For years no one could challenge Japanese automakers when it came to building agile, dependable and economical small cars.

Toyota built the Corolla.

Ford countered with the Pinto.

Nissan sold the Sentra.

General Motors offered the Vega.

Mazda made the 323 and Protege.

Chrylser fielded the Dodge Omni/Plymouth Horizon.

I could go on, but you probably get the picture.

The world of small automobiles, however, is changing. The playing field is leveling out quickly as Detroit rolls out one stylish well-built small car after another.

The Saturn sedan, a higher quality small car than anything similar from Japan, the Ford Escort, and the hot-selling Dodge and Plymouth Neon are three notable examples.

But if this week's test car, the all-new Mazda Protege sedan, is indicative of what is coming from Japan, there's going to a war for small-car buyers.

The new Protege is a roomy, refined, solid compact. And despite the unfavorable economic situation for Japanese automakers - brought about by the surging value of the yen - the LX offers plenty of value for your money.

Over the years, the Protege has been Mazda's best-selling car in the United States. The new model shows that Mazda is not about to give up even an inch of its territory without a fight.

Note: The 323, the hatchback version of the Protege, has been dropped from Mazda's lineup for 1995.

PERFORMANCE

The Protege is available in three models this year: the DX, LX and ES.

The DX and the tested LX model come with Mazda's 92-horsepower, 1.5-liter, four-cylinder engine, with double-overhead cam and 16-valves. The ES is outfitted with a 122-horsepower, 1.8-liter engine.

Even with the smaller engine, the Protege's performance is terrific. This engine delivers plenty of power in all driving situations.

I found that the Protege was snappy from a stop, had ample strength to hustle onto an interstate and had more than enough power to pass highway traffic. The 1.5-liter is smooth, quiet and very frugal.

Our test car had just 300 miles when it was delivered, so it wasn't yet broken in. That might explain why fuel mileage was a tick below EPA estimates. Still, I got 30 mpg in city driving and 37 on the road using 87 octane unleaded, the cheapest grade of gas available.

Our test car came with a silky-smooth five-speed manual transmission. This gearbox is one major reason I am so smitten with the performance and driving ease of the Protege. Normally when you drive a car with a manual transmission for the first time, it takes a few minutes behind the wheel to get used to the clutch and shifter.

But there's something special about the Protege's setup that, well, just feels right. The clutch pedal is smooth and easy, the shifter clicks effortlessly into each gear and the transmission delivers its power to the wheels in an uncommonly balanced and refined manner.

Even if you hate shifting, you could probably like this car. In any case, if you prefer to be shiftless, a four-speed automatic is optional.

Other than adjusting the seats and mirrors, the Protege requires no getting used to. When you get in and drive, you feel comfortable almost immediately.

HANDLING

In many ways the new Protege comes across as a smaller version of Mazda's stunning new flagship, the Millenia.

The front and rear suspension systems are mounted on separate frames that mount to the Protege's rigid new body. As with the Millenia, the ride is firm, sporty and very quiet over rough roads.

The Protege's power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering is engine-speed sensitive, meaning that the amount of effort it takes to turn the wheel varies with the speed of the engine.

At slow speeds, such as when maneuvering into a parking space, the wheel has a firm but smooth and easy feel. Once the car is moving, you'll expend a bit more energy turning the wheel, but the r sponse is tight and crisp.

Our test car came with an excellent set of power-assisted front disc and rear drum brakes. An anti-lock system is optional, but our test car did not have it. On the more expensive ES model, four-wheel anti-lock discs are standard.

The test car has fairly narrow 13-inch tires, but they didn't deter how well the car held the road. The ES model comes with fatter 14-inch tires that probably further enhance the Protege's handling.

FIT AND FINISH

I would like to give our car high marks for its quality, but I'll have to wait until I test another Protege before I can do that.

Our test car had a couple of flaws in the way it was assembled. The center console was loose and could be wiggled back and forth.

More importantly, I heard an intermittent screeching or scraping noise coming from either the front brakes or the steering system. A hard turn to the left silenced the noise. But it would return when the car was straightened.

No one builds perfect cars, but these imperfections should have been caught at the factory or at the dealer before the car was delivered into the test fleet.

Be that as it may, I found the test car to be comfortable, versatile, user-friendly and smartly designed. Mazda claims the Protege has a roomiest interior in its class. There is, indeed, plenty of foot room, legroom and headroom for front and rear passengers.

Our LX model featured a very comfortable set of cloth-covered bucket seats. You can drive this car on long trips and not feel fatigue. The seats offer excellent support. Numerous manual adjustments let you move the seats up or down as well as back and forth.

The rear seats fold forward to allow bigger items from the trunk to fit inside the car. The seats fold almost flat, a nice touch.

The trunk lid opens high, and because the lid extends to the top of the bumper, it's easy to lift items into the trunk.

Inside, no new ground is broken by the dash, which is an attractive, curving one-piece affair laden with all the requisite hardware you would expect in a small, well-equipped sedan.

The analog gauges are cleanly designed and easy to read. Switches, such as for the rear window defroster and interior lights, are in the center of the dash for easy reach. Switches for the cruise control are located on the steering wheel.

Our test car came with power door locks and power windows. The driver's window has an express down feature. However, none of the buttons are lighted, so finding them at night can make for a bit of fumbling.

Compared with the 1994 Protege, the 1995 model is bigger, quieter, safer, more user-friendly and more stylish. Most of the 1994 model's sharp curves have been shaved off.

Despite a few minor quality problems with our test car, I'm convinced Mazda's new Protege is destined for success. The car delivers plenty of power in an attractive, competitively priced package. It deserves t o be test-driven along with the Saturn, Neon and other small cars that are considered best in class.

Specifications:

1995 Mazda Protege LX

VEHICLE LENGTH Overall 178.4 Wheelbase 102.6

WIDTH Track-front 57.5 Overall 67.3

HEIGHT Overall 115.9

FRONT COMPARTMENT Headroom 39.2 Legroom 42.2

REAR COMPARTMENT Headroom 37.4 Legroom 35.6

WARRANTY Three-year, 36,000-mile no-deductible bumper-to-bumper; 5-year, unlimited-mile corrosion protection. Inches unless otherwise specified

MECHANICAL Drivetrain layout: Transverse-mounted front engine and transaxle, front-wheel drive. Suspension: Four-wheel independent with MacPherson struts, coil s rings and stabilizer bar upfront and twin trapezoidal links, coil springs, struts and stabilizer bar in the rear. Brakes: Power-assisted front disc/rear drum. Engine: 92-horsepower, 1.5-liter DOHC 16-valve in-line four-cylinder with electronic multi-port fuel injection. Safety features: Dual air bags and side-impact protection. Fuel tank: 14.5 gallons. Weight: 2,445 pounds. Steering: Engine-speed sensitive power-assisted rack-and-pinion. Transmission: Five-speed manual. Wheels: Steel.

Truett's tip: Mazda's new Protege LX is a sharp-looking, economical and classy small car from Japan that comes well equipped and with a very reasonable price.