Pros: Gas mileage, price, reliability, fun to drive, steering, brakes, insurance
Cons: Engine noise, wind noise, choppy suspension
See the 08/07/10 update at the bottom of this review. HINT: 49.7 MPG
I own a 1998 Protege LX with the 1.5L 4-cylinder engine and a 5-speed manual transmission. Generally speaking, I'm fairly pleased with it. It's a reliable, decent looking car, if somewhat crude, that costs very little to own, and gets great gas mileage. I purchased my Protege in August of 2002 and have owned it for three years and 24k miles. It's now at 66K. I'm an average commuter who happens to be mechanically-minded. 60 percent of the miles are highway miles. Fairly typical. My car is fully loaded with power windows, power locks, sunroof, cruise control, keyless entry, alarm system, and a remote starter. I think the last three things are aftermarket-only. The previous owner had them installed. My car doesn't have ABS. More on that later. The engine is totally stock. It's dark green with a tan cloth interior, if that matters.
I'm really anal, so be prepared for some nit-picking.
The exterior has a fairly clean look, if somewhat boring. It's an economous anonobox. It won't turn heads. The body gaps (in my car) are pretty tight - for 1998. The doors, trunk, and hood line up evenly. Subjectively, I like the LX and ES models with the larger (14") wheels. The LX came with 6-spoke hub caps that look vastly better than the tiny DX wheels and anonymous hubcaps. The ES has alloy wheels, IRRC. It's a small detail, but I think it makes quite a large visual impact, perhaps because it's sporty-looking. None of the Proteges came with tinted windows. Some paint colors are aging very badly (e.g. teal green). In fact, the only color I really like is dark green. The black door handles, mirrors, and door bumper strips look really bad against a light colored paint because they stand out, and not in a good way. Go to www.paintscratch.com to see all the paint colors available for this car.
The quality of seat cloth on the LX-level trim is pretty good. It's free of the ridiculous patterns that domestic auto manufacturers (and others) seem to like using on low-buck car seats. The seats show no wear after 66k miles. The plastic on the dash and doors has some give and doesn't feel rock-hard like domestic cars. The A/C controls are of the lever-actuated variety, which I don't mind, but are being phased out in modern cars. The headliner is fabric, not vinyl. The rear seats are the 60/40 folding variety - a nice feature. A couple 8' 2x4s fit in the car, with the trunk closed! The carpet is fine. I'm 6'2" and I easily drive this car every day with the seat all the way back. Taller people might find themselves short on space, especially with the sunroof. The rear seats are OK for six footers if the people up front compromise somewhat with their seat position. It's actually one of the largest cars in the class in terms of interior space, but I wouldn't want to go any extended distance in the back seat. Some would say that about the front seats, too. They're very firm. I know a few people who wouldn't buy this car because it if. Keep that in mind.
The sunroof occassionally rattles a little over bumps (and eats up a little headroom). The trunk is on the small side, but average for the class. The A/C works fine on the highway, but be prepared to sweat on 100 degree days in stop and go traffic. The rear defroster is a joke. It totally ineffectual. The sun visors are the only extremely cheap item in the car. They're made of super-flimsy vinyl. The heater/evaporator ductwork gets moldy and starts to smell awful every year or so. Lysol or another application-specific evaporator core cleaner will solve this problem. Many many cars have this problem. Waiting for the engine to heat up in the winter can sometimes take forever.
Engine and wind noise are constant, but at least the engine sounds pretty refined.
A 1.5 L 4-cylinder engine with 93 HP is nothing to write home about. It's adequate power for a 2500 LB vehicle, but don't expect to win any races. You'll be lucky to keep pace with the blue hair in the next lane driving a Buick LeSabre. As bad as that sounds, I'm perfectly OK with it. I'm willing to accept a ~12 second 0-60 time for 35 MPG on the highway (A/C off doing 65 MPH). With gas priced climbing ever skyward I'm glad I have such a small reliable fuel-efficient engine. The engine idles with only a little vibration, but if you turn on the A/C, lights, and stereo the engine vibrates quite a bit. It revs nice and smoothly once you get going. It sounds more refined than an American small car, but pales in comparison to, say, a turbine-like 4-cylinder Camry or Accord engine. The 1.5L 4 is a tight engine that burns virtually no oil, although all engines burn some. The hard-to-find ES model has 122 HP.
The engine takes 20 minutes on the road to warm up on the coldest of winter days (0 degrees). In this winter situation it will NEVER warm up just idling. I imagine that's why the previous owner installed a remote starter, to no avail. Install an engine block heater ($100) if you are on a first name basis with the local polar bears. Of course, there is no cabin heat if the engine isn't warm. I average 28 mpg in the winter because gas has more difficulty atomizing at those temperatures, requiring more fuel to maintain the proper stochiometric ratio.
For those mechanically inclined, this engine is an iron block DOHC (Dual Overhead Cam) solid flat tappet design with a timing belt and distributor. It has a hydraulic clutch.
The five speed manual tranny has nice short throws and a direct mechanical feel that's not too rubbery. It's not quite as good as a contemporary Honda Civic's - but close. It's lightyears ahead of the Dodge Neon manual gearbox in both throw length and feel. Clutch engagement is light and relatively linear with and inch or so of free travel before the clutch starts to engage. You can heel-toe this car with ease, if you're so inclined (and know what that is). That being said, I would recommend the automatic to any prospective buyers, although I have never driven a Protege with the auto gearbox. This car simply does not have the low-end torque to comfortably get off the line without severely slipping the clutch or lugging the engine. One will greatly shorten the life of the clutch and the other will shorten the life of the engine. Not good. A slush box with a torque converter would solve both of these problems, but at the expense (I'm guessing) of 5 MPG (27 vs 32). Heck, put this car on a slight incline during the middle of summer on a 100 degree day with the A/C on, and this thing LITERALLY cannot start moving from a stop without dumping the clutch from 3500 RPM. Pathetic. As a side note, the stock transmission fluid has the consistency of thick pudding at 0 degrees (F). If you can find an ES model with the larger engine you'll probably find that the manual transmission works fine in that model. Replacing the stock oil with AMSoil fully synthetic oil fixes that problem.
The brakes are quite good, despite having rear drums, because this is such a light car (~2500 lbs). Adding carbon ceramic pads and high performance rotors dramatically improves the already good braking performance . My car didn't come with the optional ABS (Anti-locking braking system) and I have found myself in a number of inclement weather situations where ABS would have been very nice. Imagine a deer trotting into the road during a torrential downpour. Scary. Panic stops in the wet really do require ABS, in my opinion. I KNOW I'm supposed to pump the brakes when making a panic stop, but that's not the first thing that pops into mind when an animal jumps into the road in front of you. My next car will certainly have ABS. As a side note, when you're going downhill with 2 or 3 inches of snow on the road (the most this car can handle without getting stuck) it's fun to throw the car into first or second gear and use engine braking to slow you down. It works better than ABS because the wheels don't ever come close to locking up, as brakes would do. It's fun, too, to feel the car slowing down and sliding forward at the same time in the snow while still under complete control. It's a driver finesse thing. It tests your skills.
Ride and Handling
With the manual transmission, this car is pretty fun to drive because it's small, light, and relatively nimble. There's a good bit of body roll and the suspension is firm and choppy. You can feel every bump on the road. This allows the car to be driven very hard around corners, placing it exactly where you want it. It breaks away predictably and understeers at the limit of adhesion. It feels a bit front heavy in typical front-drive manner when running hard. Adding weight in the trunk helps this somewhat. It's easy to tell if you're exceeding the limits of this vehicle because the steering wheel will tell you. The steering is perfectly weighted and perfectly communicative. Rain has never caused any handling problems.
It's light weight causes the car jumps around in snow ruts, but if you go slow enough you will not have a problem. I have never gotten stuck, but I'm not dumb enough to go out in snow deeper than 2-3 inches. I keep a shovel in the trunk as insurance. As a counterpoint, my 6500 LB Suburban won't notice 8 inches of snow.
The sound system that came with this car is totally serviceable, but not great. The speakers are mediocre paper cone Pioneers. I replaced them with top of the line Infinity speakers, but I'm not totally convinced that it was worth the cost. Radio reception is sub-standard. The receiver and CD player work great. I have no idea how well the cassette deck works because I don't own any cassettes. This car needs more sound insulation before it needs a $2000 stereo system.
Cost of Ownership
Gas mileage is the saving grace of this car. Very very few cars can get 35 mpg on the highway. I average 32 mpg in the summer and 28 in the winter. That's good by any standards. Insurance is average. The 60k regular maintenance is typical for a front wheel drive car, although some cars have 105k service intervals. Changing the timing belt is no fun and well worth the $400-500 that most shops charge. You DO have to check and (possibly) adjust the valves clearances every 60k, despite what most Mazda service techs seem to think. This engine doesn't have the maintenance-free hydraulic lifters of other Mazda models. I doubt anyone actually does this, however. It's not in the owner's manual. Based on the current tread depth, I expect to get 50k out of these tires, which is OK. Outside of regular maintenance, I have never had to fix or replace anything on this car.
If you can find one, buy the ES model. It has an extra 30 HP and more sporting intentions. Avoid the DX model with the cheaper-looking interior and very few options. I still think the Protege is a better value than a Civic or Corolla of similar age. Those other cars have similar shortcomings, but cost more, and the Corolla is no fun to drive. I plan to keep mine for another 60k or until something catastrophic happens, not because it's the best car out there, but because it's one of the cheapest reliable cars you're likely to find with some life left. I have owned mine for three years and I'm still happy with it. I can afford a much more expensive car (Corvette comes to mind), but the Protege is good enough so that I don't have to.
07/06/08 - UPDATE
After Consumer Reports recently recommended my very car (1998 Protégé LX) I feel obligated to update my review to reflect the current status of the car I own. My car is now 10 years old with 81000 miles on the clock and it still looks like the day it came out of the showroom. The exterior is in near-perfect condition, except for a little rust where the tires kicked stones into the front quarter panels (which has been fixed) and a couple small scratches. The paint is as bright and glossy as the day it was new. The seats and interior still show no wear and look like new. The engine still sounds tight and refined and the transmission shifts just as well as it did 10 years ago.
I have been averaging 33.6 MPG recently in 70% city driving. The real story, however, is that in 60 MPH highway-only driving I have been averaging 45.6 MPG (not a typo). In fact, I just got back from a 528.4 mile trip to Vermont, where I used only 11.579 gallons of 87-octane gas, which comes out to a truly astonishing 45.6 MPG; better than the Toyota Prius my friend owns. This car continues to amaze me.
This car has NEVER broken down. Not once. Everything works perfectly even after 10 years of continuous use. Nothing has fallen off, broken, gotten discolored, or warped from the heat. Even the A/C still works. I'm actually amazed a car of this age can be this reliable, and I have very high expectations. It's THAT good.
Needless to say, I'm not planning to sell this car any time soon.
I just re-ran the CT to VT trip again at 50 MPH and managed to achieve an astonishing 49.7 MPG, which is better than anything I could have ever hoped for. In fact, I can't think of any new car currently offered for sale (in the US) that can beat that - hybrids included. That being said, 50 MPH is WAY too slow (and far too dangerous) to be meaningful information for anyone intending on using this sort of car on a long highway journey - but it is possible to achieve such amazing numbers with a 12 year old economy car.