The Mazda Protege is a pleasant surprise -- It's a zippy little car trapped in a rather subdued outer skin.

Even though the car was redesigned for 1999 with what Mazda calls "European-inspired styling," its shape and lines are not all that distinctive for the small-car class. But it is a classically handsome shape in spite of the chrome prominently featured on the front grille (a bit glitzy for my taste). The outside mirrors conveniently fold in for squeezing the car in and out of tight parking spots. The entire body, mirrors included, is designed to reduce wind noise. I wasn't as concerned with wind noise as I was with getting blown around on a gusty day.

The top-of-the-line ES model I drove comes with air conditioning, 15-in. alloy wheels, and keyless remote with illuminated entry. The car is packaged with A/C, a CD stereo, and a laundry list of standard features to attract young buyers. This model rings in with a total price of $15,455.

Inside the car, tiny climate-control knobs were difficult to turn while driving, but the air conditioner itself pumps out cool air in no time. The wheel fit naturally in my hand with a solid feel. Dimpled plastic abounds in the interior, which, combined with a sparse dash panel, promotes a budget car feel. But there's no skimping on the seats. The seat height and angle are adjustable, and that makes a world of difference in a compact sedan.

The Protege also puts priority on interior space. Mazda has opened up backseat leg room by moving the mounting points of the front seat tracks from the floor to the side sills and transmission tunnel. And in the front, the lower portion of the instrument panel is slightly concave for extra knee room. The trunk also is spacious.

The ride is comfortable, but what won me over is the engine's purr and pounce. The car has more power than I expected, and it idles smoothly. The 1.8-liter engine is based on the 2.0 DOHC four-cylinder engine in Mazda's midsize 626 sedan. A 1.6-liter, four-cylinder engine is optional. Fuel economy for the ES is rated at 26 mpg in the city and 30 mpg on the highway.

The Protege handles well. Front and rear stabilizer bars provide roll resistance Mazda equates to that found only in sports cars -- 2* of roll during 0.5-g cornering. To maintain a smooth ride, the shock absorbers use ultralow-speed valves.

For safety in a side impact or rollover, the Protege has what Mazda calls "Triple-H" construction. The first "H" includes the B-pillar, roof rail, and side sill on each side of the car; the second "H" is formed by the roof rails and roof cross member; and the third "H" comprises the side sills and third cross member. The car also has side-impact door beams, which eat a bit of interior space. And catch-pins on the rear doors prevent the door from entering the cabin in side impacts.

The Protege is a great match for a young person who needs to get around town on a budget but refuses to compromise the fun factor.

--Elizabeth Parks