EXPERT REVIEW

The Detroit News's view

Is this the Age of the Appliance? You’d think so if you were driving the cars we’ve been in during the last two weeks.

First, we tested the 1997 Chevrolet Malibu, which is kin to the stalwart Maytag washer (says Chevy anyway). Then we hopped into this week’s car, the 1997 Mazda Protege ES, the high-end Japanese subcompact sedan with a relatively modest base price of $15,295.

Plain, yes – even with a face-lift. Roomy and functional, yes. If you can get past the bland appliance image, the Mazda begins to look like one great deal.

She: The Protege reminded me of the tragic mistakes I’ve made buying moisturizing lotion. I’m ashamed to say that on occasion I have splurged up to $89 on Guerlain’s Midnight Secret when the results were the same as a $3 drugstore jar of Ponds or Oil of Olay. Talk about buyer remorse. Kind of like splurging on an image vehicle when basic wheels will do. The Protege is the Ponds of vehicles – or the Oil of Olay. It will get the job done with minimum expense. I know you guys can’t relate to this, but women will.

He: I don’t know. I’m more of a Vaseline Intensive Care kind of guy. Bag Balm’s good, too.

She: The Mazda is not like Bag Balm. That stuff comes in a cheap green tin – and it’s for cows. The ES version has too many upscale items on it like standard air conditioning, power windows and locks and tilt steering. But it’s still under the $20,000-plus average price of a vehicle. The Protege we drove cost $16,625 because of optional antilock brakes for $800 and $80 floor mats. But that’s still very affordable for a lot of people who need the space for five passengers. And space is one of the big attributes of the Protege. It doesn’t have the claustrophobic interior of some subcompacts.

He: The Protege ES also has better-than-average ride and handling, thanks to its all-independent suspension system and front and rear stabilizer bars. The ES also comes with four-wheel disc brakes and variable-assist power steering – stuff you’d expect to cost extra in this class. You get the more powerful twin-cam 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine on the ES. It’s rated at 122 horsepower, and it really moves this 2600-pound sedan. You pay a small penalty in gas mileage – the EPA numbers are 26 city and 32 highway.

She: The Protege has a decent warranty, too – three years and 50,000 miles, bumper to bumper. Which is a lot better than some other cars in its class. But you can’t get roadside assistance, which is a disappointment to me. I wish the automakers would think about offering it on subcompacts, which are the only cars that many women can afford to buy. They are the ones who need the reassurance of roadside assistance when something goes wrong. I’m not knocking Mazda because they’re not alone in not offering it. But it would have been a nice gesture. And while you can get antilock brakes, which help you stop on slick roads, Mazda does not offer traction control on the Protege, which can hel p get you started on icy pavement. Too bad.

He: You don’t really need traction control because the Protege is front-wheel drive. I also don’t have a problem with the styling. If you compare the Protege with the Escort, which uses a lot of Protege pieces under the skin, I’ll take the Protege in a heartbeat. I like the styling better and it’s got more room.

She: For 1997, the Protege got a new front bumper, grille, headlights and fenders. It reminds me more of its big sisters, the 626 and the Millenia. Overall, the appearance is kind of cute and chunky. You won’t fall in love with it at first glance, but when you start hauling kids, luggage to the airport and groceries like we did, appearance seems secondary. The Protege is a real workhorse. I was able to carry a bulky plastic garbage bag with $10 worth of returnable bottles plus 11 bags of groceries in the trunk – with room to spare.

He: I see the Protege as a great starter car that the kids won’t be embarrassed to ke to school or a young single won’t mind driving back and forth to work.

She: I think a lot of families will be surprised at how it could work for them, especially if they have smaller kids with smaller gear. And the ES model is a touch more sporty than the other two Protege trim levels, with sport bucket seats that have height adjustment on the driver’s side. I love the fact that you can adjust the driver’s seat height. Shorter folks will feel like their visibility is better and they are in better command of the road with this feature.

He: In short, in a segment that’s crowded with competitors, the Mazda Protege should appeal to a broad range of tastes and budgets.

She: The perception may be that the Protege’s reputation is not as sterling as that of a Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla, two of its great rivals. But it’s a very strong competitor and a very nice package for the price. You definitely won’t feel like you fell for some fancy packaging and hype, like I did with Midnight Secret.

What we liked: Affordable, roomy, peppy four-cylinder engine on ES, nice touches like height-adjustable driver’s seat, solid ride and handling.

What we didn’t like: No roadside assistance (Anita), antilock brakes are an $800 option, no traction control (Anita), fuel economy so-so.

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