Impressionable Youth 

Mazda Protegé uses subtle approach to win broad appeal

Mazda Protegé uses subtle approach to win broad appeal

“So, Dad,” began Daughter No. 3 as we settled into the car, “which one is this?” She had me fixed in the stern gaze of a front-passenger CEO. “It’s the new Mazda Protegé,” I replied. “Oh,” she said. She leaned forward to rub the dash in an approving, almost tender way. “The zoom-zoom car,” she asserted, smiling. “Zoom-zoom-zoom,” I said; and with that, zoom! we were on our way.

You’ll have been a castaway for sure, lo these many months, if you don’t recognize Mazda’s catchy, surrealistic ad campaign featuring a fresh-faced little schoolboy in jacket and necktie standing beside a lonely desert highway. As various Mazda models whisk past, he whispers “zoom-zoom-zoom.” Had Saint-Exupéry’s delightful little prince stayed on our planet long enough to embrace the television age, he probably would have landed this role for himself. I suppose kudos are in order for the creative team that has so successfully infiltrated zoomy Mazda notions into the rarefied atmosphere that passes for my 10-year-old’s headspace. Sure, it’s a catchy and memorable gimmick; but the marvel is that my child actually gets the point: Mazda’s new Protegé ES does go zoom.

What’s particularly remarkable about this latest iteration of Mazda’s bread-’n’-butter commuter car is its newfound power of subtlety. Decked out in “premium sporty” trim designated by its ES badge, this 2001 Protegé features a new 130-horsepower, twin-cam motor displacing 2.0 liters. This is essentially the same powerplant found in Mazda’s larger, midsize 626 sedan; and although there are only 8 more horses than were produced by the 1.8-liter four-banger it replaces, this new, torquier Protegé engine achieves a noticeably more fluid and supple powerband. Even with the optional four-speed automatic transmission, the 2.0-liter ES zipped confidently away from a standstill; and on the highway, it built up a head of passing speed without so much as a shudder or whine.

A good bit has changed in the marketplace since this third-generation Protegé debuted in ’99. At that time, Protegé played understudy to Ford’s Escort line, whose platform essentials it shared. Now, just two years later, Ford is going teenie-trolling with its hip-hop-styled Focus models; Honda’s Civics have grown bigger, more refined, and even a little sedate; and an upstart Subaru is teasing enthusiasts with sugarplum visions of its Impreza’s rally-racing prowess. As if standing fast at the center of the crowd while everyone else pursues this or that niche market, Protegé now exudes a wholesome sense of well-roundedness. In ES trim in particular, it’s sporty, roomy, fun to drive, affordable to own.

For ’01, a number of discreet styling tweaks give the Protegé a much more commanding exterior appearance. If anything, Mazda has perhaps been influenced by the pocket-rocket popularity of the Impreza, whose motorsports credentials are almost singlehandedly drawing the attention of North American enthusiasts to World Rallycar Championship racing. The new Protegé is subtly beefier and bulkier, particularly up front, where a new grille, bumper, and fenders suggest, “I’m comin’ through no matter what.” The bobtail spoiler over the rear deck emphatically seconds the motion, even though its aerodynamic function is strictly nil.

Neither I nor my impressionable daughter were immune to these stylistic charms. After slipping into the sport-oriented “semi-bucket” driver’s seat and adjusting my various fitments with six-way manual controls, I instinctively felt “of a piece” with the Protegé ES. Its driving dimensions are nearly perfect; by that I mean the driver has a complete sense of the car’s extremities, side to side and front to rear. With 16-inch alloy wheels and stiffer front/rear stabilizer bars that are exclusive to the ES, the Protegé steered responsively, cornered flat, and “tossed” beautifully at my every whim. Disk brakes at all four corners are another ES-only trait, and the ABS system (an option that also includes side air bags) worked reassuringly well, both in late-braking “hot-dog” maneuvers and in recent snowy road conditions. From this driver’s point of view, the car felt small and tidy and playful; it was eager to fetch every stick and to catch every frisbee I tossed its way.

So it’s ironic that the Protegé boasts one of the roomiest interiors among its peers. Mazda attributes this ability to seat five in relative comfort while preserving a 13-cubic-foot trunk to a design principle it calls OptiSpace. Nobody appreciates more than my 5-foot, 6-inch self how subjective a sense of roominess can be. Nevertheless, it bears pointing out that Protegé’s 92.6 cu. ft. of interior passenger volume distinctly trumps such rival sedans as Honda’s 127-HP Civic EX (88.1 cu. ft.) or Subaru’s 142-HP Impreza L (84.4 cu. ft.)

Only the materials and finish of the Protegé’s interior fail to live up to the rest of its overall accomplishment. The new center console is welcome, but too low for resting one’s elbow over extended periods on the highway. And its hard-plastic construction, like that of other elements within the cockpit, strikes a note of unmerited penny-pinching. Audio techies, on the other hand, will surely welcome the standard “modular” AM/FM/CD stereo in the ES that incorporates universal connections for the easy addition of such aftermarket gadgetry as MiniDisc and MP3 players.

By most empirical measures, Mazda’s entry-level compact ranks high or highest in its class. The criteria include horsepower, interior space, handling, braking, side-air-bag availability, even an ultra-low ULEV emissions designation and respectable mileage ratings of 25 mpg/city, 30/hwy. Few other cars under $18-grand are this well-rounded. Few others appeal to this broad a spectrum of tastes, ranging from the practical to the sporty. Mazda has obviously been busy identifying what buyers in this category value most. When the camera zooms in on what they’ve achieved, it’s the 2001 Protegé ES that comes into focus. Zoom-zoom-zoom.

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