2001 Mazda Protege MP3 new car reviews

Despite winning a pair of national titles in SCCA Showroom Stock road racing, the Mazda Protegé has never become a player in the explosive compact performance scene. Mazda just couldn't transform those racing wins into any kind of following, as small cars like the Civic, Integra, Focus, Eclipse and Celica seemed to grab most of the attention-and sales to younger, performance-minded enthusiasts.

The release of the 2001 Mazda Protegé MP3 should change that fact. It comes from the factory will a spec sheet full of parts from various aftermarket tuner companies. While this idea is not entirely new, Mazda is setting a precedent by releasing a car fitted with so many designer labels: Racing Beat, Nardi, Tokico, Mazdaspeed, Racing Hart, Dunlop and Kenwood.

What's an MP3?

The MP3 is the new, sport-tuned model of the Mazda Protegé front-wheel-drive, four-door sedan. A staple of the Mazda lineup since 1990, the Protegé was originally the deluxe, sedan version of the old 323 hatchback. When Mazda discontinued the 323 in 1994, the Protegé continued as Mazda's compact sedan.

The car has enjoyed moderate success in SCCA Club Racing, but Mazda never released a sport model for the U.S. mass market. In other words, no Protegé ever wore a decklid badge along the lines of the GT-S, Si or SE-R.

Racers and enthusiasts had to make do with the LX and ES models, which at least featured Mazda's twin-cam, 1.8-liter engine. The suspension was generally a little soft for performance driving, however, which didn't help raise the public's perception of the Protegé.

The wheels for the new MP3 were put in motion in 1999, when Mazda released an all-new Protegé. A 1.8-liter, twin-cam engine was still the top-of-the-line powerplant, but the new car featured an aggressive, chiseled look. Even though it offered only 122 horsepower, the '99 Protegé was driven to an SCCA Showroom Stock C national win by Paul Bonaccorsi in 2000.

For 2001, Mazda finally has a sport-tuned Protegé with the MP3 model designation. While it's certainly more than a rolling jukebox, the car gets its name from the Kenwood Excelon Z919 in-dash CD/MP3 receiver fitted as standard equipment-an industry first, says Mazda.

MP3 is a file compression method primarily used for quick downloads and transfers of music from the Internet (think "Napster"). Since the files are compressed, less storage space is required. Where a traditional CD can store up to 74 minutes of music, a person at home can easily burn a CD-R filled with up to 10 hours of compressed MP3 music files. In addition to the MP3 files, the Kenwood head unit also plays conventional CDs and features a standard AM/FM radio.

Some people will find the buttons on the deck small and cumbersome to use, but we think the car's target market will have no trouble deciphering the setup. In keeping with the latest trends, the stereo's display features a full array of colors and graphics, while a motorized faceplate covers the CD slot.

Besides the trick Kenwood head unit, the Protegé MP3's sound system also employs two 6x9-inch three-way rear speakers, two 5x7-inch two-way front speakers and a 100-watt, 10-inch subwoofer located in the trunk. We're not audio engineers, but we still found the MP3's sound system to be loud and clear. A provided cheat sheet helped us navigate the head unit's controls, while the subwoofer provides plenty of bass. The subwoofer does take up a bit of trunk space, but looks like it can be easily removed as needed.

More Than Just Stereo Equipment

Enough talk about car audio; what has Mazda done to increase the car's real performance? For starters, there's more horsepower under the hood, as the new-for-2000 2.0-liter engine has received a few tweaks that raise horsepower from 130 up to 140. Maximum torque also increases, going from 135 lb.-ft. at 4000 rpm to 142 lb.-ft. at 4500.

A reprogrammed engine computer provides more favorable ignition timing and air-fuel ratio, while a revised intake manifold helps boost top-end performance. To help on the other end of the performance equation, the MP3 features a low-back-pressure, stainless-steel exhaust system designed and built by California's Racing Beat. (For an original-equipment system, it emits a mellow growl, too.)

This uprated engine sends its power through a stiffer clutch, while the transmission's shifting action is controlled via a shortened lever.

We found the engine torquey and possessing a strong mid-range, but the car's weight seems to be holding things back. Despite the 140 horsepower rating, the MP3 doesn't scream toward red line like some other hot compacts.

For example, the original Nissan Sentra SE-R also produces 140 horsepower from 2.0 liters, which proves ample enough to haul around its 2460-pound self. The MP3 checks in at 2725 pounds, and the weight difference is noticeable. The people at Mazda seem aware that more power is needed; sources we talked with said that this will be remedied in future models. Still, the car feels lively once moving.

Following a mandate from the parent office in Japan to build a hot compact, Mazda's American arm had longtime Mazda tuning firm Racing Beat set up the suspension. Tokico struts-they're even painted that familiar shade of blue-can be found at all four corners of the MP3, while Racing Beat designed the anti-roll bars: a 25mm bar can be found up front, while the rear one measures 20mm in diameter.

Racing Beat also took care of the springs, increasing the rates 16 percent in the front and 19 percent in the rear. Ride height was left nearly unchanged, however, as the MP3 sits just 2/10 inch lower than a standard-issue Protegé. Like the struts, the anti-roll bars and coil springs don't have an original-equipment look, as these parts come painted in Racing Beat's signature red color.

While not an aftermarket part, the MP3 shares its steering gear with the European-spec Protegé and features a 15.4:1 ratio. (The standard Protegé ratio is 15.0:1.) To help stiffen the steering, an upper strut bar is standard equipment, while C-shaped, stamped-steel reinforcements have been added to the tops of the front strut towers.

Tires are often seen as a car's most important components, and the MP3 rides on a set of Z-rated, low-profile 205/45ZR17 Dunlop SP Sport 9000s. This is currently Dunlop's top-of-the-line, max-performance tire; we found it to offer plenty of grip for aggressive street driving. A rarity for such a high-grip tire, the SP Sport 9000 also performed well during several brief but powerful downpours. Credit for the wet-weather performance should go to the water-shedding tread pattern.

The Tire Rack has also given this tire high marks. While their testing has shown the SP Sport 9000 to offer a little less precision and grip than the much-lauded Michelin Pilot SX MXX3, The Tire Rack found the Dunlop to be a good max performance tire for everyday use. "On the road, the SP Sport 9000 provided excellent ride quality, very low noise levels, and handling that was matched to everyday driving needs," they said. "For on-the-road comfort, it came close to providing touring tire traits."

Those Dunlops come wrapped around a set of 17x7-inch Racing Hart wheels. Thanks to their light weights and premium looks, wheels from Racing Hart have become popular in today's hot compact scene; Mazda had these wheels specifically designed for the MP3. Sadly for Honda owners, their five-lug bolt pattern means they won't fit on a standard Civic.

Between the sticky Dunlops and tighter-than-usual suspension components, we found the MP3 to make a great street performer. Ride quality was also very good.

On the autocross, the MP3 did very well in quick transitions, but understeered a bit in tight turns. We're figuring the car's somewhat high curb weight, combined with anti-roll bar sizes that are safe for the average consumer, are part of the cause.

Looks Sharp, Too

In addition to the mechanical upgrades, the MP3 differs from a standard Protegé thanks to its unique appearance package. For starters, most of the 1500 examples bound for the U.S. will be painted Laser Blue Mica, a color similar to that used on the recent Civic Si as well as new Subaru Impreza WRX. Additionally, a few hundred cars will be painted Vivid Yellow.

The MP3 also features a more aggressive look thanks to a chin spoiler, round fog lights, side skirts, plus a computer-engineered rear wing. Many of these parts come from Mazda's home-market Familia Sport 20, Japan's version of the Protegé5 sport wagon, and give the MP3 a sort of rally-racer look. Squint hard, and the MP3 looks a bit like a Mitsubishi Lancer EVO VI.

On the inside, the MP3 receives a unique look through dark charcoal interior fabrics that are matched with warm silver accents on doors, steering wheel, shift lever, center stack and console. Like the Miata, the MP3's steering wheel also comes from Nardi of Italy. To continue the designer label theme, the drilled aluminum pedals come from Mazdaspeed.

From the driver's perspective, the interior works well. The seats offer plenty of lumbar and lateral support, while several adjuster knobs allow their position to be custom tailored for nearly any driver. We have always been fans of Nardi steering wheels, so finding one in the MP3 makes us happy.

Going Quickly

Whether by skill or luck, Mazda's timing for the MP3's debut is quite good: There's no Honda Civic Si available for this year, while the Ford Focus SVT doesn't arrive until 2002. The Dodge Neon R/T, while similar in specifications, doesn't offer nearly as much refinement as the Mazda.

However, with only 1500 copies of the MP3 headed to the U.S.-combined with a suggested retail price of $18,500-the car probably will be a bit scarce on dealer lots. As of our editorial deadline, Mazda reports that all copies of the MP3 have been allotted to their dealers.

While the MP3 won't hang with an Integra Type R or Subaru Impreza WRX in a straight line, it is a great first step for Mazda. For the first time in more than 10 years, this company finally has an offering for the sporty compact market.

Additionally, Mazda has strongly hinted that the Protegé will not be the only MP3-badged vehicle offered. Could it mean that a Miata MP3 isn't too far away?

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