Friday, November 23, 2001

The 2002 Mazda Protege lives up to its name. This all-new sports wagon is the beneficiary of earlier models dating back to 1977.
The original version was called the GLC, initials Mazda derived from a “Great Little Car.” That vehicle was a three-door hatchback. In 1981, Mazda introduced another GLC, its first front-wheel-drive car. Then in 1986, the GLC gave way to the 323, which was also an entry-level car. In keeping with the birthright thing, Mazda called the 1990 sedan model the Protege. That vehicle was upgraded in 1995 and again in 1999, with each new model utilizing the best components of its predecessors.
Unlike its ancestry, the sports wagon is exceptionally distinctive in design.
The new 2002 Protege is much too sporty and stylish to be called a station wagon, yet it leans in that direction. This vehicle seats five people and is equipped with many components for a lively performance with respectable handling. It should attract a youthful market, because of both appearance and price.
I drove the five-speed manual and automatic transmission Protege vehicles and favored the automatic, which is an $800 option. The base price is $16,335. Loaded with everything available, the total comes to only $20,670.
That price includes side air bags, power moonroof (including deflector), a special alarm system, cassette player and six-disc in-dash changer, floor mats, cargo net, wheel locks, and 16-inch polished alloy wheels.
These wheels are a must for anyone who wants to grab attention. They set off the unique design and exterior color. I drove one that was painted a vivid yellow, complemented by a monotone black interior embellished with what appeared to be a brushed aluminum trim. The combination had great eye appeal. There are five other exterior colors to choose from but all interiors are black.
Mazda calls its exterior a “Contrast in Harmony” and boasts of a five-point grille that features two headlamps, two fog lamps and a large Mazda emblem. The roof has a rack, plus a short antenna capable of pulling in distant radio stations. The rear has a large hatch, typical of most station wagon openings. Above the hatch is a rear air dam, adding to the vehicle’s sportiness.
The interior was very inviting and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the three-spoke, leather-wrapped tilt steering wheel. The instruments feature black-on-white, but at night, the white background switches to amber. Power window controls are on the door armrest, and the center console contains the sound and climate controls.
Considering the reasonable price of the Protege, I was surprised at the quality of the seats. Mazda people told me they are composed of state-of-the art Pluma-flex board that provides better lumbar support and transmits less vibration to the occupants.
Powered by a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine producing 130 horsepower, this engine manages to get the job done. But performance is not its main attribute. Fuel economy is: 25 city, 30 highway.
The interior is versatile with the rear seats capable of folding down if more cargo storage is required. The legroom in the rear seats is adequate, but if the driver pushes the seat backward, the legroom becomes a bit tight. The interior noise level is low. Mazda engineers made extra effort to eliminating noise, vibration and harshness as well as creating a vehicle with good handling abilities. The combination results in a pleasant comfortable ride, a definite improvement over the ride comfort of the Protege predecessors.

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