Highs: Solidly built, sporty quickness of the controls, great driving position.
Lows: Hard ride, abrupt clutch engagement, fairly noisy inside.
The Verdict: A four-door Miata.
The correct answer is none of the above. We may say that we have your transportation interests in mind, but when it’s time to vote, the winner is always the one that’s most fun for us to drive. The Protege’ has the right stuff for car cuckoos on a budget. The clutch grabs right-now quick, the five-speed lever moves through a crisp track, handling is athletic with tight control of roll angle, and this car has an agreeable fit about its cockpit that makes us feel right at home. The wheel rim is a fat handful. The dead pedal is located wisely far to the left, allowing us to brace against it for side support (the Toyota, for all its carefully honed goodness, gets that part wrong). A car guy can go to work in this box without feeling as though he’s put the good life on hold.
The Protege’ doesn’t score badly in any measure except gas mileage, where it’s neck and neck with the Kia for last place. Clearly, this car is strongest on the intangibles, however. Acceleration is resolutely average. Skidpad grip is average. The brakes are exceptional, stopping from 70 mph in only 195 feet. The Mazda also performed near the top in our lane-change test.
As a passenger hauler, it’s fair. The taut suspension, which feels so responsive to the involved driver, is actually pretty stiff, more so than all the others. This car hits the bumps hard, and it’s not silent about it, either, although the solid structure is notably free of shake. The engine puts out a happy sound, but it’s loud at full power. The coach section is among the most spacious for two occupants. The seat is park-bench hard, and footroom under the front seats is on the tight side. With three across, the outer occupants will find headroom closing in on zero over bigger bumps.
Our advice: Don’t sit back there. It’s the Protege’s driver seat that always treats you right.