EXPERT REVIEW

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The 1997 Mazda Protege ES is motorized tofu. It’s bland, but excellent in satisfying basic needs. Depending on your imagination, it can be turned into anything, just as tofu can be rendered chocolate ice cream. Wave a mental wand. Voila! Your Protege econocar is now a racer. Zip, zip, varrrooommm!

Well, not exactly “varrrooommm.”

Not even with its upgraded, 16-valve, 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine can the Protege make a noise close to “varrrooommm.” At higher rotations per minute, the engine sounds like a laser printer gone loco — sort of a wheeezzzah, wheeezzzah.

That’s okay, because the Protege moves nimbly through traffic, especially in urban areas, where timing is everything in collision avoidance.

But, Lordy! This car is homely! Which is different from ugly. I can deal with ugly. Ugly has character. In fact, there is some ugly so ugly that there is no ugly like it, which makes it beautiful.

Alas, there’s no such luck with the front-wheel-drive Protege, which is so common in face and body, so totally bereft of personality, it makes boring interesting.

Background: The Protege is a joint venture car, the cooperative product of Mazda Motor Corp. and Ford Motor Co. As such, the Protege shares many parts with the Ford Escort and Mercury Tracer compacts.

All three cars are well-assembled. All three are reliable, everyday runabouts that offer excellent value for the dollar.

But that’s where similarities fade. Ford has designers. Judging from the looks of the Protege, Mazda apparently doesn’t — or, maybe, just didn’t know how to use them in this instance.

Look at the cars. The Escort is sleek, well-proportioned and accented by a distinctively flippant rear. The Escort’s cabin, which includes an elliptical dashboard and center console, is one of the most attractive small-car interiors available.

Compare that with the part-round, part-boxy body of the Protege; and compare it with ho-hum treatment of the test Protege’s tired, institutional, uninspired interior.

There is a mental disconnect here. Ford understands that an economy car has a better chance of selling if it looks good. Mazda seems stuck in the notion that economy equals sackcloth — which is odd, considering that Mazda is the same company that gave us the beautifully sculpted Miata roadster and the equally appealing Millenia sedan.

Anyway, the Protege can be had in three trim levels — the base DX, the slightly more upscale LX, and the tested, top line ES.

The DX and LX get a standard 1.5-liter, 16-valve, double-overhead cam, inline four-cylinder engine rated 92 horsepower at 5,500 rpm with torque rated 96 pound-feet at 4,000 rpm. If you get this one, make sure that it’s connected to the standard 5-speed manual transmission. The available four-speed automatic turns this engine into a slugmeister.

The ES gets the quite decent, but periodically whiny 1.8-liter version of the four-cylinder engine rated 122 horsepower at 6,000 rpm with torque rated 117 pound-feet at 4,000 rpm. A five-speed manual gearshift is standard here, too; again, I recommend getting it over the optional four-speed automatic.

Standard brakes include power, ventilated front discs/rear drums on the DX and LX and power four-wheel discs on the ES. Anti-lock brakes are optional.

Suspension work on the DX and LX includes MacPherson struts and a stabilizer bar up front, and a twin-link system in the rear.

Dual front air bags, of course, are standard. Driver common sense is not. Remember to wear your seatbelts and shoulder harnesses. Put children in rear seats.

1997 Mazda Protege ES

Complaint: The blandness of it all.

Praise: If you can ignore the Protege’s cosmetics, or lack thereof, you can have a functionally fine commuter car. Easy to drive. Easy to park. And — hey! — commodious. Five adults can sit comfortably in this one. Cargo capacity is at the top of the small-car class, with 13.1 cubic feet.

Head turning quotient: Zip, and getting worse.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Very good small-car ride. Slow, off-the-line acceleration at 0 to 60 miles per hour in 10.1 seconds. But that matters only if you habitually burn rubber when the traffic light turns green. Very good lane-change acceleration on the open highway. Braking was excellent. The test car had anti-locks.

Mileage: About 29 miles per gallon (14.5-gallon tank, estimated 409-mile range on usable volume of recommended 87-octane unleaded), combined city-highway with one to two occupants and light cargo.

Sound system: Four-speaker, AM/FM stereo radio and automatic-reverse cassette. Ford-Mazda-Sanyo system. Very good tonal reproduction and radio signal quality.

Price: Base price on the tested Protege ES is $15,295. Dealer invoice on base model is $13,956. Price as tested is $16,545, including $800 for the optional anti-lock brakes and a $450 destination charge. Please note that the destination charge is $650 for Alaska.

Purse-strings note: Good value, but swamped by competition. Compare with Ford Escort/Mercury Tracer, Honda Civic, Geo Prizm/Toyota Corolla, Subaru Impreza, Chevrolet Cavalier/Pontiac Sunfire, Dodge Neon, Nissan Sentra, Hyundai Accent and Elantra, Suzuki Esteem.

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