When Mazda introduced the Protege in 1990 it received excited reviews and developed a devoted base of owners. When the car was redesigned in the mid-1990s and again in 1999, the accolades increased. In particular, reviewers commented on its precise handling, calling it an "incognito econo-sport sedan." One of the only criticisms of the Protege was that the gas pedal needed to tap a few more horses.
Now, Mazda has decided to improve the already highly touted Protege for 2001. The horsepower was boosted, the already natty interior was given a stylish update and the suspension and steering was further refined. Why? Because Mazda wanted to get it right completely right.
When we were invited to the launch of the 2001 Protege we were surprised to hear that changes were being made only two years after its redesign. But we attended the event in Pacific Beach with anticipation and curiosity - how could they improve this already snazzy sedan? Would the redesign affect the price? And, finally, would this round of changes bring the Protege the sales figures it deserves?
The event was held on the Crystal Pier in San Diego's Pacific Beach. A white ES demonstration model was parked in a tent at the end of the pier, complete with surf crashing below our feet. Mazda engineers and executives described the changes and displayed suspension parts being added to improve the Protege's handling and ride characteristics.
"When you get in a Mazda and drive for a mile, you have a big smile on your face and you don't know why," Mazda North American Operations President and CEO Charles Hughes said. "We call this the emotion of motion."
After more presentations from Mazda engineers and designers we were ready to let our emotions become the litmus test for the redesigned Protege. As we drove from point A to point B would we be moved emotionally? Or only moved physically?
"The cars are waiting for you," a Mazda executive told us, "We have the LX and the ES, automatic and five-speed. Pick the one you want and start driving." Start driving. Ah yes, this is music to an automotive journalist's ears.
A dozen Proteges were parked on the pier, their motors idling, enticing drivers to climb behind the wheel. The Protege, though largely unchanged on the exterior, is still an attractive, classy sedan with a clean, angular look. A spoiler had been added as standard on the ES for 2001. Other changes to the ES include a new five-point black-chrome grille, along with a restyled hood, front fenders, headlights and the addition of fog lights.
As we closed the door and buckled in we noticed that the engine idled so quietly you could hear the surf booming below the pier. Engineers informed us that a new vibration dampening engine mount had been added. When the motor is under load, generating greater torque, the dampening device prevents vibration due to the twisting of the engine block. It seemed that at idle, virtually all vibration had been eliminated. To see if the engine was running you had to check the tach.
The interior was a substantial improvement over last year's model. The seats are covered in black or beige fabric with a contemporary pattern. The seatbacks are notched so the headrests can fit snugly into them when lowered a small touch that adds style. The doors feature dimpled rubber handles and suede-like cloth on the upper panels. Rear seats can be folded down in a 60/40 configuration and now include a locking feature. Our only minor gripes with the interior were with the cheaply made sun visors, the rough feel of the roof lining and the outdated appearance of the door locks.
The dash on the ES now sports white-faced gauges and the round shift knob for the five-speed feels great in your hand as you work the smooth gearbox. Two years ago, we had criticized the center stack for having a storage compartment between the sound system and the climate controls. That minor flaw has been eliminated and the center stack now looks very sharp. Framed by aluminum accents, the audio system by Pioneer is offered in modular components. A CD player is standard in the ES, LX and LX 2.0 models. Other changes included cupholders covered by a hinged door panel, a new center console with storage compartments and dual front map lights (on models without a moonroof).
These features reside in an interior that feels open and airy and is remarkably roomy for a car in this class. Mazda calls this its "OptiSpace" design system maximizing space for passengers and cargo while minimizing the space allotted to the mechanical components. Whatever you call it, it provides ample comfort and excellent visibility.
As we began our ride and drive, rolling down the pier felt like we were riding on railroad tracks an unfair introduction to the Protege's newly tuned suspension. But once we hit the streets we experienced a smooth ride with great road feel. We had been told that the chassis of the 2001 Protege has been enhanced with thicker sheetmetal in all four suspension towers, giving the car greater stability and increased ride comfort. All models will feature front and rear stabilizer bars with redesigned attachment points for more stiffness and improved responsiveness. The stabilizer bars on the ES 2.0 model are thicker than in previous years for increased response and to keep the car flat in tight corners.
A new front suspension crossmember has been added with double connection points at each end. The rear suspension system has received similar reinforcements. Several components in the power rack-and-pinion steering (standard on all Protege models) were stiffened, reducing the friction in the steering assembly. Navigating the test route, we were eager to see if these changes made the 2001 Protege even more responsive to the driver. The DX and LX models will come with 14-inch wheels while the LX 2.0 gets 15-inch wheels and the ES gets all new 16-inch alloys.
As we reached the outskirts of the San Diego area and ventured into the surrounding mountains, we had a chance to put the Protege through its paces and see if the improvements were substantial. Our first reaction was to the boost in power. The ES (also optional in the LX) now gets a 130-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, which is derived from the powerplant in Mazda's 626 Sedan. Not only does this engine provide plenty of power but engineers are expecting it to get over 30 mpg on the highway. The LX and DX continue to offer the 1.6-liter, 103-horsepower DOHC engine as standard equipment. Both engines now meet ultra-low-emission vehicle (ULEV) standards.
Lack of power had been one of the few negatives leveled at the Protege. That claim will probably not be heard again. The car accelerates easily though still rather noisily at low rpms and sounds happier the higher it's revved, finally red-lining at 6,500 rpm. This results in good mid-range acceleration, just where you want it for passing or powering out of a curve. Mazda execs told us the boost in power is more noticeable when driving a Protege with the electronically controlled four-speed automatic available in all models. (Unfortunately, time did not allow us to get behind the wheel of an automatic on our test drive.)
The real fun began when we got the car out in the country on a twisting road. "There are some nice second- and third-gear roads," our hosts had promised us. As we climbed and dropped, twisted and turned, the car came alive in our hands. Each time we took a tight corner it met the challenge and seemed to want more.
Our favorite aspect of the Protege's handling was how level the car remained in tight corners. We kept pushing the car and it kept responding. But wait. Something is missing... Actually, the missing part of the driving experience was tire squeal. Rather than complaining loudly and plowing sideways, the car scooted around the corner as if glued to the road while producing little protest from its tires. Credit this to the front MacPherson struts and the Twin-Trapezoidal Link rear design. Mazda has also given the ES model 16-inch alloy wheels with Dunlop P195/50R16 tires and four-wheel disc brakes. The 2001 Protege DX and LX models will come with either Bridgestone or Toyo tires.
The 1999 Protege we tested seemed to allow a lot of road noise to seep into the passenger compartment. Designers have addressed this with more sound-deadening material in the floor and wheelhouses, and also along the firewall. This seemed to help since the ride was quiet and felt very solid below 65 mph; at higher speeds some wind noise becomes noticeable but not excessive.
Further heightening the Protege's value equation are some significant safety features that have been added to the 2001 model, most noticeably the availability of side airbags and an antilock braking system as an $800 option in the LX 2.0 and ES 2.0 models. The ABS system is designed to vary the amount of rear-wheel braking force to ensure good stopping power under different loads. On our test drive the brakes inspired confidence, felt solid and were easily modulated. The Protege has retained what Mazda calls its "Triple-H" structure, featuring reinforcement in the roof, the B-pillars and lower points on the car. This strengthens the passenger compartment, protecting occupants from side impacts or rollovers. Other safety features include the addition of front seatbelt pre-tensioners with force limiters and rear anchors for child seats.
The Protege sedan is offered in four trim levels. The base DX, with the 1.6-liter engine and the five-speed standard transmission sells for $12,765. Step up to the mid-level LX and you get more standard equipment including a CD player and air conditioning for $13,485. New for 2001 is the LX-2.0, which features the 2.0-liter, 130 horsepower engine for a base price of $13,885. The ES has the keyless remote entry and many styling features for a base price of $15,535. A four-speed automatic transmission can be added to any of the models for an additional $800 (all prices are including $480 destination charges).
Our romp through the hills ended all too soon as we rolled up the driveway to the Mt. Woodson Castle, a restaurant and golf resort in Ramona, Calif. There on the lawn was parked a five-door version of the Protege. In its press material Mazda refers to this car as a "five-door urban activity vehicle." But the general public may just call it a sport wagon. Whatever. It is a sharp looking little car with a surprisingly roomy interior. Furthermore, Mazda execs claim that this five-door doesn't directly compete against anything else on the market, though the Ford Focus designers might disagree. The five-door Protege will be a 2002 model, rolling into showrooms in May 2001. Pricing has not been finalized.
Mazda is also planning a "factory tuner" version of the Protege, as yet unnamed, which will roll out next May. The performance model will feature many sporty touches provided by a company called Racing Beat. It will include a 150-horsepower engine and is designed to provide improved handling and responsiveness. It will even feature an MP3 player as standard equipment. Only 1,500 units will be built at Mazda's Ujina plant in Hiroshima, Japan. Selling for less than $20,000, this performance Protege is likely to be a hot seller with younger drivers.
In the economy sedan class, in which the Protege resides, warranties are becoming the new incentive to lure buyers. The new lineup of Proteges will come with Mazda's three-year roadside assistance program and a comprehensive three-year/50,000-mile warranty and a five-year/unlimited-mileage corrosion warranty.
With the improvements to the 2001 Protege, Mazda has given buyers even more reason to break from the pack and steer clear of the ubiquitous Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla. Classy styling, great handling, a roomy interior, improved safety features and finally a respectable 130-horsepower engine (in the ES and LX 2.0 models) means you get a lot for your money. Anyone shopping in this class should definitely test-drive the new and further improved Protege. We felt the few problems we found with the '99 Protege had been corrected in this latest incarnation. Mazda didn't have to change anything to earn hearty endorsements. But they did. And we're thinking they got it right completely right.