- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 6, 2003

When Mazda introduced the MP3, it looked pretty cool. In fact, it was pretty cool as opposed to hot in terms of performance, which better describes the all new 2003 Mazdaspeed Protege.

The latter is actually based on the MP3, still with the Kenwood MP3 sound system, but offering much more than simply the factory-installed MP3 audio setup.

The Mazda MP3 was OK, but it lacked the performance to stir one’s emotions unless a boom box on wheels lights your fire.

The Mazdaspeed Protege is what the MP3 should have been all along — it’s a good deal more than simply eye candy with a wild sound system; it’s a genuine “pocket-rod” in an affordable package. The Mazdaspeed was developed under the auspices of world-class race-car engineering establishments, the likes of Callaway Cars and longtime Mazda tuner Racing Beat, with loads of bolt-on features and equipment added to provide above-average performance characteristics and head-turning good looks.

Power for the “spicy orange mica” metallic-finished four-door sedan comes from a 2.0-liter DOHC, 16-valve, in-line four-banger, enhanced by an intercooled Garrett T25 Ball Bearing Turbocharger, with an aluminum air-to-air heat exchanger.

The potent four-holer cranks out 170 horses at 6,000 rpm (that’s 40 more horsepower than the normally aspirated engine) and 160 foot-pounds of torque at 3,500 rpm. Helping to translate that added power to usable energy are a Tochigi Fuji Sangyo KK Super limited-slip differential of the conical ring torque-sensing type, larger driveshafts, heavy-duty clutch and pressure plate, beefier rate coil springs, revised struts with a tower brace, revalved Tokiko dampers and a new tuned exhaust system.

The Mazdaspeed rides on five-spoke Racing Hart alloys shod with 17-inch Bridgestone Potenza RE040 low-profile performance rubber, while a rear wing spoiler helps to control downforce. Stopping is handled by four-wheel Euro-spec discs (vented up front) with ABS and EBD.

Dressing up the interior in a sporty fashion are a Nardi two-tone leather-covered steering wheel; the 450-watt, seven-speaker Kenwood Excelon KDC-MP919 audio system (not especially user-friendly) that stashes its subwoofer and amplifier under the trunk’s package shelf; aluminum-finished, short-throw shift knob by Sparco, in addition to matching drilled metal foot pedals with rubber inserts. (This allows one to really put the pedal to the metal.)

Carbon-fiber-effect trim panels flank the center console, while the off-black cloth interior and wheel are accentuated by orange stitching to match the car’s exterior.

The Mazdaspeed Protege draws admiring looks with ease — it sits low over the ample wheels and tires, with its aggressive stance accentuated by the rear wing spoiler, rocker extensions and muscular front and rear integrated fascias. The pearlescent orange paint treatment is stunningly reflective.

This limited-production — only 2,000 will be offered in the United States and Canada — 2003 Protege turbocharged sport compact sedan is the first Mazda to wear the racing-inspired Mazdaspeed badge and will be offered along with a special line of Mazdaspeed performance parts, accessories and apparel, celebrating the sports-car roots of Mazda.

The Mazdaspeed is extremely agile with comfortable seating for those up front and reasonable space for those situated aft.

The ride quality is decidedly firm but tolerable. Steering is light and precise, as is the shifter, which also offers a positive feel.

Acceleration is rapid once the turbocharger is spooled up, but there is a noticeable lag, particularly going into second gear.

Pre-revving off the line makes first gear a nonissue, but pay close attention, as the torque steer is wicked and capable of taking the wheel from your control — this is also noticeable when nailing the throttle in a turn.

The turbo assist is not as predictable as it could be. It’s not the fastest ride in its class, but it’s one of the best-looking.

My test Mazdaspeed came with a base price of $19,980, while the final sticker totaled $20,500, which is not a lot of money for what you get.

Factor in Mazda’s comprehensive four-year warranty and roadside assistance program, and this pocket-rod Protege looks even better.

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