Auto Review: 2002 Mazda Protegé ES
"Turn down here, you can feel the curves a little," the salesman told me as we came up on a small back street to the right. I figured he'd just take me around the backroads so I could go around a few corners and get a small feel for what the car could do. But as it happened, this particular road opened into a mini traffic circle, with 3 other smaller streets feeding into it and one center island about 150 feet across with a big tree in the middle and no other cars to be seen. "I found this place a little while ago, you can really feel the car here," he said. I needed no further encouragement and proceeded to take 3 hard laps around the island.
The Protegé never flinched.
If Ford intends to build up Mazda as a line of sporty cars, as it says it does, it has done an excellent job with the Protegé as the base model. From the headlights to the spoiler, the ES model is aggressively and attractively styled, and the "sport" interior is extremely comfortable. The wheel and tire package make an already very competent suspension especially impressive and easily the car's biggest asset. The engine, although hardly the most powerful in its class, is peppy enough to move the car at a respectable pace.
The price of all this is what makes this car so great. With MSRP on the Protegé ES I drove at $17,100, to buy an even slightly comparable Civic EX, buyers must be prepared to shell out an extra $716. With the addition of all the amenities standard in the Protegé ES (i.e. fog lights, spoiler, alloy wheels, etc.), the Civic is a full $2,767 more. Toyota Corolla S buyers must likewise be prepared to shell out $1370 more than the Protegé.
Price aside though, the car is simply fun to drive. The interior seems a little cheep at first, especially the fake carbon-fiber trim. It quickly grows on you though. The seats are very supportive and I was impressed by the number of ways I could adjust it to fit me. The stereo is excellent for a stock setup, and the controls are all well within easy reach for both the driver and the passenger. Climate controls are equally well placed, although a little difficult to master.
My only vice with the car is its engine. Although the purr coming from under the hood says, "this car wants to drive," at 130 horses and 135 lb.-ft. of torque, the engine is modest at best. Although it feels much stronger than the SOHC Civics, the twin-cam 2.0 liter should be doing more. Fortunately, there's plenty of room between the header and the radiator. We can hope that Mazda follows Chrysler's PT Cruiser example and use that space for a little help from a turbo. For now though the engine is hardly incapable. Although it might lose a few drag races with higher-output engines, it is still faster than most in its class, and well matched with the 5-speed manual gearbox.
Fortunately, anything the engine lacked was made up for in the suspension. It was easily the best of any car of that size and price that I've driven. It took every turn I could throw at it and asked for more. In three hard laps around the traffic circle, the car was tight and exhibited virtually no body roll. The 16-inch wheel and Dunlop SP5000 tire package seems made for this car. I couldn't coax a sound from the tires, and they were always firmly planted to the pavement.
By the time we made it back to the dealership I was itching to see what the car acted like on some real twisty back roads. Unfortunately the closest country road is more than a few miles from downtown Williamsport, PA, so I was forced to leave slightly unfulfilled. I was certainly satisfied though, to have found a car that has more torque and horsepower and can outhandle both Honda and Toyota for a good deal less money. You can be certain that this car will likely appear here again in another test, the next more rigorous than a simple test drive.