I bought my 2003 Protege ES new based on handling and ride - and looks. It's been a great car, extremely reliable and is still fun to drive.
The sway bar bushings wore out at 85,000 miles and the tubing to the mass air flow sensor cracked, but a redneck duct tape fix still works.
The passenger side electric door lock stopped working at about 50,000 miles. The worst thing on it by far is the rust in the rear fender wells.
After 105,000 miles, everything else still works great.
Still looks great in Laser Blue Mica with 16" wheels. The stereo in the ES level is quite good. Factory brakes were excellent. Cheap replacements - not so excellent. Gonna remedy that soon. The best quality is still the handling though. Very fun car to drive.
Mazda seems to have rust control down now, but the car's biggest flaw is that rear fender rust. This car also doesn't have much power - something else that's not an issue in 2015. Strangest thing is the air intake on the Protege. Air comes in through the crack between the front moulding and the hood. I did another redneck revision and broke away some of the plastic behind the front grill to let in more air. I actually notice a boost in acceleration, and mpg's have gone up 1-2 mpg.
This car is a lot of fun to drive.
The handling, steering, and road feel are top notch for this car, especially for this class.
It puts some newer and more expensive cars to shame.
With that said, the car wasn't perfect.
The best gas mileage I could get was 28MPG.
Despite regular detailing, the car had a decent amount of rust.
I went through front wheel bearings like crazy and I had to replace my front struts twice within the 130,000 miles of ownership.
Interior is rather nice for the year but the radio is quite weak.
A fun car to drive with minor flaws.
Handling, steering, and road feel.
Auto transmission is smooth.
Nice interior for the class.
Excessive rust for the age.
Buzzy and loud engine.
Highway mileage suffers due to high rpms at interstate speeds.
Radio sound quality is poor.
Tight and responsive suspension creates harsh ride and requires excessive repair.
In 2 years, Ive gone through:
2 wheel bearings
$900 valve job
Heres the bad thing, and BE ADVISED:
A valve job on these cars will often result in the piston rings going bad; this happened to me.
There is no easy fix for this - the car needs a new engine and smokes like crazy.
The newest versions of these cars are now 13 years old.
Do not buy one
The transmission went out early on, which started a chain reaction of other problems months to follow.
This car was nothing more than a money pit and certainly not one worth investing in.
I've replaced just about everything in the car besides the engine, which I hear is something Mazda actually does fairly well.
I ended up finally trading the car in at around 153k miles.
It seems like a lot, but not considering maintenance costs.
In addition to the reliability issues, the interior was cheap and started to literally fall apart.
Poor mpg as well.
The only positive thing I can say about the car is that it was kind of fun to drive and had nice acceleration.
It felt like a go-kart.
Acceleration and responsive handling
I love my Mazda.
I bought it used in 2004 with 25,000 miles on it.
It now has 88,000 miles.
I have only replaced brake pads, tires and one hose in addition to oil changes.
My engine runs flawlessly.
I get better than rated mileage.
She handles great for a sub-compact.
Has road feel instead of the numb feedback of a Toyota.
The stick is smooth with shifts.
Seats are comfortable.
I will keep it until it dies since it has no resell value.
I hope to get at least another two years.
It is not a quiet car.
Lots of road noise.
It is rusting at the bottom of the doors an wheel wells.