COAL: 1993 Mazda Protege – Learning to Drive (and Love) a Manual

The demise of my 1983 Nissan Stanza and the reality of a 45 minute one way daily commute from Ann Arbor to Detroit necessitated the purchase of a replacement vehicle – a “brilliant black” 1993 Mazda Protege DX (the pic above is the right color, but not the specific car).  This was the first car my wife and I owned together and it holds a special place in our collective hearts as the car that marks the early years of our relationship together.  It also was the first manual transmission car I had ever owned and, despite the learning curve, sold me on the merits of the stick shift.

This was my first Mazda and we were encouraged by the experience of friends who owned similar models.  The Protege was part of a lineage of Mazda small cars going back to the late 70’s Mazda GLC (Great Little Car), the Mazda 323 and continuing through to the Mazda 3 of today.  By and large, Mazda was known for making solid, sporty cars that held their own against competition from other Japanese car makers.  Also, as Mazda had been pulled financially into the orbit of the Ford Motor Company by the late 80’s/early 90’s, this specific generation of Proteges also provided the underpinnings for the Ford Escort/Mercury Tracer duo, vastly improving on earlier generations of those models.

The Protege model we bought in early 1995 had about 30,000 miles after about 18 months of use.  Clearly, the car had been used mostly for highway driving – there was little wear in the interior and the exterior had no dings or dents.  It was a trade in at a local car dealer of a different make and they were interested in moving it.  (It was winter in Michigan and cars weren’t flying out of the door.)  It was a basic DX model – manual windows, manual locks, and the most annoying automatic shoulder belt system I’d ever seen.  In lieu of an air bag, Mazda opted to comply with federal front seat passive restraint mandates with a motorized shoulder belt track that, theoretically, allowed you to leave the shoulder belt buckled while it moved out of the way when the door opened.  Anyone who has ever lived with these motorized menaces knows what they were – a gimmick.  The lap belt still needed to be engaged manually.  And if any dirt or grime got on the track, the motorized mechanism would start running back and forth.  There was no way to turn it off and, most times, we let it run unbuckled and, instead, did the two step process of buckling the shoulder and lap belts separately.

The belt system was about the only poorly designed thing in the car.  For me, a selling point was the stick shift.  I had always wanted to drive a car with a manual transmission, but had not had the opportunity.  Once the Stanza met its demise, I was determined to learn.  A friend of mine took me out in his late 80’s Civic and we practiced in a school parking lot.  Even though I had already been driving over 10 years, it took awhile.  I’m glad smartphones with cameras didn’t exist at the time – the stalling, shaking and gyrating would have made for an embarrassing social media post.  (Ah, those were the days!)  After several lessons, I was ready to test drive the Protege and was amazed at the smooth and ease of the stick shift.  The clutch and shifter worked well with the fuel injected SOHC 1.8 liter four cylinder.  It was peppy and easy to rev, and the shifts were crisp and linear.  The perfect car in which to perfect my shifting skills.  Luckily, my wife already knew how to drive with a manual so she took to the car easily.

The Protege was probably one of the best cars I’ve ever owned.  It was relatively roomy, given the compact footprint.  The mileage was terrific – easily mid/upper 30’s on the highway (sometimes 40).  Plenty of power to merge on the highway.  The transition to daily driving a car with fuel injection was eye-opening.  Quick handling and decent, if somewhat choppy ride, despite the relatively skinny 13 inch tires.  The back seats dropped down in a 60/40 split and we were able to use the open space for camping equipment or skis.  The car was dead on reliable.  Over 5+ years, I don’t remember needing anything more than tires, brakes and a new muffler.  (Michigan salt had corroded the exhaust system after a few years.)

Over the years, we drove the Protege all over Michigan, to visit family in Wisconsin and on the East Coast, and to eventually move to upstate New York in 1998.  The Protege handled the lake effect snows of Syracuse and we learned that a front wheel drive car with a stick shift could better handle hills than a lot of SUVs.  (We never got winter tires, but the car still made it through frequent snowfalls with the regular all seasons we had bought in Michigan.)  The key seemed to be the transmission – I learned how to hold the car in a lower gear when necessary, or shift up to a higher gear when needed to reduce wheel spin and get unstuck.  It was a homegrown version of the more modern traction control systems that started to become more widely available in the late 90’s/early 2000’s.

After the birth of our first son, however, we realized we needed something a little bigger.  (See my COAL regarding the VW Passat we bought to replace it.)  Also, by 2000, the Protege seemed to be lacking some of the more modern safety features I wanted to have to protect my family – front and side air bags, antilock brakes, traction control, etc.  We sold it to a local guy who needed a commuter car when the time came and I felt a bit wistful.  The Protege was, to quote an earlier Mazda model, a “great little car”.  Not the most refined, but certainly an eager, willing, easy to live with car.  To this day, I think of the many roadtrips my wife and I took in the Protege – a stack of mixed tapes in the little cubby in the small center console.  Life was simpler in some ways then – just the two of us (and then the two of us with baby).

Our experience with the Protege also set us up as fans of Mazda vehicles.  Six years after selling the car, we bought our first (and only) minivan (the MPV).  And 18 years later, we bought our first crossover (a 2016 CX-5 – more on that for a future COAL).  At least for us, the combination of Japanese design and quality combined with an extra dose of sportiness has been appealing.

I don’t see many Proteges of the early 90’s vintage any more in Minnesota.  One failing of Mazdas of that era was rust-proofing.  While we didn’t have a lot of rust issues on the body, our Protege certainly showed wear in the underbody.  I suspect most Proteges from that era have long since rusted out.  But, if I did see one, I might be tempted to have one for quick runs around town – just for old times’ sake.  With a stick shift, please.