Get ready for an extensive rant and rave folks! This is detail...
The exterior and interior appearance of this car is brilliant; I.e. really cool. Aside from that, however, I've been disappointed with many of this car's characteristics to date:
There is no usable center arm rest. The storage bin they have in between the seats is too low and short to have any use as an arm rest, and that's a LAME, uncomfortable design.
The lock mechanisms are outdated and incredibly stupid -- You can't rest your arm on the car door with the window down, as the lock pokes you right in the arm. They should have put the locks as part of the door handle (like in my old Nissan Sentra), NOT on the top of the door.
The engine is noisy and unrefined, hands down. Starting it up in the morning sounds like you're running a diesel engine, and that flat out sucks. It's also underpowered for a car Mazda wants you to think should compete with the likes of Subaru's Impreza, Honda's Civic, Nissan's new Sentra (particularly the SE-R), etc.. It looks vastly better than all of those cars (especially the Civic, which I think is the ugliest car Honda has ever produced in modern times).
The transmission is NOT as nice as my old Nissan Sentra's -- The Protege's shifter (apparently made by Ford; no wonder it sucks), is notchy, and, even worse than that, is geared to be wasteful, loud, and incredibly annoying. An engine RPM of 3500 at normal, boring, freeway speeds!? (70 MPH) Not only is the engine noisy at that RPM (as if it's quiet any other time, anyway), it's also a waste of fuel in a time when *saving* fuel is what we need to do here. In my perhaps not so humble opinion, I think Mazda engineers were morons to set up a gear ratio in that range for normal driving speeds. EVERY other car I've ever seen drives at around 2500 RPM at 70 MPH: What the hell was Mazda thinking? Scratch that -- I guess they *weren't* thinking.
And another thing regarding the gear ratios: What's up with the speedometer going up to 140? NO WAY the Protege is going up to 140 when it's already whining away at 3500 RPM at 70 MPH. Thanks for nothing in that regard, Mazda. The high RPM level at relatively low speed is my single most hated characteristic of this car. It's bad, really bad, and Mazda should be served with a class action lawsuit for wasting our fuel, money, and shortening the life of the engine because it has to work so comparatively hard at slow speeds. This represents a gross and negligent lack of care for matters that should be simple common sense.
The speedometer is labeled in weird, 20 mile increments. 65 MPH, a standard freeway speed throughout the nation, isn't labeled at all. You have to sort of approximate where that is. Good one, Mazda!
The rear window defogger works slowly, and has no auto off timer (My Sentra did).
The driver's seat belt was improperly mounted -- It has an extra twist in it that's both unsafe and uncomfortable.
The charcoal black interior color looks really cool... until you try to keep it clean. Anything and everything, like lint, hair, etc., shows up right away on every surface. That's going to be problematic, to be sure.
Things I really like?
As said, it looks awesome. Well done in that regard.
Safety equipment is nearly as good as it gets in any car: 4 wheel disc ABS, side impact airbags, belt pretensioners, child safety locks in the back, child safety seat anchors, etc.. It's rated well in impacts.
The seats are comfortable.
For a small car, the Protege is very roomy, both in front AND back; a rare, and appreciated, characteristic.
Power everything: Awesome.
Instrument cluster at night is lit in cool, soft red overtones which are easily readable. The only thing cooler is the VW Jetta's blue lighting -- Never seen anything cooler than that, personally. Too bad VW's are so expensive and historically unreliable (reflected by the absolute worst warranty in the entire auto industry).
And speaking of warranties, the 3 year/50,000 mile bumper to bumper Mazda backing is better than the industry standard. That's a good thing; You might need it. The jury's still out on my particular car as I haven't had it long enough to discover its true problem areas. Time will tell...