I bought my 02 Protege ES new. It was a fantastic car, fun to drive, excellent handling, good performance, comfortable, decent gas mileage, great safety features, and completely reliable. I had the dealer find me an ES that had the ABS/Side Airbags/Power Sunroof package. Gas mileage on the highway hovered around 32 mpg, low 20's in city driving. The transmission shifted smoothly and easily, the engine reved up quickly and offered decent power. The real treat with this car is the handling, its fantastic, and especially nice with the sleeper looks. Its feels a lot faster and sportier than it is. I replaced the front brakes at 70k, 2 sets of tires, and oil changes. No problems in 115K.
The handling and the excellent reliability and build quality. This was the best small car I owned by far. Now with three kids I am super married man with two minivans, but I'll be seriously looking at a Mazda3 next year when its time for a new small car. I just wish they still made the Protege ES.
The Protege ES really needed a 6th gear, which would have offered better performance and perhaps higher MPG on the highway. An optional turbocharged engine would have been nice, and I'd love to see a RWD sleeper small sedan like the Protege ES. ABS and side airbags should have been standard.