Me I have a protege, and personally I love riding it, low gas cost, good comfort, good handling, but like you said, I had to change my left front wheel bearing and that done with handling fees it cost me 150$, other than that I have the weird noise coming from the suspension, but I have no clue what that it. But the car runs great and brings me where I want to go!
I bought a new 2001 Mazda Protege DX 1.6L 5-spd standard; it is now 2008 and with 102K miles, this car has given me no major trouble. It's pickup is adequate, even on highways. I've driven it on long trips and average city driving. Sure, the ride could be improved, but not bad for a low-end car. My first Mazda was a used 84 Touring Sedan Hatchback and that's when I was sold on Mazda. I just purchased a 2008 Mazda3 Sport. The dealership I use has excellent service (southeastern Mass.)
I have a 2000 Mazda Protege LX. It is a 1.6.
It has 167,000 miles, and has been totally trouble free except for the usual required things like front struts, EGR and O2 sensor. I did not have to replace them, but I want the car to run like new and it does.
As for speed, it will stomp any car of a similar size; Toyota, Honda, or anything else out there. It handles like a sports car. According to road tests, the 1.6 is 0-60 in 8 seconds and I have no doubt about it. I get 27 MPG city and 41 highway, and I would not sell the car for any amount of money. I bought the car used for $2500.00, and it is now worth $3500, because due to demand for the Protege, the used price has actually gone up.
I saw one for sale that had 385,000 miles on it, and the seller said it ran great. There are so many of the older style Proteges still around, I cannot drive anywhere without seeing one, and sometimes three or four.
I think something was wrong with your car, because it was not maintained properly...
I owned an earlier, Japanese-built Mazda in the 90's. It was an unreliable piece of garbage, with more rattles and squeaks than any car I ever owned. Then when Ford took over Mazda, the quality went way up, and they became really good cars with great performance and solid reliability. Sadly Ford sold their interest in Mazda due to the recession, so I fear they will once more start building poor quality cars. If I were looking for a Mazda, I'd definitely try to buy one that was made while Ford was in charge of their quality control.