Mazda calls it the Protege. One look at it and you might be tempted to refer to it instead as the 1995 Protege-Tercel-Corolla-Civic-Sentra-Neon-Cavalier-GEO Metro.

In other words, Protege is the next new small car that looks just like every other new small car in the market, unless you are ready, willing and able to decipher the logo in the grille to determine its heritage.

The one question most automakers don't like to hear when the public views its new hardware is, "What is it?" If they ask, they obviously don't know.

Another reason "What is it?" strikes fear in producers' hearts is that if six vehicles all look alike, chances are buyers are going to opt for the least expensive. There's no reason to shop for the best-looking of the crew.

Mazda redesigned its subcompact Protege sedan for the 1995 model. In doing so it cut the subcompact 323 hatchback from the lineup. Mazda doesn't need more models, it needs better models of the ones it has, and so Protege underwent the moth-into-butterfly treatment for '95.

A few years back General Motors was the object of ridicule because its cars looked alike. GM is now having the last laugh because just about every subcompact car motoring to showrooms looks like it was designed by some chap named Clone.

That's not to say the new Protege doesn't look good, but so does the new Tercel, Corolla, Civic, Sentra, Neon, Cavalier and GEO Metro, which all seemingly came from the same rounded, aerodynamic mold. In a crowded parking lot you better know your license number if you are going to find your car without first trying your key in the door of 14 look-alikes.

The rounded sheetmetal allows the cars to slip easily through the wind to consume less fuel. And by slipping rather than barging through air currents, they are all noticably more quiet, almost to the point of larger mid-size cars. Rounded lines also mean taller roof lines and wider bodies for more head and arm room.

Protege dimensions are robust compared to the previous model. Wheelbase is now 102.6 inches, up from a mere 98 inches. Overall length was expanded to 174.8 inches from 171.5 inches. A Mazda 626 sedan owner noted that the interior of the Protege was as spacious, if not more, than his car. We won't argue the point. Protege's interior is as roomy as a 747.

It used to be that subcompact economy cars represented a compromise: you put up with cramped quarters in order to conserve fuel. Now you can wiggle your head, flap your arms, tap your toes and, in general, make fellow motorists flee to the passing lane.

Protege, however, stayed loyal to its original intent-high mileage. In doing so there have been some engine changes. A 1.5-liter, 16-valve, 4-cylinder engine, now provides the power in the Protege LX (and base DX) that we tested-that's 92 horsepower versus 103 from the 8-liter, 16-valve, 4-cylinder engine that propelled the car a year ago. A few fewer horses, but 9 percent better fuel economy, Mazda boasts.

Our test car was equipped with the standard smooth-shifting 5-speed manual. It's fair to say that the 1.5-liter might be on the mileage honor roll, but is only average when it comes to performance. Aggressive drivers might feel a bit constrained, if not outright restrained, behind the wheel. To appreciate the 1.5-liter to its fullest, your primary concern should be an aversion to stopping often at the pump, not an affection to starting quickly from the light.

Mazda points out that in addition to increased fuel economy, the 1.5 was designed to please environmentalists by limiting harmful exhaust emissions. The quest for clean air is meant to keep you happy while traveling at the back of the pack down the expressway.

If performance is your biggest concern you'll want to opt for the uplevel Protege ES instead of its 1.8-liter, 16-valve, 122-h.p. 4, virtually the same a s in the Miata sportster.

One major contributor to performance other than engine is the choice of tires. The LX (and base DX) are only offered with 13-inch, all-season tires. You have to move up to the Protege ES in order to get the larger 14-inch treads. Can the LX owner simply run out on his or her own and get 14-inch tires for an LX? Mazda said it hasn't run the LX with 14-inch tires so it can't advise such initiative. Still, in the interest of improved ride and handling, the 13-inch tire should be outlawed until the federal government comes up with a plan to allow Matchbox cars to ply the roadways.

Rounding out the Protege package are driver- and passenger-side air bags that offer front seat occupants optimum protection from a frontal impact. Unfortunately, in order to keep the sticker price down, anti-lock brakes are a hefty $800 option. Our test car came without ABS.

Base price of the LX 4-door is $13,395. Add $800 for ABS and another $800 if you prefer automatic transmission. Our test vehicle added a luxury package consisting of air conditioning and carpeted floor mats for $1,145, which seemed a stiff price to pay for cool air and clean soles. Add $425 for freight.

Standard equipment in the front-wheel-drive subcompact includes power brakes and steering, independent front and rear suspension, automatic cruise control, front side-window demisters and rear-seat heating ducts, AM/FM stereo with cassette and manual retractable pillar-mounted antenna, power door locks, child-safety rear seat locks, side-door guard beams, body color grille and bumpers, body side moldings, dual power mirrors, intermittent wipers, tinted glass, rear window defroster, reclining front bucket seats, split-folding rear seat backs, velour upholstery, tilt steering, power windows, remote hood/fuel filler door/trunk lid release, trip odometer, digital clock, coin tray, dual pull-out front cupholders, adjustable shoulder belts, carpeted floor mats and illuminated trunk.

Two popular options are available: a power glass moon roof at $700 and a compact disc player, which is a dealer-installed and priced item.

>> 1995 Mazda Protege LX. Wheelbase: 102.6 inches. Length: 174.8 inches. Engine 1.5-liter, 92-h.p., 16 valve, 4-cylinder. Transmission: 5-speed manual; 4-speed automatic optional. Fuel Economy: 31 m.p.g. city/39 m.p.g. highway; 26/35 with automatic. Base Price: $13,395. Price as Tested: Add $1,145 for an LX luxury package that consists of air conditioning and carpeted floor mats. With $425 for freight the sticker comes to $14,965. Missing were antilock brakes and automatic transmission, each an $800 option. Pluses: Dual air bags standard; increased dimensions results in interior room similar to that of a hotel suite; finally moved into styling mainstream with rounded aerodynamic sheetmetal; above average fuel economy. Minuses: ABS a costly $800 option. Styling makes it difficult to differentiate from Tercel, Civic, Sentra, Neon. The 1.5 liter four provides great mileage but in doing so delivers anemic performance. >>