Pros: Refined feel. Doesn't look like a Civic. Easy to live with. Low loan rate OAC.
Cons: A bit short on power. Some rattles. Low MPG. Expensive to repair bumper test damage.
Update: I sold my Protege after a little more than 3 years of happy ownership. I was really tired of shifting and wanted an automatic transmission to make my life easier while stuck in traffic. I miss my Protege, but also remember some of the rattles that were never "found" by the dealer's service dept. I remember it as a happy-revving, very capable little sedan.
I set out to get a 626 the day I bought my Protege. There were a few Proteges lined up at the dealer, so I asked to test drive one, out of sheer curiosity. After all, it was rated the best small/compact car by Consumer Reports back then. One drive and I was won over. Of course, the one I drove was the Protege ES. (The 626 was a low-end model...)
My Protege has 13K miles now and it drives well. I like the composed ride and precise handling. The ride isn't too hard, but you can tell the suspension isn't tuned to simulate a yatch. There is some body roll, but it's manageable in daily driving. The driver's seat adjusts well and ergonomics are good. The car "fits." The rear is quite roomy for a car this size and the seat cushions are the right height for me. Sometimes you forget you're in such a small car. All the buttons and controls have a fluid quality feel to them. I wish the passenger door had a power lock switch too. The only one is located on the driver's door. The shifter is a bit on the rubbery side, but I like it fine.
At this time, and under very normal driving conditions, this Protege has developed a rattle near the far left side of the dash, as well as another one seemingly over the driver's seatbelt height adjuster. I haven't taken it in to the dealer, but I suspect there isn't much they can do about it. I did not expect a Mazda to develop little noises this early in its lifetime. A Grand Am, sure; but a Protege??? I was somehow looking forward to this being a 10 yr-old in the future. The weatherstrip on the left rear door also came loose, but was fixed under warrantly quickly.
The car looks good mainly because it has more conservative styling. To some, this detracts from its attractiveness, but I'm just happy it doesn't look like a Honda. The ES comes with 15" alloy wheels that give it a sporty "on sneakers" look. I couldn't say this of a lot of small cars, but I like the way the Protege looks. It's got this dignified look. If it wore larger wheels and tires, it would almost look like a Lexus IS300, but you get what you pay for...
The small 1.8 liter 4 cylinder engine is smooth and responsive, but I was hoping for more punch, considering that this is a lightweight compact and also a close relative to the Miata. Much of the engine noise is isolated from the cabin, so it's a relatively quiet car, especially in city driving. Once you're cruising on the highway, road noise increases a bit. The 5-speed manual is my transmission of choice because it's a small engine. I wish for a 6th overdrive gear as this car likes to rev. I'm frequently in the 3K to 4.5K RPM range just cruising on the highway. A '91 1.9L Saturn does it in about 2.5K RPM. I wish for an automatic when I'm stuck in traffic, though.
Fuel mileage is also on the low side for a small car. I get about 29 MPG in mostly highway driving. My '91 Saturn gives me about 32 MPG under the same driving conditions.
The '00 model year has some cosmetic changes in the interior: chrome door handles, italicized numbers in the gauges, a Mazda badge on the steering wheel, but is virtually the same car as the '99. The '01s are slightly different, with a 2.0 liter engine as a new option. A limited-production "MP3" version is scheduled for release sometime in late Spring of '01.
Test crash results yielded relatively expensive repairs to the front/rear bumpers. All 5 passengers have 3-point safety belts. Two airbags are standard. The rear defroster is a bit slow, but the air conditioning and heater work very well. The factory CD player sounds well on its standard 4 speakers. The LCD display on the radio can't display the time and the radio station at the same time, though. It does show well even under sunlight.
If you're considering a new small car or a low-mileage used one, don't buy one until you've test driven a Protege. Despite the little rattles on my car (I'll see if I have any luck with the Mazda service dept.) this should be a car that runs forever if you have regular preventive maintenance (oil/filter changes...) done by the book. Another plus is that you can get a loan for a low or 0% interest rate for 3 or 4 years with Mazda, if you have good credit.
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