2002 Mazda Protegé
2002 Mazda Protegé. Click image to enlarge

By Jeremy Cato

So it’s the end of the line for the Mazda Protegé. Mazda has enjoyed a good run with this subcompact commuter car, but a replacement model called the Mazda3 is due for the 2004 model year.

The Mazda3 has some big tire patches to fill. At times in the last few years the Protegé has threatened to become the best-selling car in Canada. That never actually happened, although buyers have been flocking to the Protegé by the tens of thousands each year for some time.

The reason is pretty simple. This is a good car, certainly the sort of daily runabout worth recommending to the nearly-new buyer. That’s especially true of the last version of the Protegé launched in 1998 as a 1999 model. That year the Protegé received its last major renovation, although for 2001 the car got a mid-cycle upgrade in terms of styling and performance.

The ’99 Protegé was re-cast substantially (new engines, new body, new automatic transmission, re-styled interior, 26 per cent fewer parts overall) with the sorts of changes that inspired the marketing whizzes at Mazda to target young folks as primary buyers.

Sporty styling, smart packaging and a hip advertising campaign worked to attract lots of new owners to Mazda. But what has kept them relatively happy has been the Protegé’s attributes: about as quiet as a Toyota Corolla and more interesting to drive; bigger than a Honda Civic of the late 1990s; and quality to rival bigger Japanese brands.

On the quality front, a small handful of mostly inconsequential service bulletins and recall notices is testimony to how well Mazda hit the sweet spot with this car.

This Protegé’s styling has proven particularly winning. There’s a bit of a 1999 Audi A4 in the four-door Protegé’s sheetmetal, only I’d argue the Mazda has more subtle details in its shape. The sculpted flares in the wheel openings look good, the character lines in the hood and doors look better and the chiselled headlights and the large, shapely taillights better still. It’s a lean and expensive look.

Inside, the designers did equally smart work. Even with a sunroof, six-footers won’t bonk their noggins and unless you play centre on a basketball team, and you’ll have more front seat track than you’ll need to get comfortable legroom-wise.

The cabin materials have proven durable and there are plenty of useful and attractive touches – such as door grips and a console trim with a dimpled finish similar to a golf ball. All the controls and instruments make sense and are nice to look at, too. And the big, fat steering wheel offers a comfortable grip.

That’s a good thing because this econobox is surprisingly sporty to drive. There are a lot of reasons for that – strong body construction allowing the suspension to focus on ride control.

Power? Mazda has offered three engines: a 1.6-litre 16-valve four-cylinder that develops 103-105 horsepower; a 122 horsepower 1.8-litre four banger; and, a 130 horsepower 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine which arrived for 2001.

Few cars at this price offer this combination of performance and style. And because Mazda has sold so many of them over the years, the used buyer has plenty of selection from which to choose.

One last point. A couple of years back Mazda launched a five-door hatchback version of the Protegé. Called the Protege5, it, too, will be replaced with a five-door version of the Mazda3.

Used vehicle prices vary depending on factors such as general condition, odometer reading, usage history and options fitted. Always have a used vehicle checked by an experienced auto technician before you buy.

For information on recalls, see Transport Canada’s web-site, www.tc.gc.ca, or the U.S. National Highway Transportation Administration (NHTSA)web-site, www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on vehicle service bulletins issued by the manufacturer, visit www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on consumer complaints about specific models, see www.lemonaidcars.com.

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