Mazda’s Protege sedan has long been a staple of the subcompact scene. It’s roomy, comfortable, and performs better than most competitors. But in the very youth-oriented small-car market, ProtŽgŽ has had a hard time competing with first, the extremely popular Honda Civic, and second, the upstart Ford Focus. So Mazda drove back to the computer to design a ProtŽgŽ that’s faster, flashier, and a lot more fun to drive. Should Honda and Ford dealers worry?

Perhaps, since at first blush Mazda has not just freshened the 2001 Protege, but rather they’ve readied a whole family of small cars for today’s young, hip, and thrifty buyers.

Leading the pack are the Protege DX, LX and ES. These diminutive 4-doors have received substantial upgrades over last year. The most important thing being a stiffer body structure. It’s been reinforced everywhere from the roof to the floorpan for better rigidity, providing better handling and improved crash protection. That structure is wrapped in a sportier body, that gives Protege a more Continental look - and we don’t mean Lincoln.

The looker of the bunch is the top-line ES, which receives a standard rear deck spoiler, sixteen-inch alloy wheels, fog lamps, and a black-chrome grille. The ES also gets more top power. A new, smoother, but somewhat slow revving, 2.0- liter, dual-overhead-cam, 16-valve Inline-4. Output is 130 horsepower, up 8 from last year, and 135 pound-feet of torque, up 15.

DX and LX models use a carry-over 1.6-liter with 103 horsepower and 106 pound-feet of torque. Though the 2.0-liter is optional on the LX. Both engines use either our test car’s standard 5-speed manual, or an optional 4-speed automatic.

The combination of 2.0-liter engine and manual tranny is good for a respectable 0 to 60 of 9.1 seconds and a 1/4 mile of 16.9 seconds at 83 miles-per-hour. Handling is controlled by MacPherson struts up front, and a Trapezoidal Link IRS at the back. And it zoom zooms through the corners, just like the Mazda commercial promises. It’s solid, and very responsive for a front driver. While the power rack-and-pinion steering is quick and delivers plenty of feedback.

Our ES-model’s standard 4-wheel discs and optional ABS delivered stops from 60 of a fine 124 feet on average. Stability is very good. Pedal feel is a little harsh, but there is plenty of feedback.

Inside, the Protege ES offers almost mid-size room, and a clean, well-organized dash. The large analog gauges use sporty white faces in the ES. The front bucket seats fit well, even tall folks, and include side impact airbags in ABS- equipped cars. The ES standard stereo is an AM/FM CD player. A 6-disc in-dash changer is optional. Air conditioning is also standard on ES, with a very straightforward control layout.

All Proteges include a 60/40 rear seat that is roomy enough for two adults, and with a fair bit of leg room. The split seatbacks fold quickly to supplement the trunk’s usable 12.9 cubic feet of space.

It’s a sweet little car, made even more so by reasonable prices. Base price for a Protege DX is $13,245. While the LX starts at $13,965. Add the 2-liter engine to your LX, and pay $14,365. While our very well equipped ES-grade car carries a base price of only $16,015.

That puts the Protege midway between the more expensive Honda Civic, and less expensive Ford Focus. A very competitive position to be in. And to ram the advantage home, the standard Protege will be supplemented by two very exciting new versions that arrive later this year.

First is the 2001 Protege MP3. The sportiest, and most youth oriented member of the Protege sedan family, the MP3 offers more power, handling and style. Power is from the same 2.0-liter four as the ES, but recalibrated ignition and variable induction control boost output to 140 horsepower and 142 pound-feet of torque. The MP3 is also equipped with a stiffer suspension, including dual stabilizer bars by Racing Beat, stronger springs, and MP3-specific dampers.

We drove it at the press introduction in the Kona Kohala region of Hawaii. And on the big island’s twisty mountain roads, the MP3 proved to be a formidable little sport sedan. It’s no BMW M3, but it easily beats the pants off most of its subcompact competitors. The slick interior offers stylish stainless-look trim, racier seats and best of all, the formidable audio system that gives the MP3 its name. This 280-watt Kenwood Excelon system features the auto industry’s first MP3-capable CD receiver. Sure to be a hit with the tech-savvy young - as will be the very competitive $18,500 base price.

And as if that’s not enough, Mazda will be among the leaders in a new sport wagon trend with the 2002 Protege 5, a slick 5-door that offers as much style as it does utility. With its racy bodywork, 16-inch polished alloy wheels, and rear roof spoiler, it really puts the sport in sport wagon.

And backs up those looks with a beefed up suspension a/la the ES sedan, and standard 4- wheel disc brakes. It felt tight and nimble on those challenging Hawaiian roads. Though despite packing the same 130-horsepower 2.0-liter as the ES, the 2,716 pound Protege 5 required us to work the standard manual shifter pretty hard to maintain a decent pace.

Base price for the 2002 Mazda Protege 5 will be $16,815. That’s a lot of trendy looks and versatility for your hard earned dollars. The standard Protege, plus its MP3 and Protege 5 kin, give Mazda’s venerable small car brand a sporty, stylish 1-2-3 punch. A punch that, while it may not knock the Civic and Focus off the top of the subcompact youth market, it will shake them up!


  • Engine: 2.0 Liter, Dohc, 16-valve, I-4
  • Horsepower: 130
  • Torque: 135 Lb Feet
  • 0-60 MPH: 9.1 Seconds
  • 1/4 Mile: 16.9 Seconds @ 83 MPH
  • 60-0 MPH: 124 Feet
  • EPA Mileage: 25 MPG City 31 MPG Highway