I bought my Protege (automatic, not manual) new in 1996, and although one of the buttons on the factory stereo stopped working within one year, I haven't had any major trouble out of this car for most of its life (first actual breakdown occurred in 2010, and wasn't a major system). I am only just now looking to replace it! The ride is responsive and the suspension is nice and firm, and though the 80hp engine is pretty sluggish, that never really bothered me. A simple, practical, reliable vehicle! The one caution I would have is that it has burned through several "lifetime" mufflers, always in the same spot--probably a design flaw. Otherwise, can't complain!
Front seat has lots of space for its size/class. The trunk is huge! It handles nicely on turns, not a lot of lean/sway. Good steering/handling if I have to make a fast dodge.
The seatbelts lock up way too easily and tend to go "boa constrictor" on larger people. The back-seat belts are also hard for my kids to latch because the receptor ends tend to slip under their booster seats. Hopefully the seat belts improved in later models! The problems I have had to fix have been muffler replacement (every 4-5 years, even on "lifetime" mufflers); mysteriously fouled spark plug wires (1x); and the a/c compressor (which is belted with the drivetrain so the car won't run if it's not fixed).