If you are looking for a solid, well-built small car, be prepared to wear out a bit of shoe leather. From foreign and domestic automakers, the market is jammed with excellent small cars. Someof the best ones on the market include Saturn's SL sedan, Chevy's Geo Prizm, Honda's Civic, Subaru's new Impreza, Ford's Escort and this week's test car, the LX version of Mazda's Protege. All of these cars made it to the top because they deliver solid value, exceptional quality, terrific performance and gas mileage, and exceptional handling. That's why you'll have to look beyond the obvious to get the best car for your money. Start by comparing the safety equipment that comes standard or that is available as an option. Then look at warranties. And check the rebates and incentives to see who's offering the best deal. The Protege LX comes up a winner in most categories. PERFORMANCE Unlike other small cars, the Protege LX doesn't take long to accelerate. Overall performance rates excellent, thanks to the Protege's double overhead cam 16-valve four cylinder. This fuel-injected power plant develops 125-horsepower. Our test car came with a five-speed manual transmission, but if you wish to avoid shifting, a computer-controlled four-speed automatic is available as an option. The Protege's shifter and clutch pedal are easy to operate. Sometimes shifting can become tiresome, especially when you drive in heavy traffic. But even in the worst Interstate 4 traffic jam, I found the Protege to be civilized. The engine runs as smoothly and quietly as a sewing machine. It pulls strongly all the way to its 6,500 rpm limit, and the test car delivered a solid 26 mpg in the city and 31 mpg on the highway. HANDLING I can remember when small cars were dull, and people bought them because they couldn't afford anything else. The Protege's excellent road manners make it a car you'd want to drive, even if you could afford something larger. Mazda has equipped the Protege with four-wheel independent suspension. The body does not lean much in hard cornering. Road noise is well muffled, and bumps are handled with finesse. The power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering is light and crisp, and the four-wheel disc brakes provide ample stopping power. The car's excellent front and rear visibility enhances your feeling of the car's roadworthiness. It feels solid and well built, nimble, agile and easy to drive. FIT AND FINISH The Protege is one subcompact car that was actually designed with the comfort of rear-seat passengers in mind. A person who is 5-feet-11 or so can sit in the rear seat and not have to wedge his or her feet under the seat or struggle to get comfortable. Headroom is good too. If there's a bigger trunk in a similar sized subcompact, I have yet to see it. The Protege's trunk can swallow 12.8 cubic feet of cargo. And loading items in to the trunk will be easy because the lip of the trunk lid extends down to the bumper. If you flip the rear seats forward, long items like fishing rods and skis can be stowed inside the car. The cloth-covered bucket seats are on the firm side, but supportive and comfortable. Generally, the dash is sensible. It contains a cleanly styled set of analog gauges. Most of the switches - with the exception of the cruise control switch - are easy to get to and operate. The cruise control switch is buried on the lower left side of the dash. The Protege LX is equipped with a high quality AM/FM cassette radio and a powerful air conditioner. Our test car came with electric windows, power mirrors and door locks, and an electric sunroof. This year's model doesn't come with an air bag or anti-lock brakes. Mazda's Fred Aikins said the Protege is scheduled to receive driver- and passenger-side air bags and anti-lock brakes by the 1995 model year.
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