure did. I didnt
actually track the mileage, but with my lead foot I never get the estimated
figures and thats the penalty you pay for putting fun over economy.
Theres that word fun again. Funny how it keeps cropping up.
And most appropriate, too.
Jim Bray's technology columns are distributed by the
TechnoFILE Syndicate. Copyright Jim Bray.