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Zoom away in a Protege

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I could probably count on one hand the number of Mazda vehicles I've reviewed for these pages over the past 20 years, but on those rare occasions that something from the "zoom, zoom, zoom" folks comes my way, I'm surprised all over again at what small blips the company's products make on the U.S. automotive radar screen.

Cars as good as this week's ride, the 2001 Mazda Protege ES 2.0, should set off klaxons, not get lost in the market clutter.

But that's where Mazda seems to reside; its 626 family sedan eclipsed by the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, and its Protege playing third fiddle to the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, among others.

For some reason, Mazda has not been able to run with the big dogs despite the fact that its products have the quality to compete with them. Without Ford's investment in the company, Mazda might not be in the game at all in the U.S.

Subaru almost went away but then found a niche for itself (all-wheel-drive all the time) and has made a strong comeback, but Mazda continues to market a full lineup: the Millenia, 626, Protege and the new Protege5 hatchback cars; the B-Series pickup trucks; the MPV minivan; the Tribute sport-utility; and the MX-5 Miata, the best affordable sports car in the world.

For that matter, all the Mazda models are worthy contenders, but it's tough to be all things to all people when you must compete with the twin 900-pound gorillas known as Honda and Toyota. Most buyers of Japanese cars hit those showrooms first and see little reason to go elsewhere.

But if I had to drive a Mazda Protege ES 2.0 for the rest of my days, I'd zoom, zoom, zoom (Mazda's advertising tag line) off into the sunset a very happy motorist.

The Protege is my idea of a near ideal car. It's peppy without being threatening, handles beautifully, has sufficient passenger and trunk room for my needs 95 percent of the time, gets good mileage burning regular fuel, is easy to park . . .

Let me put it this way, there are many cars I review that I drive only because I have somewhere to go. With the Protege, I found myself creating little errands just to have an excuse to take the Mazda for a spin.

That's why I wonder about the popularity of humongous SUVs and trucks. Just climbing up in them and backing them out of the garage seems like a major undertaking, to be avoided if possible. With a car like the Protege, a run to the store is quick, easy and fun.

Especially in the top-line ES version. There are four Protege models, the DX and LX with 103-horsepower 1.6-liter engines and the LX 2.0 and ES 2.0 with Mazda's new 130-horsepower 2.0-liter motor. Base prices for the four, in order, are $12,765, $13,485, $13,885 and $15,535.

I've said many times that the law of diminishing returns in luxury cars means you pay a lot more to gain only marginal increases in value, but with cars like the Protege, the $2,770 difference between the DX and the ES 2.0 is huge and worth every nickel.

My tester's options included $80 for carpeted floor mats and $800 for a safety package that included anti-lock brakes and side airbags — money well spent. With $480 in delivery charges, the bottom line was $16,895.

My tester had Mazda's slick-shifting 5-speed manual transmission, which makes this car a nifty little sports sedan, but an automatic is available for $800.

Standard features include air conditioning, a nice 4-speaker CD sound system, power windows and mirrors, keyless entry, tilt steering wheel, cruise control, 4-wheel independent suspension, 60-40 split fold-down rear seat, intermittent wipers, body-colored bumpers, moldings and door handles, 16-inch alloy wheels . . . a nice package.

Then there's the overall feeling of quality, fit and finish. The velour seats, with a subtle pattern rather than the garish optics favored by so many these days, seem of a higher quality than most and really work better than leather: cooler in summer and warmer in winter.

The doors close with a chunk, the knobs and switches feel crisp, the shifter snicks into the gears with precision, a very refined car at a very affordable price.

Consumer Reports gives the Protege top marks for reliability along with its coveted "Recommended" rating.

Fuel mileage is rated at 25 mpg in city driving and 31 on the highway.

E-mail: max@desnews.com