INDEPENDENCE, Mo. — Once the crossroads of the way west, this fabled way station has been lost in the confusion of modern urban America. In the same way, what was heralded as a smart, spunky enthusiast car has been lost in the marketing and buying conformity of the modern purchasing process.
The Mazda Protégé deserves better. It shares the same basic engine with the Miata, and has the same fun and passion for the road. If you aspire to the fun of a European sports sedan with none of the sticker shock, the Protégé is a reasonable choice.
The Protegé traces its heritage back to the 1977 Mazda GLC — marketed as the 'Great Little Car' — a three-door hatchback. In 1986, Mazda introduced a new name: GLC was out and 323 was in. In 1990, Mazda gave us the first Protegé four-door sedan, marketed as a slightly more upscale model but built on the same platform.
This latest Protégé was designed with input from Japanese, the European and U.S. design and development facilities. What’s most noticeable about the car, at least from the inside, is the perceived amount of room. Mazda has defined their interior modeling process as "OptiSpace," and while all companies do this in some form, it is especially successful on the new Protegé. OptiSpace attacks every component from bumper to bumper, seeking to shape and place them so as to squeeze as much room as possible for people. The result is the largest interior of any car in the compact class, and that includes the Chrysler Neon and the Honda Civic. All of the interior components have been carefully shaped to adapt to the human form — all of it subtle, but the end result is substantial. In addition there is a 60/40 split rear seat that can fold down to accommodate all but the biggest urban headaches.