I bought this car to replace my dead '84 Honda Accord (RIP). The Protege was absolutely the cheapest "real" car (i.e. no Daewoo or Kia) that appealed to me. I bought a '99 LX 5-speed and only paid $13,740!
I really like how the vehicle handles. It has an all-independent suspension with front and rear anti-roll bars. This helps it to have very little body roll in turns. The LX needs larger tires, though. My Toyos are worn out after only 20k miles!
I also really like the car's styling; I think it has a more upscale look than the venerable Honda Civic, one of which is on every street corner.
There are only two things I'd improve:
-the a/c saps a lot of low-end power
-the original-equipment Toyo tires are too small and wear out too quickly (I need new ones after 20k miles)
I haven't had a single problem in 1 1/2 years and 20k miles.
If you are in the Jacksonville, Florida area, I highly recommend Greg Filzen at Tom Bush Mazda.