1999 Mazda Protege First Drive

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1999 Mazda Protege Sedan

(1.6L 4-cyl. 5-speed Manual)

Mazda Seeks College Grads

Winding through the Canadian countryside just outside of Toronto in a convoy of Mazdas, listening to Lilith Fair and swing CDs, a handful of journalists got a taste of what living with the all-new 1999 Protege might be like. The conclusion? Life could be fun with one of these solid little cars parked in our driveways, especially if you're in your twenties. Let us explain...

During the past 21 months, Mazda has completely redesigned its hallmark economy car and, with new Euro exterior styling and a revamped interior, set its sights on winning the business of a focused group of consumers: young, post-college, professional women. At 25, recently married and a full-time journalist, it didn't take long to realize that Mazda had made this car for me, and others like me. Now we just had to determine if we liked it.

Though the average age of the current Proteg buyer is 42, Mazda plans on putting all of its energy into an ad campaign aimed at single or newly married women aged 24-plus, with median household incomes of $30,000 to $50,000, a bachelors or masters degree, and an active, energetic lifestyle. The buyers of the new Proteg are not rebelling like the youth of their parents' generation, according to Mazda PR execs. They're molding. They embrace the thrill of discovery, yet make sound, well-researched decisions. They buy cars not only for practical reasons, but for emotional ones as well. Their life goals are fairly simple, as one 25-year-old subject said: "I don't want to change the world; I want to enjoy it."

Enjoying life should be fairly easy while driving one of the new Proteges. They're quick, sporty and spirited. With three trim levels (DX, LX and ES), two engine choices, standard CD players in LX and ES models, and cupholders placed so precisely that even tall plastic bottles and Supersized drinks don't block the climate controls or the stereo, designers have covered all the important bases. In fact, the only thing that would prevent me from considering this vehicle is where I live-Denver-and the fact that I drive into the Rocky Mountains almost every weekend. The 1.6-liter four-cylinder engines in these cars were having a hard time in the hills outside Toronto, and they simply wouldn't keep me satisfied at altitudes of 10,000 feet and higher. Even the larger 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine on the Protégé's ES trim level, which makes 122 horsepower, would probably be sputtering like a snail up the I-70 corridor. Still, for my peers who don't happen to live at high altitudes, the Proteg should be considered.

For those concerned with the environment, this car may be a wise choice. The twin cam 16-valve engine used in the DX and LX trim levels has earned certification as an ultra low emissions vehicle (ULEV) by the California Air Resources Board-the first vehicle in its class to achieve such a distinction. ULEV vehicles generate 70 percent less smog-forming pollutants than standard cars. How does it work? The variable tumble control system reduces emissions on cold-starts by promoting greater swirl within the combustion chamber, and a Ford E-5 emissions system as well as piston-cooling oil jets are utilized. Since coolant flow goes directly to the cylinder head, engine cooling is also improved. The Protege is only the second gasoline-powered car to be certified as a ULEV, just a year behind the 1998 Honda Accord.

Engineered with Mazda's new "Triple-H" construction, the Proteg pillars, roof rails and side sills get reinforced and gusseted frames, which will better protect occupants in the event of a side impact or rollover crash. Dual depowered airbags and three-point seat belts for all five seating positions are standard, and ABS is available as an option on the two highest trim levels. Using 26 fewer parts than the last Protege, transmission upgrades provide smoother shifting. Consumers can choose from a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic tranny.

Exterior styling is always a point of dissidence between reviewers. While the European-looking stout rear end of the '99 Proteg appealed to me, another editor thought the entire vehicle looked ... uh, crumpled. Mazda calls its new styling "Contrast in Harmony," which means it has both soft curves and sharp edges. Imagine rugged mountain peaks reflected in a smooth lake, and that's the Protégé. Stylistically, the short, choppy rear of the car was the biggest hit with journalists, while the rounded greenhouse was angled just enough to keep from looking like a Volkswagen or an Audi. Mazda retains the "family face" of the front end-a chrome-accented five-point grille sporting the Mazda brand symbol.

Inside the car we found little to complain about. Though the '99 Proteg loses a tad of interior space due to added side impact protection, it still leads its class in interior room at 92.6 cubic feet, and 12.9 cubic feet of trunk space. Mazda's OptiSpace design gives passengers more legroom this year and the lower half of the instrument panel is slightly concave, providing extra knee room for those in front.

Recent graduates will appreciate the standard equipment on all Proteges, which includes power front ventilated disc and rear drum brakes, 60/40 split folding rear seat, body-colored bumpers, rear seat heater ducts, tilt steering wheel, adjustable seat belt anchors, intermittent wipers, and front and rear stabilizer bars. The LX model adds cruise control, a power package, and integrated rear headrests. Those opting for the top of the line ES will get 15-inch alloy wheels, A/C and keyless remote entry. Additionally, Mazda is sure to win the hearts of this up-and-coming group of women with its standard CD players (cassette decks are optional) on two trim levels. With an excellent dashboard layout and fine ergonomics, the Protégé's interior should please most potential buyers.

The last time we drove a Proteg (the '98 model), complaints about seat comfort were rampant. Most of our staff was able to get comfortable and almost all drivers exited the car with back pain. This time around (in the '99 version), I did not feel any discomfort. Though I didn't drive the car for quite as long as I drove the '98 model, I still spent a good five hours behind the wheel, without complaint. The one disappointment was that the driver's seat in the base model does not have a height adjuster. I guess if you're short like me, you better shell out the cash for the LX or ES models, which do have seat height adjusters-or buy a pillow to sit on.

The redesigned 1999 Mazda Proteg will hit showrooms in mid-September, just in time to take recent graduates to all those job interviews.

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