A car that could satisfy the needs of the basic structure of society should basically be a hit, but Mazda’s Protege model had quite a rough starting year despite being completely utilitarian. The model, which hit American roads in 1990, provided a combination of good acceleration, fuel economy, capacity, and ride quality. However, it seemed that having all these could never ensure great sales. The Protege survived through three generations fighting off other compact sedans in the market before leaving its throne as Mazda’s entry-level car.
1990 – 1994: A compact sedan with basic features
The first releases of the Protege were very similar to the Mazda 323 models aside from two additional doors, making the Protege a compact four-door sedan that competed with Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic. The units were larger than the hatchback 323, and they had a four-inch longer wheelbase as well. The base model called the SE had a 16-valve 1.8-liter engine that could produce 103-horsepower, which was a competitive output side by side compact sedans from other makes. With the introduction of the LX model, this capability was boosted by the twin-cam engine that improved horsepower output by 22 points. Both the SE and LX models were equipped with a five-speed manual of a four-speed automatic transmission.
1995 – 1998: Still fuel efficient with more power
The second-generation models remained to be as fuel efficient as the previous models. The LX model received its power from a 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine that yielded 92-horsepower. In this generation, the SE model became the top-line model, which during this time was equipped with a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine with a 122-horsepower output. Dual-overhead camshafts were used in these models, and they had a standard five-speed manual gearbox or an optional four-speed automatic. In this generation, the models were rated with good passenger room and ride quality, but handling and acceleration ratings dropped.
1999 – 2003: A European-style American sedan
This generation saw the Protege models donning a more European style on the front end. Three versions became available: the base DX, the LX, and the ES. The first two trims had a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine that was better than the previous generation’s engine by 13 points. The sport model, the ES, was powered by a 122-hp-yielding four-cylinder engine with a 1.8-liter displacement. The transmission provided was still the same, but disc brakes were available on all wheels for all trims. Antilock braking was only an optional feature for the LX and ES models, and side airbags were not installed, making handling and safety as two of these models’ downsides.