2003 Mazda Protege Review

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Paul Wiley Cockerham Paul Wiley Cockerham Editor
September 1, 2003

Now that long-time tuner division Mazdaspeed has been charged with spicing up Mazda’s consumer offerings, the 2003.5 Mazdaspeed Protégé shows that we can expect high levels of fun and refinement down the road. This youthfully sophisticated package may not set performance thresholds in the increasingly competitive pocket-rocket segment, but it stands quite proudly (and loudly, as our Blazing Yellow tester and its 450-watt trick Kenwood stereo proved) on its own merits.

The car’s evolution has been somewhat cautious, as the original hook was the killer stereo, as featured in 2002’s limited edition MP3. Only then did Mazda execs survey the pop culture landscape and decide that packaging speed parts was a safe bet for 2003. Additions to our half-year update include nifty Mazdaspeed-branded foot pedals, floor mats and aluminum shifter knob and an updated front air dam.

Keeping in mind that Mazda’s competition history lies in road racing and not the pursuit of the World Rally Championship, the Protégé takes a different Japanese tuner dream-car tack than does the Evo and the WRX—there’s the requisite engine and running gear upgrades, body cladding and spoiler, but no big hood scoops or fog lamps, and most notably, no all-wheel-drive—not that it’s needed.

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Callaway tuning

Engine mods were jobbed out to those fine folks at Callaway Cars, who bolted on a Garrett T25 turbocharger to the Mazda’s 2.0-liter dual-overhead-cam four. Thanks to airflow refinements and trick ball-bearing technology, the Garrett ups the horsepower ante to 170 hp at 5500 rpm. The torque band is fairly broad, peaking at 160 lb-ft at a usable 3500 revs. There is very little turbo lag, and with focused application of the heavy-duty clutch, the little sedan provides meaningful, if not hair-curling, acceleration, along with a warm burble through Racing Beat’s stainless exhaust system. 

Power delivery is facilitated with a Tochigi Fuji limited-slip differential and beefed-up 24-mm driveshafts (the standard Protégé uses 22-mm units), which makes powering out of turns a very smooth proposition. Front and rear disc brakes use 11-inch rotors and upgraded high-friction pads, providing all the whoa-power the 2843-lb Mazdaspeed could ever need, although they look a tad lost inside stunning 17 x 7 Racing Hart alloys shod with 245-profile, Z-rated Bridgestone Potenzas. 

The potential of this little beast is best realized by the suspension modifications engineered by long-time partner and aftermarket supplier Racing Beat. Featured are specially engineered front MacPherson struts, a strut tower brace, higher rate coil springs, and a larger diameter stabilizer bar bracket and bushings. The rear suspension boasts tuned independent struts with twin trapezoidal links, coil springs, and a larger stabilizer bar. 

Special revalved Tokico dampers improve steering feedback and response, control excess chassis motion, and keep the Potenzas planted firmly on the road surface. The twin-tube low-pressure design uses a multistage variable-aperture sandwich-valve system consisting of precision spring plates and angle-drilled piston ports. This sophisticated oil-flow-management system provides modulates resistance at a wide variety of suspension motions and velocities. So engineered, the chassis manages acceleration, braking, and maneuvering thrashes with aplomb yet handily absorbs road shocks to a near-schizophrenic degree.

Less spartan digs

The interior is a bit more refined and less Spartan than most of the competition, using a variety of cloth textures and panel surfacing that creates a cool techno environment. The drilled Sparco foot pedals are particularly nice, as is the Nardi-supplied three-spoke steering wheel. The seats are firm, comfortable and nicely trimmed but could use additional lateral support. Power mirrors and windows aren’t always found in this segment, but I was puzzled by the lack of cruise control.

The star of the interior remains the Kenwood stereo, at least in terms of clean power output and the trick, disappearing faceplate. Its controls, however, are far too fussy and small for adjustment while under way. The amp and subwoofer are nicely integrated into the package shelf but do intrude into trunk space; then again, the target market is probably too young to have much baggage to tote about in any respect.

Put together, the upgrades create as well balanced an automotive package as I’ve driven in a long time. With the Protégé scheduled to be phased out in favor of the new Mazda3 platform set to bow next month at Frankfurt, we figure a Mazdaspeed flavor will be one tasty treat indeed.

2003.5 Mazdaspeed Protegé
Price: $21,000
Engine: Turbocharged, 2.0-liter, DOHC four, 170 hp/160 lb-ft
Drivetrain: Five-speed manual transmission, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height (inches): 174.6 x 67.1 x 55.5
Wheelbase: 102.8 in
Curb weight: 2843 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 24/30 mpg
Safety equipment: Front airbags, child seat anchors, front seatbelt height adjustments, remote keyless entry, trunk anti-trap device, ABS
Major standard equipment: Garrett T25 turbocharger, torque-sensing limited-slip differential, heavy-duty clutch plate, tuned stainless-steel exhaust system, heavy-duty drive shafts, Racing Beat-tuned suspension, 17” Racing Hart alloy wheels, Bridgestone Potenza P215/45ZR17 unidirectional tires, 450-watt Kenwood AM/FM/CD/MP3 stereo with seven speakers, Nardi leather-wrapped steering wheel, power steering, power windows and door locks
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles

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