From the February 1991 issue of Car and Driver.
Mazda introduced the Protegé in the late summer of 1989, around the same time that the concept of “kansei engineering” and the tag line “It Just Feels Right” appeared in the company’s advertising. Instead of basking in the success of the Miata and MPV, Mazda is moving and shaking, reorganizing itself to make more efficient decisions. The aim is to restructure its public image, from a low-priced car maker to a premium-quality specialist manufacturer. All of which have helped make the Protege what it is: a slick, tidy four-door sedan that drives like crazy, welcomes four adults and looks unashamedly like a Mercedes 190. All for just a few dollars a month more than the base. transportation.
We previously drove this engine-chassis combination when we tested the new Escort GT (C/D, August 1990). Ford and Mazda jointly developed the Escort/323 platform, and Mazda supplied the sixteen-valve 1.8 used in both the Escort GT and the LX Protegé versions. We love the Escort GT, finding it fast, lively, responsive and modern. But we do question the styling, wondering whether a thoroughly improved car should look the same as its predecessor and whether buyers in this category still appreciate the aero tack-on look of a male racer.
No such doubt applies to the Disciple. The lines are clearly more elegant than the previous 323 sedan, and the finish is of high quality. A four-inch wheelbase extension (up to 98.4) makes it wider than before and puts it at the top of the class for great roominess. Clearly, Mazda is looking for an expensive-car feel to help differentiate its small sedan from the hordes of top competitors that fill this market segment—a tactic that lends substance to Mazda’s stated desire to shake up its overall image a bit more upscale, thus staying in touch with the baby bubble- population boom as it moves into its peak earning years. Seen that way, the fact that the Protegé suggests a compact Mercedes (note the C-pillar area, including the rear doors, side glass, roofline and fender contours) makes a lot of sense. So is Mazda’s plea that the designation “323”—and its econotation—not be used in connection with the sedan.
Step into the Protegé and the impression of richness continues: except for the lack of polished wood highlights (and, once underway, the lightness of the controls), you could almost be sitting in a scaled-down Stuttgarter. The molded plastic is all very good molded plastic, and the lines and shape of the instrument panel are, again, reminiscent of a 190- or 300-series Mercedes, in an angled hood above a round dial and a horizontal strip filled with rectangular vent outlets.
Looking at the contours of the body from the driver’s seat also emphasizes the opportunity the Ford men missed with the Escort: the lower cover and Protegé belt give it a lighter, more contemporary feel. The Escort’s tall window sills look too narrow in comparison.
Because we are talking about a modern Japanese car from a major manufacturer, it hardly goes without saying that the controls and switches are properly placed and satisfactory to operate. Mazda has also done the right thing with the steering wheel and control stalk, allowing the former to hide the latter. How many wheels have we grasped whose spokes have gone astray, only to see a switch whose operation we will learn by feel almost instantly?
We wish we could read the digital clock and radio frequency readings to taste, however, as daylight makes them all invisible (the only legibility failure in the Protegé’s excellent instrument layout). And we must also note that the seat, although generally well-shaped and properly padded, has an upper roll that creates pressure points against some torsos. They are also covered with a fabric material that feels a little lighter.
“Light-duty” is definitely not the term to describe Mazda’s powerful 125-hp twin-cam engine. Although a bit creaky at start-up, the 1840-cc four pulls the Protegé into motion with smooth, smooth thrust. From a standing start, the light clutch engages positively and the tach needle then spins right to the big number “7” with no obvious peaks or valleys in the torque trace. Hit the low-effort gear lever through redline top shift and 60 mph comes and goes in 8.8 seconds. After 16.5 seconds, the car is a quarter of a mile down the road, traveling 85 mph. Eventually, it will reach a top speed of 120-mph. While those numbers don’t exactly represent headlines, they’re at least on par with the best Civics and clearly superior to any Corolla.
The engine’s flexibility is largely due to its two-pass intake manifold, called “VISC,” for “Variable Inertia Charging System.” The intake air follows a long curved path from the throttle to the valves, a length tuned for efficient cylinder filling at moderate engine speeds. At 5500 rpm, the butterfly opens to create a “shortcut” in the manifold, creating the type of high-volume, close-range flow path that works effectively at higher rpm. And you are encouraged to use the entire operating range. The engine performs with a delightful, whip-me-and-I’ll-rev-forever quality that makes an engine of any power output interesting to use. It emits a nice exhaust note as the revs go up and the pedal goes down, but it revs pretty unobtrusively the whole time.
Our only complaint about the powertrain concerns the rocker: the soft mounting bushings probably get credit for the engine’s lack of harshness, but they also allow so much wrap that the on-off throttle action in lower gears creates an annoying vibration.
When it’s time to close the proceedings and call it quits, the protégé brake is up to the task. Ventilated discs, 10.1 inches in diameter, are mounted up front on all Protegés, and the LX (like the 4WD version) has a solid 9.9-inch disc at the rear. (The SE uses 7.9-inch rear drums.) These brakes pull the 2550-pound car down from 70 mph in 192 feet, but with exemplary feel and controllability. Shorter stopping distances might have been possible had our test car’s rear brakes not insisted on locking up so easily.
The variable-assist power rack-and-pinion steering helps the Protegé feel incredibly light and quick on its feet. But surely the main contributor to the sensation is the suspension. Conventional struts manage the front-wheel action, but at the rear is Mazda’s Twin-Trapezoid-Link design: one trailing link and two lateral links control the geometry of each strut, with the help of bushings that flex in a carefully planned manner. Some of the lessons learned from the second-generation RX-7’s suspension, which popularized the term “elastokinematics,” have now been combined to create a small degree of passive rear-wheel steering.
Officially, the arrangement varies on the inside of the rear wheel in proportion to the cornering load. The near-zero toe-in at low sideloads is intended to turn on turn response, and increased toe-in during cornering forces is supposed to aid stability by “steering” the heavily loaded outside rear wheel into the turn, keeping the car’s tail in line . Sounds reasonable.
In practice, the system has significant effects, but the dynamics are somewhat more subtle and complex than the theory suggests. While the Protege shrinks safely as cornering loads slowly build up, very high speeds or sudden corner entries create a tail boom that may or may not attack you exactly as you want it to. Twist the steering wheel quickly and the outside rear wheel feels like it’s coming out, like in the countersteer phase of active four-wheel steering. The rear leans back (though without actually coming off) to quickly turn the car in its new direction.
On fun mountain roads, we found the quality of this ersatz rear steering useful. It neutralizes a lot of understeer, and gives this nose-heavy front-drive car a very quick, nimble and neutral feel when thrown into corners with gusto.
But some of the staff had moments when the sound of the little tail startled them. On long freeway ramps with expansion strips or other sudden bumps, we often felt the rear end of the car feign outwards when we least expected it. Conceivably, emergency evasive maneuvers can give drivers a little more to handle than they have to worry about at such times.
Today’s world is awash with excellent small sedans, all of which offer—in varying degrees and combinations—performance, quality, refinement, style and value. But Mazda hopes buyers will think of the Protegé as a very accommodating car that offers an exceptional driving experience for a $12,817 reward.
1991 Mazda Protegé LX
Vehicle Type: front engine, front wheel drive, 5 passenger, 4 door sedan
Base/As Tested: $11,598/$12,817
Options: LX Value Package (includes air conditioning, power sunroof, and alloy wheels), $1160; floor mat, $59
DOHC 16-valve inline-4, iron block and aluminum heads, port fuel injection
Displacement: 112 in31840 cm3
Power: 125 hp @ 6500 rpm
Torque: 114 lb-ft @ 4500 rpm
5 speed manual
Suspension, F/R: control arm/strut
Brakes, F/R: 10.1-in vented disc/9.9-in disc
Tires: Bridgestone Potenza RE92
Wheelbase: 98.4 inches
Length: 171.5 inches
Width: 65.9 inches
Height: 54.1 in
Passenger Volume, F/R: 48/39 feet3
Trunk Volume: 13 feet3
Curb Weight: 2550 lb
C/D TEST RESULT
60 mph: 8.8 seconds
1/4-Mile: 16.5 seconds @ 85 mph
100 mph: 27.8 seconds
Top Gear, 30–50 mph: 12.1 seconds
Top Gear, 50–70 mph: 13.2 seconds
Top Speed: 120 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 192 feet
Road grip, 300-foot Skid Pad: 0.80 g
C/D OIL ECONOMY
Observed: 25 mpg
EPA FUEL ECONOMY
City/Highway: 25/30 mpg
C/D TESTS EXPLAINED