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In a world of AMGs, SVTs, TRDs and M cars, it's tough to be taken seriously as a performance car company if you don't have a dedicated performance division. Mazda clearly recognizes this, and despite an overall win at Le Mans in 1991 and the purchase of Laguna Seca Raceway in 2001, the company's most serious effort (since the 1993 RX-7) to establish its performance-car presence in America will begin this fall with the launch of the 2003 Mazdaspeed Protegé.
Not that the Mazdaspeed name is entirely new. A team of hard-core Mazda racers established its spiritual beginnings in 1967 under the name "Mazda Sports Corner" in Tokyo. By 1983, the team was known as "Mazdaspeed," and with help from Mazda Motor Corporation, it managed to score that overall Le Mans win (the first and only by a Japanese automaker).
Now Mazdaspeed is the company's official in-house tuner, and although it's been supplying parts to dedicated racers for years, most Americans have never heard of it. That's going to change in the coming months as the name appears on everything from dealer-supplied street performance parts to billboards at Laguna Seca to shirts and hats. And let's not forget the upcoming line of Mazdaspeed-tuned production cars, starting with the Spicy Orange Mica example shown before you.
Referred to as the "quintessential Mazda" by company spokespeople, the Mazdaspeed Protegé combines a look, feel and overall balance that targets the ever-expanding "pocket rocket" market segment. As North American operations president Charlie Hughes says, "This maximum performance Protegé is the first road-going Mazda in the U.S. that's earned the right to wear the Mazdaspeed nameplate."
The credentials to back up that claim start with a 30-horsepower increase over the 2001 MP3 and a sub-7-second 0-60 time. The tuning wizards at Callaway Cars, Inc. (of Callaway Corvette fame) boosted the standard 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder engine with a Garrett T25 ball-bearing turbocharger and an air-to-air intercooler. A free-flowing Mazdaspeed muffler assists exhaust flow. Backing up the increased thrust is a heavy-duty clutch and a Tochigi limited-slip differential, along with beefier driveshafts.
For handling duty, Mazda turned to Racing Beat, the same tuner company that assisted it with the MP3. The goal was to take that model's highly capable suspension and improve it further for the Mazdaspeed version. Custom-engineered MacPherson struts, a strut tower brace and stiffer coil springs up front are balanced by a specially tuned Twin Trapezoidal Link (TTL) independent rear suspension. Larger front-and-rear stabilizer bars, along with Tokico (nonadjustable) dampers complete the suspension upgrades, while the entire package rides on Racing Hart 17-inch wheels wearing 215/45ZR17 Bridgestone Potenza tires. Although Racing Hart developed a similar five-spoke design for the MP3, the Mazdaspeed Protegé wheels are all new.
Anyone who's ever been to an import car show knows you can't play in this segment on performance alone. Attitude and image are as much a part of the scene as horsepower and quarter-mile numbers. For exterior styling Mazda has essentially recycled the MP3's body kit. With the possible exception of the color options (and, arguably, the rear wing), that's not a bad thing. The fog lights, mesh grille and chrome exhaust tip all work with the Protegé's inherently clean lines, but the rear wing sort of reminds us of the naturally attractive girl who loses some of her charm by applying too much makeup. When the makeup comes in a bright orange shade, the "look-at-me-and-love-me" effect is only magnified. Company officials tell us that two-thirds of the 2000 Mazdaspeed Protegés scheduled for production will come in the Spicy Orange Mica, with the other third showing up in a comparatively subdued Black Mica. Neither is as attractive as the Laser Blue Mica or Vivid Yellow previously applied to this bodywork.
Inside the Mazdaspeed car the performance theme is continued with Sparco drilled aluminum pedals that feature rubber inserts for improved heel-and-toe action. A Sparco aluminum shift knob tops the short-throw five-speed transmission, while aluminum gauge faces sit behind a thick three-spoke Nardi steering wheel. Unfortunately, the Mazdaspeed Protegé's seats are not Sparco units and, while certainly comfortable, they could use additional side bolstering.
The MP3 name may be gone, but its namesake technology lives on in the Mazdaspeed Protegé. Kenwood was again tapped to supply the car's head unit, dubbed the Excelon KDC-MP919. The six-speaker audio system is rated at 450 watts, and features an additional 250-watt amplifier to handle subwoofer duty. Of course, it still plays MP3 audio tracks recorded on CD-Rs or CD-RWs, and of course it still has too many teensy-tiny buttons. We do like the motorized faceplate that retracts from view when the ignition is turned off (it can also be removed from the head unit completely for additional security). To extend the system's shelf life in the rapidly changing world of in-car entertainment, it has been prewired to work with Sirius satellite radio equipment.
We were fortunate enough to get some seat time in the Mazdaspeed Protegé under the exact type of conditions for which it is designed. Allowing journalists to run the car hard around an autocross track was a brilliant way for Mazda to show off the car's abilities. The relatively high-speed course had sweeping decreasing-radius turns, hard braking zones and several low-speed twists that would have revealed turbo lag issues, had there been any. Instead, the Mazdaspeed Protegé performed with aplomb, proving itself easy to balance on the edge of adhesion via excellent feedback through the Nardi steering wheel and powerful, easily modulated brakes. Low-end pull was never lacking, despite the turbocharger, making the engine feel more like a naturally aspirated V6. With a peak torque output of 160 pound-feet hitting at just 3,500 rpm, it's easy to understand why the Mazdaspeed Protegé never feels sluggish.
A short highway blast confirmed that both low- and high-speed power are abundant, and the broad torque band rarely had us downshifting when blasting around slower traffic. We did notice a fair amount of tire rumble, but if that really bothers you, just turn up the audio system.
The Mazdaspeed Protegé goes on sale in mid-September 2002 at a price of $20,500, including destination charge. That's $3,000 more than the MP3 of two years ago, but Mazda officials are quick to point out the MP3's lack of ABS (standard on the Mazdaspeed Protegé) and turbocharger. The price is above many of the segment's top contenders, including the Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V that won our last Econosports Sedan Comparison Test. However, the MP3 took third in that test, and it was the first choice among many of our road testers. A lack of power was repeatedly cited as the car's only shortcoming. Now, that issue has been addressed, making the Mazdaspeed Protegé one of the best-balanced cars in its class. There's really nothing left to lament about now except maybe that color.