By on October 13, 2021

Our last two Buy/Drive/Burn entries covered the 1998 and 2008 versions of three mainstream Japanese compact sedans: Civic, Corolla, and Sentra. Today we look at the alternative offerings in 1998 from Mazda, Mitsubishi, and Subaru.

Our last comparison focused on the cheapest model of each compact. Here, because the Subaru has all-wheel drive standard and is more expensive, we’ll focus on a price point instead: $15,000.

Mazda Protegé

For 1998, the eighth-gen Protegé is in its final year; it’s been with us since 1994. Available in hatchback and all-wheel drive styles elsewhere, the North American market receives Protegé strictly as a sedan with front drive. Three trims are offered this year, DX, LX, and ES. Protegé’s price ranges from $12,000 to $15,000. A top-tier ES with a five-speed manual is powered by Mazda’s 1.8-liter inline-four, good for 122 horses. Yours for $15,295.

Mitsubishi Mirage

Mirage entered its fifth generation in 1995, at which point it grew from subcompact to compact size class. Coupe, hatch, and sedan varieties are offered in most markets, and Mitsubishi sends the coupe and sedan to North America (like the Protegé, sans all-wheel drive). Mirage is offered in both its body styles across two trims, DE and upscale LS. In an interesting pricing tactic, in base DE trim the Mirage coupe is cheaper than the sedan by around $2,000. Swap the trim for LS, and the coupe is about $1,000 more expensive than the sedan. Our five-speed LS sedan is powered by a 1.8-liter inline-four that produces 113 horses. The value option Mirage asks $13,300.

Subaru Impreza

While initially available with front- or all-wheel drive, Subaru changed tact in 1997 and made their all-wheel-drive power train standard on every car the company offered in North America. Subaru has made the first-gen Impreza for a while now, as it arrived in 1993. Here in present times, Impreza is available in base L, very sporty RS, and a cladded Outback Sport trim which will likely not catch on with consumers. Body styles cover coupe, sedan, and wagon. Our choice today is the base L sedan, with manual transmission and 2.2-liter boxer four. That engine produces our top power of the trio: 137 horses. But boy are they gruff. Yours at a heady $15,895.

Which of the three alternative compacts is worth a Buy?

[Images: Mazda, Mitsubishi, Subaru]

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31 Comments on “Buy/Drive/Burn: Alternative Japanese Compacts From 1998...”


  • avatar
    Dan

    Talk about left field, I don’t even remember these cars back then let alone seen one of them on the road in modern times. Anyhow, burn burn and burn.

  • avatar
    wjtinfwb

    Buy the Mazda (in ES trim), great little sporty sedan. If I had to, I’d drive the Subaru, until the head gaskets gave out, and would burn the Mirage

  • avatar
    wjtinfwb

    Buy the Mazda (in ES trim), great little sporty sedan. If I had to, I’d drive the Subaru, until the head gaskets gave out, and would burn the Mirage

  • avatar

    The Mazda rusted as soon as it rolled off the truck here in New England other wise I would go that way, they are fun to drive and felt a bit nicer inside then the other 2. I never loved this gen mirage but based on my experience with an earlier one that would be the way I would go, reliable and cheap to run. The Subaru is decent to drive, and my favorite in the looks department but I’m pretty sure this is one of the models with serious engine problems.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Buy the Mazda Protege – it will last until it rusts out.

    Drive the Mitsubishi Mirage – it will be dependable.

    Burn the Subaru Impreza – gruff boxer engine and rust galore.

  • avatar
    Oberkanone

    Buy Protege, Drive Mirage, Burn Impreza. This generation Protege was enjoyable to drive and to own. Corrosion is it’s kryptonite.
    Mirage was inexpensive to purchase and to own. Boring, reliable, durable appliance.
    Engine gremlins doom the Impreza.

  • avatar
    Ryoku75

    For a while I’d often catch a glimpse of a fairly nice Protege of this vintage in red, haven’t seen it in a while though.

    All three of these cars have more or less vanished around my area. Plenty of old GMs and Fords left though.

    Buy Protege: Its basically a Ford Escort but without any pretensions of looking like a Taurus. Yes it’ll rust, all three of these cars will happily rust away.

    Drive Subaru: Just to see how pointless AWD is on pavement in a small 4 cylinder. Otherwise Subarus only make sense to me if you’re rallying. Yes, the 2.2 hashead gasket issues, the 2.2 models just never sold nearly as well as models with the 2.5 (thats when they started playing up the off road nonsense).

    Burn Mirage: If I want to shave a few grand off a price I’d buy a lighlty used model of a car, not a “value” car like this.

  • avatar
    ajla

    A Subaru and a Mazda but I can’t burn both?

    Buy Mitsubishi because it’s the only one that isn’t a Subaru or Mazda.
    Drive the Mazda. Their 90s commercials were okay.
    Burn the Subaru.

  • avatar
    spookiness

    Buy the Protege with a manual in ES trim. I had the successor gen. Good cars.
    Drive the Mirage. I had one for a week as a rental and it was comfortable.
    Burn the Subaru. I had a Subaru and got burned, and hated my parents Outback.

  • avatar
    2kriss2kross

    Buy the Mazda, live in SoCal don’t have to worry about rust. Little more lively drive then the other two.

    Drive the Subaru out of curiosity to see what the hype is about Subaru’s AWD though I really have no use for it here. Still see them once in a while.

    Burn the Mitsu, has no redeeming qualities and the ones I do see if any are usually followed by a cloud of blue smoke and are beat to hell.

  • avatar
    Lorenzo

    Buy and drive all three!

    They’ll all rust out, so it’s a contest to see which one you junk first. Mazda usually wins that, followed by the Subaru.

    The plainest is the Mitsubishi, and it’ll last the longest and be the one you drive the most, because it’s the most reliable of the three.

    They’ll all rust out relatively quickly, but not before you’ve investigated every aftermarket rustproofing/undercoating system out there.

  • avatar
    CoastieLenn

    Easy one, I think.

    Drive: Protege. Mom bought her first brand new car in 1996, it was a Protege in some weird purple/blue color. It was a cool looking little car and served us well for two years before she traded up to a Mazda 626 in 1998.

    Buy: The Impreza. Finding a nice, low mileage example that hasn’t rusted to chit is difficult, but they’re arguably the “raddest” of the cars shown before us. I wouldn’t want to drive it though, you can hear them rust and well… EJ25 things.

    Burn: Mirage. For some reason, these will forever *look* like a BHPH lot on wheels. They all *look* like they smell like cigarette smoke and regret. They’re really not bad cars in any sense of the word, but their reputation and stigma based solely in stereotype is too much to overcome, for me.

  • avatar
    dukeisduke

    No Kia Sephia? Or is it in the wrong size class? I would say burn (I’ve seen more than a few where the dash pad curls up over time), but I still see one on the road occasionally, which tells me they’re long-lived.

  • avatar
    eng_alvarado90

    Buy: Protege. It looks the best out of these and it was fairly loaded at the time. The automatics could be problematic but the 5 spd selected here solves that. My uncle had a 98 purchased new, same color, same top trim but automatic and never had any troubles with it. He even made a couple 3K mile round trips with it to visit us from TX.

    Drive: Impreza. I bet this is slower than the Protege due to the heavy AWD system but it should handle the best. I don’t want to have anything to do with it in regards of maintenance (even plugs are hard to reach by) so that’s why this is a drive-only.

    Burn: Mirage. Cheapest looking, the least power, legendary Mitsubishi non-stellar build quality, there’s really not that much going for it. Reliability may end up being better than Impreza, though. And price

  • avatar
    dal20402

    There’s no point to the Mirage, then or now. BURN.

    Buy Protegé, because it was a legitimately good small car. Well-equipped and nice to drive.
    Drive Subaru, preferably on gravel.

    One of my best friends was gifted a 1999 Protegé in 2004. She drove that car clear through 2019, when she came into an inheritance and traded it in on a new CR-V. It had one big black mark—an auto transmission failure at 85k miles—but otherwise got to 220,000 with only routine maintenance.

  • avatar
    Superdessucke

    The Mirage in non-Evo trim was and remains a complete piece of dung, so burn. The Protoge became cool with the Protoge 5 and the Mazdaspeed versions and this predates those by a half decade or so, but the car has a good bloodline, so drive. The Impreza is also a pre-WRX version but I always liked the looks of this generation of Impreza and you can mod the bleep out of it. And I considered a new 2.5RS back in ’98, so buy.

  • avatar
    DenverMike

    I love the directional wheels/covers when they’re torquing in reverse. But burn them all. They’re inferior products not worth what they stickered under a Corolla, Civic or Sentra.

  • avatar
    slavuta

    This is good one. I owned that specific Mazda for 17 years. My niece had that Mitsu. And who would want that leaky Subaru?

    Drive Sub
    Own Mazda
    Burn Mitsu

  • avatar
    SirRaoulDuke

    The Mazda is the best to drive. Easy choice.

    Except that in 1998 I was living in the mountains of WV, and the Subaru would have been useful in the harsh winter storms and good for playing rally driver on the gravel forest service roads.

    Why not both?

    • 0 avatar
      slavuta

      There was one problem with this Mazda – it was loud. 75mph – add ear plugs. High RPM. But at normal speeds, it was sweet. And the engine was brilliant. Now, at one point, I owned both – Civic and Protege. And this was such difference. Protege was just as good at handling but with way less punishing suspension.

  • avatar
    bullnuke

    My fathers last vehicle was a ’95 Mazda Protege. It may have been a good handling car but it was so gutless that I couldn’t flog it enough to try out the handling other than around a corner at the traffic light. It was a pretty harmless vehicle for an 83-year old man to drive around town.

  • avatar
    Pianoboy57

    Will there be a Buy Drive Burn for European compact sedans for 1998 that were sold in North America?

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