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BEHIND THE WHEEL

This Protege Is a Leader in Its Class

October 28, 1994|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mazda's 1995 Protege brings the subcompact gene pool to its saturation point.

Now we have stylish cab-forward designs in pint size (Chrysler's Neon), smug little cars with dual air bags (Ford Aspire), shrunken sedans delivering motorcycle mileage of 56 m.p.g. (Honda Civic), four-door toys with anti-lock brakes (Toyota Corolla), spunky wheels modified for weekend club racing (Neon again), and a full flea circus of tykes with sun roofs and CDs, leather upholstery and alloy wheels, and all the power and remote controls of grown-up autos.

There aren't many duds in the litter. Kia's Sephia--with mechanical seat belts and the look of a 1988 rerun--might be a questionable place to spend hard-earned money. So would the door mouse-powered Hyundai Excel--recently, and thankfully, replaced by the Accent. (The Excel, you may recall, hit 115 m.p.h. only when Rodney King was at the wheel--or so said the CHP.)

Mazda's Protege, thanks to a combination of refined engineering, quality equipment and superb balance when country roads become gymnastic, falls far from this latter lot.

Despite subcompact sizing, Protege's interior offers more shoving and snuggling room than even mid-size cars from BMW and Mercedes. Credit here goes to something called OptiSpace Design. Mazda likes to rattle on about interior packaging and functionality of space, but it all boils down to rethinking every aspect of design--from engine compartment to body styling--to optimize the process of scooping out a cabin.

Example: Inside panels on doors are usually flat with cranks, buttons and elbow rests poking into the interior of the car. Protege panels are concave, which buries all those handles and adds width to the passenger compartment. Eureka! OptiSpace Design.

The base engine has been puffed up from 82 to 92 horsepower from a new 1.5-liter, 16-valve four banger. It will be standard equipment on the Protege DX primer and the somewhat ritzier LX model.

Despite this increase in oomph, Protege's fuel efficiency has improved by almost 10%--from 29 m.p.g in town and 36 m.p.g. on the highway, to an impressive 31 and 39 m.p.g.

As part of Mazda's general downsizing and rearranging to staunch finances that have become a blood bath, there will be only one optional engine in the lineup. Fortunately for those who like a little peppermint in their motoring, that means a Protege ES equipped with Mazda Miata's 1.8-liter engine. This proven four from a highly successful two-seater produces 122 horsepower and more adolescent fun than might be healthy for sober adults.

The Protege's body has been stiffened considerably by supercomputer analysis and reinforced cross members for the suspension--all of which removes much of the roll from hard cornering and most of the pitch from serious braking. This new muscle tone also produces a small car devoid of skittishness, in fact a subcompact of exquisite manners and a high measure of balance and security. Even among drivers prone to pretty impolite dancing.

Prices, unfortunately, are up. Way up.

Base model of the 1994 Protege with a five-speed manual cost $9,500. The new primer is a better equipped DX stickered at $12,000. And a Protege ES with the Miata engine transplant costs $16,145.

Here's the really sad comparison: For $1,000 more you could drive home in a small stick of dynamite known as the Ford Mustang GT with a 5.0 liter V-8.

*

Where the car falls on its nose, however, is in exterior styling. Not only is Protege cautious and mainstream--obviously aimed at cautious and mainstream buyers--it is a miniaturized Millenia, with front and rear sculpture recognizable knockoffs from Mazda's new $26,000 luxury sedan.

The oddity here is that Millenia styling works for Millenia. But then Millenia is a larger, rather dramatic vehicle. When its lines are adapted for a sedan of reduced dimensions, most of the styling subtleties get lost in the transmogrifier.

So, with name and logos taped over, one could examine Protege, walk around it, sit in it, poke it, sneak up on it when it's sleeping--and there would be no clues to its maker. Mazda? Nissan? Honda? Montgomery Ward?

The interior is much more enjoyable. All dials are clearly visible from a dashboard also concave to enhance the illusion and actuality of roomier insides. Cruise control, turn signals, gearshift and windshield wiper stalk fall easily to hand.

But the radio controls need relocating. They are low on the center console, which makes tuning a long reach, even for those wearing 36-inch sleeves. Despite a passenger-side fascia stuffed with an air bag, there's also a glove box; but only a cube of a cubby between the seats, and door trays that are little more than a suggestion.

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