This is the best-handling FWD car in daily driving I've ever used. It's too front-heavy for really hard driving, but the steering is perfect, it's small, light, and quick, and the ride is firm-yet-compliant enough that my SO (who gets motion sick very easily) can close her eyes and fall asleep on the highway, which she has never experienced before.
The car has never stranded me, and seems very well put together. Engine, manual transmission, clutch, and other major components are still working well. Front struts have been replaced, and the radiator (the car does not get driven every day and this is not surprising for an older car that sits for a week or two at a time). I hear complaints about rust from other Protege owners, but after 12 years in Philadelphia, I have just recently seen a little at the bottom of the front doors and one rear wheel well.
The dash on this car is simple and perfect. Most new car instrument panels are horrifying by comparison. The climate control and other controls are easy to find, have large enough buttons to use easily, and the orange/red lighting is good at maintaining night vision.
The Protege5 was cheaper than the Civic and much cheaper than the Impreza, and Mazda gave me a 0% interest loan. It was paid off long ago and has proven to be a great value. Parts and maintenance are much cheaper than for some other brands.
The car was built in Japan and it shows. No sloppiness, everything done right. The cheap plastics inside are still fit together well and there aren't rattles and squeaks after all these years.