1999-2003 Mazda Proteg

0104 Mazda Protege 01

San Diego - Everybody recognizes the Miata. But many people don't realize it's a Mazda. So, in an ambitious plan to cast all its products in the Miata's warm, sunny glow, Mazda plans to imbue each of them with a bit of the Miata's fun-to-drive spirit.

The latest recipient of Miata infusion therapy is the 2001 Proteg, which brings much-needed zing to a compact-sedan segment dominated by bland and blander. Says Steve Odell, vice president of sales and marketing at Mazda North American Operations: "We've sharpened the Proteg's edge at a time when most of our competitors are softening theirs."

Although the new car is built in Japan on the old platform, it's been freshened up with stylish (if subdued) sheetmetal, an interior reworked with Mazda's customary panache, and a host of structural and mechanical upgrades. But the big news is the debut of a 2.0-liter DOHC in-line four with 130 horsepower and 135 pound-feet of torque. The new engine--among the most powerful in its class--is standard on the sporty ES, which features sixteen-inch alloys and has a base price of $15,535. The 2.0-liter is also available in an upmarket LX with fifteen-inch steel wheels. The bottom-feeder DX gets a 1.6-liter four-banger, fourteen-inch wheels, and, alas, no respect whatsoever.

But Mazda is also thinking outside the econobox. Exhibit A is a spiffy little sport wagon (an '02 model due later this spring) that might prove to be the best-selling Proteg of all. Performance enthusiasts, meanwhile, will cheer the company's first factory tuner package. Developed with the Southern California speed shop Racing Beat, the limited-edition MP3 gets the full boy-racer treatment--upgraded body, suspension, shifter, and steering--plus a honking 280-watt Kenwood MP3 player. The modified engine is only ten horses stronger than stock, but, as Philip R. Martens, Mazda's director of product planning, puts it, "The chassis is so good that it can handle about any aftermarket piece you hang on it."

The new ES is well thought out and nicely screwed together. Then again, so was the last Proteg. But, despite widespread acclaim, that car never became a crowd favorite. "One of my jobs," Odell says, "is to communicate how good the new car is." In a segment where blander is better, this may take some doing.

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