There was a time when Mazda made the Wankel engine, well, respectable. While the firm from Hiroshima wasn’t the first to mass-produce the rotary for automotive use (NSU in Germany holds that distinction) they were the first to make it work on a global scale. While Dr. Wankel’s brainchild once powered everything from small sedans to pickup trucks, fuel efficiency was a weak point, and Mazda responded with a series of piston-powered products anchored by the entry-level GLC. Today’s Proteg could be called the ancestor of the GLC, but “entry-level” it isn’t. SSGM tested a 2001 Proteg ES and found it a powerful small sedan with excellent chassis dynamics and passenger comfort. The 2 litre DOHC four provides 130 horsepower, mated in the test vehicle to a smooth-shifting five-speed manual transmission (an electronically-controlled four-speed auto box is available), and is certified to Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle Standards. Suspension is by the ubiquitous MacPherson struts in front, and Mazda’s “Twin-Trapezoidal Link” arrangement in the rear. Mazda has set the roll centre with the front lower than the rear, allowing a supple ride (for a compact) without excessive squirminess at turn-in. In fact, the car can be driven surprisingly hard into corners, aided by big 195 50 R16 radials. Brakes are power-assisted ventilated discs in front and drums in the rear. The optional three-channel anti-lock system was fitted to the test Proteg, and performed without drama. The system features electronic brake force distribution, but from the driver’s seat, the Proteg simply stops well. Fuel economy worked out to 32 MPG in combined city and highway driving, which is essentially the same as the Transport Canada ratings. The interior is comfortable, with good hip and elbow room, and seating has enough adjustability to suit most members of our species.
And the downside? There really isn’t any, except perhaps the intrinsic conservatism of the vehicle. The Proteg is a pretty conventional vehicle compared with offerings such as the firm’s Millenia S, and it must survive a market segment literally filled with product. While the Proteg lacks the flair of, say, the Ford Focus, it’s comfortable, fast, handles well, and doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. It’s simply a good vehicle. Will it be enough for it’s intended demographic? Canada has never been a country that rewards flamboyance; the Proteg is ideal for our national character.