I chose the 2003 Mazda Protege LX automatic over the Toyota Corolla S and the Mitsubishi Lancer because the Protege had the best road feel. It felt the zippiest, and the interior looked great (not as nice as Corolla S, but nice anyway). The three-spoke steering wheel looks pretty sporty, and the gauges are pretty easy to read. In 2.5 years, I put 90K miles on my car.
This car drives great! The handling is quick and nimble. You just point and the car zips there. The brakes do not feel overly heavy (just right), and bite quickly and linearly. The brakes are confidence-inspiring, and the car stops pretty well (although I didn't opt for the ABS). The car is also ligher than most (2700lbs for the sedan) and so the braking is better just because of that.
The suspension is designed to reduce understeer in emergency situations. The ride is somewhat stiff: you can definitely feel everything going on the road. For me, that was a benefit, as the steering communicates the road very well. In fact, the steering is quite sensitive to the road crown. For example, if you have a highway that's crowned in the middle, then driving in the left lane, if you let go of the steering, the car will slowly pull left, and on the right lane, the car wlil slowly pull right. Keep your hands on the wheels and you'll have no problems.
The automatic transmission is pretty quick to react. All my friends say that it's one of the better-feeling automatics they've driven. My model didn't have the "manumatic" option, but the transmission does let you force it to 1st and 2nd gears. The 2nd gear option is great in the winter, where you want to reduce the chance of the wheels spinning.
The car is quick around town, certainly enough power for lower-speed driving (130hp at the engine, 90hp at the wheels in the automatic, 105hp at the wheels for the manual). Getting on the highway, the car gets up to full speed at a decent pace. However, while cruising on the highway, don't expect to push the gas and get a quick pass done without downshifting to the lower gear.
The engine feels plenty torquey down low, but runs out of breath around 5500-5700RPM and starts reducing its power delivery somewhat. The redline is at 6500RPM.
Gas mileage is substandard for the cars of its class. I get about 28mpg on the highway doing normal driving, 30mpg on doing grandma 55mph highway driving. The mileage depends, of course, on your driving style. City driving typically gets 23-25mpg (probably more with a gentler foot), but if you're doing New York City driving with a heavy foot while stopping every three blocks, expect 17-20mpg (this is the price of the higher low-end torque). These figures are for my automatic transmission car with A/C on. Manual Proteges easily get 2-3mpg more (e.g. 32mpg on the highway with A/C and 75-80mph).
Winter driving with this car is your normal FWD open-differential car. Snow tires make a huge world of difference. If you see the stock Bridgestone Potenza RE92s, run! Those tires are rather poor in snow and wet. It is quite unfortunate that Mazda decided to equip the Protege with those tires.
I drove two winters with Pirelli SnowSport 210 tires and had wonderful results. The highway stability was excellent, braking much improved, acceleration much improved. I avoided at least two accidents with those tires (over stock), because I was able to brake and avoid the spinning car ahead (on a snowy highway). In the first winter, I accidentally put the stock Potenza tires on too early, and drove through the last winter storm with those tires. The OEM tires had at least twice the braking distance in snow, even worse on black ice.
The OEM tires lasted me 45K until they were worn to 2/32 or 3/32nds of the tread. I replaced them with Yokohama AVS-100 for the summer, which were an excellent value and excellent tires.
I had no major problems with the car. I've performed regular oil changes (synthetic), did the timing belt at 70K (even though you're not supposed to until 105K, I didn't want to tempt fate), flushed the transmission fluid at 45K with synthetic, did the coolant and spark plugs and everything else according to the maintenance schedule. Nothing broke on me.
My car came with rear drum brakes. I will be replacing the shoes shortly, so they've been good to 90K.
The original front brakes were replaced at 42K miles. The rotors got a bunch of uneven wear on them, so I decided to replace those as well (although they could've been lathed back to smooth). I replaced the front brakes again after that at 80K. The brakes are not very difficult to replace, but if you're replacing the rotor, the caliper bolts can be difficult to get to.
The stock battery is not very strong, and the car cranks slowly in the winter. After 2 years and 80K miles, I finally had one winter morning where the car didn't have enough juice to crank all the way. After I jumped the battery, it started fine (the usual not-so-quick) for the next two weeks, but I decided to not take chances, and replaced the battery with an Optima Red Top. The car has been starting very fast, even in the coldest of days, since then.
I have had some annoyances: the blower (or heater?) motor began squeaking at 40K miles in cold temperatures, but I was unable to reproduce it reliably enough for the Mazda dealership to change it before the factory warranty ran out. Also, the AC button sometimes (only in the winter) flickers on and off (this started around 40K as well), but only after long trips and usually pushing the button in and out makes it stop. There's no difference that I could feel in the A/Cs performance when the flicker occurred.
The AC is adequate. It's not super strong. On 95 degree days, prepare to wait 2-3 minutes for full cold. On 95 degree days, you will probably be driving on recirc with full blast A/C for 5-10 mins, until the whole interior gets cold enough to switch to external air. On 85-90 degree days, the A/C is plenty strong for cold air in less time.
There are rattles in the interior, which are annoying, especially if you do an aftermarket speaker upgrade. I am too lazy to track down the rattles.
The room in the car is pretty good. I have the fold-down seats and that helped me transport really long boxes out of IKEA. The back seat room is surprisingly adequate for this small compact. The trunk is also pretty sizable.
The car has quite a bit of wind noise. On the highway, it's quite loud, compared to, say, a Honda Accord. At some point, you learn to live with it and just turn the music up a few notches higher.
The moonroof is definitely neat/cute, although there's a lot of wind noise (deflector recommended).
6-CD changer works great (in-dash is very convenient) and the cassette worked fine for the one time that I used it. The stock radio is very easy to use, the volume knob responds quickly (so you can go from quiet to full-volume in a second). The stock speakers are decent for stock speakers. However, if you want more clarity and bass, you'd best off with aftermarket speakers.
Basically, this is a fun, reliable car with a great driving feel, gets you places, looks great (I have the supersexy Laser Blue Mica color!), has enough room and is easy to parallel park.
I would recommend a used one of these to a college-bound kid as a first car. I think the better road feel, handling and good brakes help avoid accidents.
Amount Paid (US$):
2003Model and Options:
LX , automatic, moonroof, 6-CD changer, cassette, spoiler, fog lights