2003 MazdaSpeed Protegé
Click image to enlarge

by Greg Wilson
Photos by Laurance Yap and Grant Yoxon

New turbocharger adds power to limited production Protegé

In 2001, Mazda jumped into the sport compact segment with a limited production version of the Protegé sedan called the MP3 – so named because it was the first production car with a factory-installed MP3 player. With assistance from its Mazdaspeed racing division, and aftermarket suppliers such as Racing Beat, Sparco and Kenwood, Mazda created a Protegé with sharper looks, better handling and a thumping, high-performance stereo.

However, performance from its 140 horsepower 2.0 litre four cylinder engine was no match for some of its more powerful competitors. So for the 2003 model year, Mazda enlisted the help of Callaway tuners who added a new Garrett T25 turbocharger and intercooler to the 2.0 litre twin cam engine, increasing horsepower to 170. Mazda also added a limited-slip differential, low-profile Bridgestone Potenza tires, larger front stabilizer bar, tuned shocks, and a Euro-spec performance brake package. Re-named the Mazdaspeed Protegé, only 1000 are available for Canada.

Additional changes, mostly appearance items, will be coming for 2003.5 . New front and rear skirts, a new rear wing with a centre high-mounted stop light, larger oval exhaust tip, and darker Racing Hart aluminum wheels are the most visible changes. Inside, the 2003.5 model will have a new shift knob and pedals, silver gauge needles, and yellow stitching for the seats, steering wheel and shift boot. Mazda says 2,500 2003.5 Mazdaspeed Protegés will be offered for sale in Canada and the U.S.A.

Driving impressions

2003 MazdaSpeed Protegé
Greg Wilson pilots the MazdaSpeed Protegé on the slalom course, PMG Industries, Blaineville, Quebec, October, 2003. See our “First Drive” report. Click image to enlarge. Photo: Grant Yoxon

Now with 170 horsepower at 6000 rpm, the 2003 Mazdaspeed Protegé will hit 100 km/h from 0 in about 7.5 seconds, about two seconds quicker than the prevous MP3, and about a second quicker than the Nissan Sentra SE-R, half a second quicker than a PT Cruiser GT Turbo, and comparable with a Ford Focus SVT and Mini Cooper S. Turbo boost comes on noticeably about 2500 rpm, and that’s where the car really picks up speed. If you keep the revs above 3000 rpm, the engine responds instantly to throttle input. In fact, this engine just loves to be kept revving in the 4000 to 5000 rpm range, where it has a sweet, rev-happy race-car-like sound. A distinctive sporty note from its high-performance exhaust keeps you entertained while shifting gears.

Though it loves to be revved high, the turbocharged engine’s maximum torque is available at just 3500 rpm, so it has a surprising amount of pull in higher gears and doesn’t have to be shifted into a lower gear to speed up in traffic or make gentle lane-changing passes.

2003 MazdaSpeed Protegé
Click image to enlarge. Photo: Laurance Yap

The downside to its turbocharged power is some torque-steer. It’s not apparent when accelerating in a straight line, but when cornering and accelerating quickly at the same time, the steering wheel tries to straighten itself out. It’s something you learn to manage by keeping both hands on the wheel, and squeezing the throttle gently. Even so, it can surprise you, particularly if you’re new to the car. To handle the engine’s extra power, the car is equipped with a Tochigi Fuji Sangyo KK limited-slip differential and larger 24 mm driveshafts (versus 22 mm for the standard Protegé).

Cruising on the freeway in fifth gear, the engine revs happily at 2800 rpm at 100 km/h and 3300 rpm at 120 km/h, and the cabin is quiet and comfortable, just like a regular Protegé. It tracks very well too, despite its sensitive steering. The standard power assisted rack-and-pinion/engine RPM sensing steering feels more precise than the standard Protegé ES, but you must keep your eyes on the road, because even a little movement can put the car off course. The car’s turning diameter of 10.4 metres (34.1 ft.) is reasonably tight.

2003 MazdaSpeed Protegé
Click image to enlarge. Photo: Laurance Yap

Its close-ratio five-speed manual shifter has short, precise shifts, although I found 1st to 2nd stiffer than other gears. I didn’t like the Sparco shift knob which is shaped like a cigar tube and has little to grip. Also, it’s positioned too low for my liking. A new shift knob is available in the 2003.5 model, so perhaps there have been complaints. Clutch pedal effort is easy, a big improvement over the MP3’s stiff clutch. The Mazdaspeed Protegé has a heavy-duty clutch disc and pressure plate to handle the cars extra horsepower.

Fuel consumption is pretty good for a performance car: 10.0 l/100 km (28 mpg) in the city and 7.3 l/100 km (39 mpg) on the highway according to Transport Canada. However, how you drive this car will make a big difference to fuel consumption.

2003 MazdaSpeed Protegé
Click image to enlarge. Photo: Laurance Yap

Handling, as you might expect, is superior to the regular Protegé and most other compact cars on the road. Tuned by suspension expert, Racing Beat, the Mazdaspeed Protegé features specially-tuned front MacPherson struts and higher rate coil springs, a strut tower brace to increase body stiffness, special twin-tube Tokico shocks, and a larger diameter stabilizer bar bracket and bushings. At the rear are tuned independent struts, coil springs and a larger stabilizer bar.

Bridgestone Potenza RE040 215/45R-17 inch Z-rated directional tires replace the Dunlop SP9000 tires that were on the MP3. Custom five-spoke 17 x 7 inch aluminum wheels by Racing Hart are standard.

With its lower ride height, quicker steering, stiffer suspension, and grippier tires, the Mazdaspeed Protegé is quicker and more responsive than a Protegé ES, but basically unchanged from the MP3. Around town, the Mazdaspeed Protegé feels light and nimble and is easy to manoeuver in and out of traffic, partly because of its large glass greenhouse which offers excellent visibility when lane-changing. Cornering limits are high, but if you do lose traction, it understeers gently and is easy to control.

2003 MazdaSpeed Protegé
Click image to enlarge. Photo: Grant Yoxon

Sacrifices have been made in ride comfort, however. The suspension offers a comfortable ride over smooth pavement, but the ride is harsh over broken pavement and uneven road surfaces.

Its precise, responsive steering is particularly worthy of mention, as are its powerful European-spec four-wheel disc brakes (front 274mm/10.8 in, rear 280 mm/11.0 inch) with high friction brake pads and standard 4-sensor, 3-channel ABS and Electronic Brakeforce Distribution (EBD) to improve braking control.

Perhaps my most serious handling concern is the performance of the tires in the wet. Though handling is excellent on dry pavement, I wasn’t impressed with the Bridgestone Potenza RE040 P215/45ZR-17 uni-directional ultra-high-performance tires in the rain. From a standing start, they have a tendency to lose traction, perhaps not surprising given the turbocharger’s sudden surge of power around 2500 rpm. However, I also found them skittish when braking and turning into a typical 90 degree corner in the wet. I didn’t have an opportunity to try them in the snow.

Interior impressions

2003 MazdaSpeed Protegé
Click image to enlarge. Photo: Laurance Yap

The MazdaSpeed’s interior is an extension of the Protegé ES GT interior, with silver-faced round gauges, carbon fiber like trim on the dash, metallic look trim on the dash and console, a two-tone Nardi steering wheel, drilled aluminum foot pedals with rubber inserts, and two-tone silver and black seats (front and rear) and steering wheel. I found the whole package very attractive and well-finished.

Interior room is generous for a compact sedan – there’s plenty of headroom and legroom for front and rear adult passengers. The front sport seats have big side bolsters and are height adjustable at the front and rear of the seat cushion. Between the front seats is a small storage bin, and there are two cupholders ahead of the shift lever.

2003 MazdaSpeed Protegé
Click image to enlarge. Photo: Laurance Yap

At the rear, the raised front seats allow more footroom underneath for rear passengers. Outboard rear passengers have fixed rear head restraints, but no folding rear centre armrest. 60/40 split folding rear seatbacks are standard. The trunk is roomy, but a little smaller than a regular Protegé because of the speakers and amplifiers installed under the rear parcel shelf.

The highlight of the interior is its awesome sound system: a Kenwood KDC-MP919 in-dash AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio system with 450-watts maximum power and 7 speakers: 4 mid-base speakers, 2 tweeters, and 1 subwoofer. For security, the faceplate can be removed, or it automatically disappears from view when the ignition is turned off. It also features a liquid gel display and a wireless remote control. The driver can choose one of five pre-set EQ curves: rock, pops, easy, jazz, and Top 40.

Though I enjoyed the rich sound of this stereo, the bass subwoofer sends out vibrations that shake the entire car – and the car next to it. Try as I might, I couldn’t find a manual adjustment for the bass – even after scrutinizing the ridiculoulsly small buttons for about ten minutes.


2003 MazdaSpeed Protegé
Click image to enlarge. Photo: Laurance Yap

The Mazdaspeed Protegé’s four-door competitors include the 175 horsepower Nissan Sentra Spec V ($21,998), 180 horsepower VW Jetta GLS 1.8T ($26,370), 180 horsepower Toyota Matrix XRS and Pontiac Vibe GT, 170 horsepower Ford Focus SVT ($27,995), 165 horsepower Subaru Impreza 2.5RS, 215 horsepower Chrysler PT Cruiser GT ($27,700), and the 150 horsepower Dodge SX 2.0 RT ($20,795). Two-door competitors might include the 160 horsepower Honda Civic SiR ($25,500) and the 163 horsepower Mini Cooper S ($29,950).

Of these, the Sentra Spec V and Dodge SX 2.0 R/T are considerably less expensive, but you’ll find the Sentra’s drivetrain less refined than the MazdaSpeed, and the Dodge less powerful and less refined as well. The Jetta 1.8T is quieter and more luxurious, but its handling and steering are not quite as sporty. The Matrix, Vibe, Focus SVT, PT Cruiser GT, and Civic SiR hatchbacks all have more usable cargo space than the Mazdaspeed Protegé but only the Focus SVT offers the same kind of race-car-like steering and handling. The Cooper S is smaller and more maneouverable but more expensive.


A nimble, fun-to-drive sport sedan with lots of power, the Mazdaspeed Protegé is also a roomy practical sedan. Occasional torque-steer and skittish Bridgestone Potenza tires are my only major concerns.

Technical Data: 2003 Mazdaspeed Protegé

Base price $26,995
Freight $895
A/C tax $100
Price as tested $27,990
Type 4-door, 5-passenger compact sedan
Layout transverse front engine/front-wheel-drive
Engine 2.0 litre, DOHC, 16 valves, turbocharged
Horsepower 170 @ 6000 rpm
Torque 160 lb-ft @ 3500 rpm
Transmission Premium unleaded
Tires Bridgestone Potenza RE040 215/45ZR-17 Z-rated directional tires
Curb weight 1290 kg (2843 lb.)
Wheelbase 2611 mm (102.8 in.)
Length 4434 mm (174.6 in.)
Width 1704 mm (67.1 in.)
Height 1410 mm (55.5 in.)
Fuel consumption City: 10.0 l/100 km (28 mpg)
  Hwy: 7.3 l/100 km (39 mpg)
Warranty Warranty 3 yrs/80,000 km
Powertrain Warranty Powertrain warranty 5 yrs/100,000 km

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