Classic CARmentary: 1999 Mazda Protege ES

Another in a series of my reviews that appeared in the online version of African Americans On Wheels, a now defunct automotive magazine that was included as an insert in the Sunday newspapers of major cities.

All I can say is that I remember being in a really bad mood the week I had this car, although I don’t remember why.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of Mazda – I even own one.  I’m willing to bet if they’d supplied a model with the manual transmission, like they did with the 626, the review would have been more flattering.  Mainly, it would have taken away the two main complaints:  Weak off-the-line acceleration and piss-poor gas mileage.  For comparison, the contemporary Corolla with an engine of almost identical size and power was EPA rated at 28/36 versus the Mazda’s 24/29.  I’m sure that given more time and an open mind, I would have realized superior ride and handling to its peers, or a better trimmed interior and more comfortable seats, but I just didn’t care.

Not that any of my complaints are invalid.  It’s just that when you’re dealing with something as subjective as a “review,” you just never know what’s going on in the author’s head.

Mazda’s Protege traces its heritage back to the 1977 GLC.  However, like its big brother 626, it is considered an also-ran in the big picture. Mazda’s hoping to change that with a completely redesigned Protege for 1999.

Unlike the nearly invisible redesign Mazda performed on the 626 last year, the new Protege looks completely different from last year’s model. Smooth curves have been replaced by sharp edges all around. The bold grill and angled headlamps from the 626 are up front, while tall, thin tail lamps grace the rear. The new Protege is available in the DX, LX, and ES configurations. The base DX and luxury LX come with a 105 horsepower, 1.6-liter four, which is larger and more powerful than last year’s base engine. The ES comes with an all new 1.8-liter engine derived from the 2.0-liter in the 626, although it’s rated at the same 122 horsepower as last year’s 1.8. While slightly smaller inside due to increased side impact protection, the 92.6 cubic-foot passenger volume and 12.9 cubic-feet of trunk space is at the front of the pack for compacts. There’s a new dash with a hooded instrument panel and a center stack console. The seats in the ES feature height and bottom cushion angle adjustments, rare in a small car.

And yet the new Protege gives me no compelling reason to buy it. The new look does little to set the Protege apart from its ilk. Even with the larger engine, the Protege felt lethargic off the line with the optional four-speed automatic, and its gas mileage was disappointing for a small car. Shamefully, antilock brakes are only available as part of an expensive “premium” package that includes a power sunroof and floormats. In my opinion, they are too important to be thrown in the same league as a sunroof and therefore priced out of most shoppers’ budgets.

The Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic have their legendary reliability and resale value, the Ford Escort and Chevy Cavalier have their low price, and the Dodge/Plymouth Neon has its cute chic. The Protege, while a good car in its own right, has no “draw.” And that could be its roadblock to success.

For more information contact 1-800-639-1000


Type: Four-door Sedan
Engine: 122-horsepower, 1.8 liter inline-4
Transmission: Four-speed Automatic
EPA Mileage: 24 city/29 highway
Tested Price: $16,175