Mazda Protege emerges from team design as roomy new compact
Date Posted: 5/10/2005
With the redesign of Protege, a compact-class 4-door sedan with seating for five, Mazda's design team attempts to carve out maximum space for people, pile on comfort features usually carried by more expensive models, then provide perky acceleration in a fun-to-drive format but also bring home the fuel economy figures of an econo-miser commuter car.
Did they do it?
Amazingly, they did -- and in the process of matching or exceeding best-in-class figures in a number of different categories to measure interior space and world-class safety assets, Mazda's team also produced a curvy little sedan that's a cute piece of work.
Protege's prow droops dramatically toward the pavement to shape a hood line that's almost as steeply sloped as the cant of the windshield. The top rolls over the passenger compartment as sides expand outward in a bulge that adds extra space for passengers. Then at the tail there's a flat trunk deck capped by crisp metal cascade to bodycolor bumper, with taillamp treatment wrapping both back corners.
As cute as it may be, don't judge Protege by the slant of its prow or the curt cut of its tail.
Instead, climb inside to find the heart of this car: Big-time cabin space crafted from a compact platform.
Inch for inch, Protege contains more usable room for legs and elbows and heads and hands than many pricy midsize imports. There's so much space, in fact -- 95.5 cubic feet in all -- that Protege moves to top of class among all imported and domestic models in measures of interior volume.
You'll feel it in the cockpit when the driver's bucket wraps around your backside, with a swirling curve of the armrest on the driver's door placed perfectly to catch your left elbow.
Stretch your right arm across the rider's seat and you must lean to reach the door latch -- it's that far away.
Then check out the available head room. With my long torso and 6-foot frame I still found enough room above my head to wedge my left palm stacked on top of my right fist. By my count, that's well over four inches of spare headroom.
The official front headroom figure amounts to 39.2 inches, if you're counting.
Now move to the rear seat, where the true test of a compact sedan may be measured. In Protege, I discovered I could still stand a fist on top of my head to demonstrate how much headroom remained (total headroom numbers run to 37.4 inches).
But where this car's interior dimensions most amazed me occurred when I crossed my legs in that back seat. Usually, I can only cross limbs in the rear compartment of full-size models with stretched wheelbase. Protege, with official measurement of rear legroom stringing out to 35.6 inches, could be the first compact I've found where I would not object to riding in the rear for a hundred miles or more.
And if you travel in a Protege, you'll find another spacious surprise when you pop the rear decklid: A total of 13.1 cubic feet of cargo room, which I filled with my wife's largest pieces of luggage and still found room to spare.
How did Mazda manage to extract such a spacious passenger compartment from such a compact frame?
Bringing together stylists, engineers and product planners, Mazda's design team went beyond the popular cab-forward concept to address a range of aspects about the car's overall design and function: Packaging of the interior compartment in a spacious manner, developing a congruous niche to house the engine, making the cabin more functional for driver and riders, then beefing up the overall structure and adding key safety systems.
Mazda calls this process "OptiSpace" design.
Its roots come from experience in developing the elegant Millenia. As with sporty Miata and the more recent Millenia, initial designs for Protege were developed in the United States to address domestic desires and needs.
In a Protege test drive, you too may detect minute traces of the luxurious, expensive Millenia. These nuances arise in subtle ways, like firm and supportive fit of the driver's seat, a functional driver-oriented cockpit design with easy-view placement of instruments in the eyebrow curve of a dash panel, or even the quiet isolation of the cabin.
Protege's biggest surprise, at least for this driver, occurred when I ran through the gears of city traffic.
It produced juice when I demanded, something I suspected the base car's new dual-cam 1.5-liter 4-in-line would not muster. With an output that only amounts to 92 horsepower, you would not normally expect much zip, but low-end torque management and quickened gear ratios work in concert here with a relative light vehicle weight to deliver more than adequate off-the-line action.
Still, fuel economy numbers climb as high as 39 mpg, so there seems to be a nice balance in Protege between overt horsepower and fuel economy.
My test model also came with a manual 5-speed stick that shifted smoothly and easily in notchy arrangement. An electronically controlled 4-speed automatic is also available for all three Protege editions, which include the base DX, a luxury-rigged LX or sport-tuned ES.
Protege ES earns Miata's aggressive 1.8-liter twin-cam plant, bumping horsepower to 122 and turning this little sedan into a romping mass of motion.
Safety systems become another key ingredient aboard Protege, beginning with a new front structural system designed to channel frontal impact forces around -- instead of through -- the passenger compartment.
Reinforced steel side door beams and steel side pillars also work to shield riders, as do Mazda's dual airbags, 3-point belt systems, even such handling improvements as the car's chassis that now measures almost twice as stiff in bending as the previous Protege and one and a half times more rigid in torsional movement.
This non-flexing frame serves as foundation for independent suspension components and a rack and pinion steering system which give Protege a lithe and graceful stance in curve sets or challenging traffic maneuvers.
Anti-lock brakes in a 3-channel design applied to all four wheels are optional on Protege LX but standard on ES.
There's obvious value here, with a long list of standard features packed into Protege DX, which lists for $11,995. My test model, a Protege LX with luxury systems including power windows and mirrors, totaled $14,980, and the sport-tuned Protege ES begins at $16,145.
1995 MAZDA PROTEGE
| Vehicle Specifications:
| 1995 MAZDA PROTEGE Specs
||Compact 4-door sedan
| Model Options:
||Compact 4-door sedan
| Overall Length:
| Engine Size:
||DOHC 1.5-L I-4 16v
DOHC 1.8-L I-4 16v
ES: Power 4-disc/ABS
| Gas Mileage:
||$ 12,000 to $ 16,500