by Greg Wilson
Mazda’s surprise: the limited-production 2001 Mazda MP3 sport sedan. It offers a 140 horsepower 2.0 litre 4 cylinder engine, a sport suspension tuned by well-known California tuner, Racing Beat; low-profile 17 inch tires and special 17 inch alloys; and a state-of-the-art Kenwood Excelon Z828 CD/MP3 player with 280 watts and a trunk-mounted 10 inch, 100 watt subwoofer. Only 250 MP3’s will be available in Canada for an all-inclusive price of $23,795.
The MP3 audio system in this photo is the first-generation Kenwood Z919 system – Canadian cars have the next-generation Kenwood Excelon Z828 system with more features and a detachable faceplate.
Mazda is tapping into the current trend in customized compact import cars with its factory-built MP3, a modified Protégé sedan with a sport suspension, tuned engine, special interior, and a killer sound system that features the world’s first factory-authorized MP3 audio system.
The sound system is a Kenwood Excelon Z828 with 280 watts, four channels, four speakers and a trunk-mounted 10 inch, 100 watt subwoofer. The Excelon AM/FM/CD/CD-R system allows listeners to play conventional CD’s or MP3-encoded CD-R’s. For those not familiar with MP3 technology, MP3 is an audio compression format that allows up to 100 songs to be stored on a re-writable CD-R disc – that compares to only 16 songs on a regular CD. MP3 files can be downloaded from the internet or copied from other CD’s onto a CD-R. There is a slight loss of sound quality with MP3’s, but in the MP3 Protégé, I didn’t notice any sound deficiency..The Kenwood sound system is awesome – a full range with very little distortion. When it’s cranked up, the subwoofer in the trunk shakes the whole car – and the car next to it.
The Excelon Z828 system has some unique features: ID-3 name-tags which allow attaching the artist’s name to each MP3 file; a manual search-within-songs feature; and a detachable faceplate. There a lot of small buttons on the face of the stereo, and they’re hard to see – I didn’t have time to read the manual, but it’s something you must do with a sophisticated system like this.
While the MP3 system is the focus of the car, its performance enhancements are really what the MP3’s driving experience are all about. The MP3’s 140 horsepower 2.0 litre DOHC 16 valve 4 cylinder engine has 10 more horsepower and 7 ft-lbs more torque than the Protégé ES and LX’s 2.0 litre engine. The MP3’s increase in performance is due to recalibrated ignition timing and air/fuel ratio, a revised intake manifold, and a low back-pressure exhaust.
Suspension refinements were developed by Racing Beat of Anaheim, California, a well-known aftermarket tuner. Additions include Tokico shocks, increased spring rates, larger stabilizer bars, and chassis reinforcements. In addition, a quicker 15.4:1 steering ratio adds more precision and feedback to the steering.
Mazda teamed up with Takechi Project Company and Dunlop Tire to introduce a unique wheel and tire package: one-piece 17″ x 7″ Racing Hart alloy wheels and low-profile Dunlop SP9000 205/45ZR-17 inch tires.
The MP3’s interior is similar to the Protegé ES with the GT package: white-faced gauges, carbon-fibre and silver interior trim, and leather 3-spoke Nardi steering wheel. The MP3 has a unique shift knob, additional silver trim on the dash and seats, and of course the Kenwood sound system.
I had the opportunity to drive the MP3 in and around the scenic town of Niagra-on-the-Lake as well as on a closed-course slalom course. On city streets, the MP3 has a stiffer ride than the Protégé ES GT, but it’s not uncomfortable. The MP3’s engine has a little more horsepower and torque and it’s very sporty – but you won’t win any drag races against big-block Camaros and nitro-tuned Integras. Mazda hinted the MP3 may get more power in the future, assuming more MP3’s are built.
The MP3’s shifter has shorter throws with a loose, mechanical feel that’s fun, but not super-slick. Clutch pedal effort is definately stiffer than in the regular Protegé. Handling is much better than the Protégé ES GT – the MP3 is an inch lower, has 17 inch Dunlops, suspension tuning, so it corners with very little lean, turns in quicker, and is considerably more stable. I suspect a lot of the grip is due to the super-sticky Dunlop SP9000 tires.
Unfortunately, and inexplicably, the MP3 is not available with anti-lock brakes. They were dropped, along with cruise control, for cost reasons. This seems silly to me, as ABS is an important safety feature, particularly on a performance car.
The variable assist steering has a firmer feel, and offers better on-centre feel, and turn-in response. However, in a quick right-left turn in the slalom, I noticed a momentary loss of power assist. This probably won’t happen to you unless, well – unless you’re in a slalom.
Only 250 MP3’s will be available in Canada and you can have any colour you want as long as its Laser Blue – it looks just like the Subaru WRX blue colour, but Mazda insists it’s just an unhappy coincidence. Priced at $23,795, the MP3 is well-priced when you consider that the Protégé ES with the GT package is $20,600. The MP3 stereo system alone is worth around $2,000. But it’s disappointing that ABS is not even optional.