Pros: price, quality, stereo
We bought a 99 Protege last spring, replacing an 87 Civic. We shopped for a new Civic but they were too expensive. The price difference between the Protege and Civic was about $2000 for equivalent models.
We also test drove small cars from Dodge and Ford and rented a Corolla for a few days. We picked the Protege based on our test drives, the price and available options, and online and magazine reviews.
We bought the DX model with cruise, air, CD stereo, and keyless/remote entry. It has a four cylinder engine with manual transmission. The Protege is very nice to drive in town and out. The manual transmission feels a little peppier than the automatic (test drove both) and gets better gas mileage (we've gotten 28 mpg in town, 32 on the highway).
The CD stereo it came with is nice. I'm usually listening to the FM but on the road the CD was great. They are so much easier to store than cassettes. The keyless/remote entry seemed a pointless luxury at first, but I really like it now.
It is a compact car but is quite a bit larger than what we replaced. Three kids sit in the back easily, all with shoulder belts. The front seat has dual air bags. The split back seat folds down to make the large trunk even more useful. Like many newer cars, the trunk is much larger than it appears from the outside. You can put a ton of groceries back there!
We live in the desert and the air conditioning got a good workout last summer. It cools the car quickly and doesn't interfere with normal driving around town at all.
About the only thing I don't like as well as the Hondas I drove is that the overall feel is a little softer than I'd like. The seats are softer and the suspension is softer. That's a personal preference though - you might like it better.
I'd recommend renting a car for a day or two when you get serious. It's hard to decide just from test drives.