Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene What I'm Driving At

By Marc Stengel

MAY 10, 1999:  I have to confess a special fondness for a good dogfight. There's just something visceral and oddly invigorating that occurs when I see two sturdy specimens of man's best friend go at it, fang and claw, in a contest of winner-take-all supremacy.

Lest the fur start flying over my own gosh-dogged predilections, perhaps I better point out that I'm referring--of course--to man's best friend the car. It just so happens that one of the best automotive dogfights in years is shaping up in the perennially crowded, generally lackluster mass-market category of compact cars. With an authentic Alpha Male swagger, the completely redesigned Plymouth Neon is already rolling into showrooms as an overeager 2000 model. The Mazda Protege, significantly reconfigured for 1999 itself, is also strutting onstage, eager to dispel the junior-partner connotations that its name implies.

In top-of-the-line trim and comparably equipped, the Neon LX and Protege ES evaluated for this story differ by a mere $625 in price--$16,080 versus $15,455. Each car's strength happens to be the other car's weakness, yet both are determined to prevail. Here, between two cars of such comparable stature, price, and equipment, it's more apparent than ever that it's not the size of the dog in the fight that counts, it's the size of the fight in the dog.

2000 Plymouth Neon LX

Since it's selling on the order of some 200,000 Neons a year--compared to the Protege's 58,000 sales in '98--DaimlerChrysler (DC) can afford to think of its contender as top dog in this contest. The company certainly can't ignore, however, the 430,000 Toyota Camrys, 335,000 Honda Civics, or 292,000 Ford Escorts sold last year. Nor can it dismiss the 5.8-percent tumble in Neon sales in '98 compared to the year before, while its competitors' sales grew during the same period. (Protege's improved by 8.2 percent, in fact.) Make no mistake The Gen II Neon, which Plymouth shares in identical configuration with Dodge, represents a concerted effort to rebuild the sales and reputation of a car that debuted with much fanfare and smiley-faced optimism only five model years ago.

So here's what DC did with the Neon: It pushed the envelope every which way--literally. The 2000 model is longer, wider, taller; its 105-inch wheelbase is a significant inch longer. The sculptural effect of the exterior is notably more svelte, flowing, and refined than before. The Neon now looks very much a part of the Chrysler subset of the DC family that includes such larger siblings as the Dodge Stratus, Chrysler 300M, and Chrysler Concorde.

The coupe version of the Neon is now gone (as is the Protege coupe--both victims of soft sales). The Neon's 132 HP four-cylinder motor remains, as do the standard front-disk, rear-drum brakes. My tester, however, featured optional four-wheel discs with ABS for $740 extra. On paper, the Neon's single-overhead-cam powerplant appears the bigger dog, compared to the Mazda's 122 HP twin-cammer. But it's a dog only in the most unflattering sense. Although Neon outweighs Protege by just 40 pounds, its 10 extra horsepower are distinctly unlively and uninspiring by comparison. Mated to a balky shifter, plagued by pedals that discourage sporty heel-and-toe footwork, the new Neon plays the lumbering St. Bernard to Protege's feisty Scottie. And the greater irony yet is DC's pride in all the sound-management features engineered into the new Neon. It's hard to hear what all the fuss is about because the interior is so doggone noisy.

In quiet contrast to the Neon's audible irritations, however, is the calming effect of the car's seating and controls. It's a comfy, grownup layout that creates both the illusion and the reality of spaciousness. No, the illusion and the reality aren't contradictory. Despite the larger exterior dimensions, it turns out that the new Neon's head- and leg-room figures are fractionally smaller than its predecessor's--by tenths of an inch. All-important shoulder- and hip-room dimensions, however, are significantly roomier fore and aft; and these certainly account for the greater sense of lebensraum in DaimlerChrysler's first gesture toward the new millennium. From the smiley-faced little kiddie car that rolled onto the scene in '95, the Neon has matured gracefully, if not so zestily, into a well-equipped sedan that seems to prefer value over vivacity.

1999 Mazda Protege ES

Thus does the upstart, underdog Protege find itself in an unexpectedly advantageous situation. For the '99 Protege is nothing if not spirited. A slick sheetmetal redesign has transformed this formerly faceless commuter car into a sport-touring wannabe that actually does-do. Despite the horsepower deficit, Protege's twin-cam powertrain and driving persona represent the epitome of "tossability." A smooth-shifting five-speed notches crisply into gear; foot pedals encourage fancy footloose behavior among accelerator, brake, and clutch; and a combination of suspension feel and steering action urges the enthusiast driver ever deeper and harder into corners. When a car is this fun to drive, it has a way of letting you know right away.

The insistence on sportiness, moreover, may well be a ploy. Despite Protege's nominally larger interior dimensions compared to Neon's, it feels more cramped inside. I'm convinced that much of this condensed sense stems from a strict inattention to certain ergonomic issues. The center console, for example, is almost uselessly compact. Radio and HVAC controls jam together on the dash; cupholders and gear shifter fight for supremacy.

Part of what makes the Protege redesign such an overall success is Mazda's attention to cost-saving detail. The automaker managed to trim enough weight in this redesign, for example, that it felt the '99 Protege could manage with less expensive front-disk and rear-drum brakes (ABS optional), while its predecessor wore disk brakes all 'round. From a performance driving standpoint, the equipment downgrade is negligible. Braking feel and effectiveness remain first-rate.

Not so the Protege's bash factor, however. As reported on the front page of Automotive News in March, Mazda decided to "eliminate a reinforcing bar and some padding from the rear bumper assembly" in order "to cut two pounds from the weight of the redesigned 1999 Protege." It turns out, however, that in independent testing by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the new Protege suffered $2,837 in rear bumper repair damages, compared to $709 for the '98 model. The competing models (not including the new Neon, by the way) suffered only half as much dollar damage. A red-faced Mazda, as you might expect, is "scrambling" to find a fix by model-year 2000--at costs estimated to range from $20 million to $100 million, according to Automotive News. Given the circumstances, it's now easier to sympathize with a new Protege owner who might scold bystanders for leaning on the back of his car.

Looking ever forward, Mazda is justified to hold only the highest expectations for its spirited new Protege. Whereas the newest Neon focuses more on enhancing the interior comfort of its charges, the Protege's zippy exterior styling and driving performance simply blast past the latest Plymouth compact. By almost every criteria, objective and subjective, the Protege represents a well-deserved victory for the underdog in this automotive shoot-out. Even from the front, however, it had better keep an eye on its competition--and on the rear-view mirror most particularly.

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