What’s resulted is a better car in a market where its corporate cousin, the new-in-2000 Ford Focus, has emerged as the leader and standard-setter, and Honda has just introduced a new version of the traditionally best-selling Civic. The question is whether a better Protegé can catch, equal, or better the Focus and Civic.
Stronger, faster, heavier
The big Protegé news comes in the form of a big engine. Gone is the 122-horsepower, 1.8-liter, DOHC four that powered the top-of-the-line ES and was optional on the mid-grade LX in favor of a new 130-horsepower, 2.0-liter, DOHC four. It’s more than a simple increase in displacement; the 1.8 was shared with the Miata sports car, while the new 2.0 comes from the same engine family as the base engine in the larger 626 sedan. A 103-horsepower, 1.6-liter, DOHC remains the base engine in both the bottom-line DX and the LX, and should be avoided by anyone interested in merging successfully into freeway traffic.
The new engine isn’t the rip-snort sportster the same-size powerplant was in the much beloved ‘91-’94 Nissan Sentra SE-R (which was rated at 140 horsepower), but it’s comfortable moving the Protegé. Peak power comes at 6000 rpm, but the peak 135 lb-ft of torque comes at a significantly more relaxed 4000 rpm. This engine doesn’t zing to its redline eagerly, but doesn’t feel flabby either. It’s a quiet sedan engine with an anonymous exhaust note and its easygoing torque production is probably as well, if not better, suited to the optional four-speed automatic transmission as it is to the standard five-speed manual.