Photos by Laurance Yap and Grant Yoxon
Montreal, Quebec – Unless you’re a Corvette fanatic, the name Callaway may not mean that much to you. This Connecticut-based tuner of high-end ‘vettes was responsible for some of the fastest and most outrageous supercars of the last couple of decades, including the 255-mph twin-turbo
Sledgehammer, still to my recollection the fastest road car we ever had in North America.
What’s a Corvette tuner doing with a Mazda Protegé then? Well, Callaway has been diversifying its business lately–it’s even built a show car
for Land Rover–leveraging their massive turbo expertise for manufacturers that simply want the best forced-induction installations.
And though it still looks remotely like a Protegé from the outside, it’s clear upon first steer that this Mazdaspeed is nothing like any
Protegé you or I have ever driven before.
Well, okay, it doesn’t look THAT much like the Protegés you and I are used to seeing. Certainly, the pagoda-style rear wing draws the eyes
(though not, perhaps, in the most pleasing of ways) and there are new lights, a deep chin spoiler, and attractive 17-inch Racing Hart alloy
wheels as well as a slightly lower, but still realistic, ride height. But really it’s the paint–a radioactive shade of tangerine that looks
absolutely sparkly-stunning under bright sunlight, goes kinda blue when it’s dark, and can be, uh, pink, under some conditions. Love it or
leave it, but you have no choice, until next year.
Though more restrained than the exterior, the Mazdaspeed’s interior is also pretty special. Carbon-fibre and aluminum-look trim is everywhere,
and the durable black seat fabrics are now set off by silver leather inserts (as is the grippy and very satisfying three-spoke steering
wheel). The shifter and the pedals are both smaller, metallic items by Sparco, and are a delight to use. The driving position is fairly high
for what’s supposed to be a sporty car, but at least visibility is great, save for the tea-tray rear wing. Build quality is also what you
would expect of a Mazda–durable surfaces, fine panel gaps, and a feeling of solidity beyond the car’s base price.
Centrepiece of the interior is a new, and even more confusing, Kenwood sound system than was installed in the last high-performance Protegé
MP3. Turn on the car and it flips and folds out of a black panel on the console (presumably a theft-deterrent feature), and the graphics start
to dance even when it’s turned off. In addition to a tuner and a CD player, the 450-watt system can also play MP3 CDs, which can hold
hundreds of songs on a disc instead of a handful, and features a killer set of speakers and a thumping subwoofer in the trunk. It’s one of the
best factory-installed systems I’ve ever tested, sound-wise, but ergonomically it’s a nightmare–Mazda’s factory stereos are usually
easy to use, but this aftermarket-supplied system has buttons so tiny that you’d need a sharpened pencil to push them. No wonder, then, that
it comes with its own handheld remote control.
Then again, fine sound or not, twiddling the stereo is beside the point in a car as fun as this is to drive. Callaway’s turbo expertise has
paid off in an installation of a Garrett T25 ball-bearing turbo that significantly boosts power (from 130 to 170 horsepower) but feels as
tractable and as easy-to-drive as the stock engine, with little boost lag, immediate, smooth throttle response and no flat spots in its
voluminous power delivery. The turbo blows at fairly low pressure, and the 2.0-litre engine’s compression ratio hasn’t been reduced, meaning
that when you’re not into the turbo, the Mazdaspeed drives exactly like a regular Protegé; when you are, the 160 lb-ft rush of forced induction is addictive, surging you past slower traffic in big, wastegate-puffing
All the extra power through the front wheels means a bit of torque steer if you floor the gas in the lower gears, but otherwise, this
turbo Protegé is remarkably well-behaved. The steering, though a bit heavier than a stock Protegé, is still light and precise; the brakes are firm and confidence-inspiring, and around corners the stiffened and lowered suspension keeps the car flat as you zip around corners faster than you think you ever could in a little front-drive sedan. On some pockmarked and winding Quebec roads, the Mazdaspeed was a dream; the ride from the new Tokico dampers and stiffened springs was firm but still comfortable and never was there even a suggestion of understeer
when we were pushing hard, thanks to a properly-tuned limited slip differential. (In fact, a judiciously-timed lift of the throttle would
get the car’s rear end rotating gently around like an old Acura Integra Type-R.)
Earlier this summer, I had a chance to drive a prototype Mazdaspeed Protegé back to back with a stock model on Shannonville racetrack, and
it was even more impressive in comparison. It wasn’t just the extra speed that made the orange car feel special; it was the fact that the
car felt so at home on a race track. Though undoubtedly a quick, fun, well-balanced road car, the base Protegé felt out of its element on a
circuit; the Mazdaspeed was all over it like a pack of dogs on a three-legged cat. The thing gripped, turned, and stopped way harder,
and felt like it could do the same all day. The stock car? Nice as it was, it just wilted. The Mazdaspeed, with its Bridgestone Potenza RE040
tires and European-spec brakes, is a highly tuned track car, with a full factory warranty and the solidity and quality that implies.
Likely to be priced between $27,000 and $27,500–a big bump from the MP3’s $24,000, but with a lot more equipment–the Mazdaspeed seems a
fine value for something so highly-tuned, as accomplished in the fun-to-drive department as many a serious sports car, with all the added benefits that a fairly roomy sedan body with a big trunk can provide. The only problem is that there will only be 1000 of them available for the Canadian market–250 orange ones this fall, and 750 yellow or grey ones in the spring–so if you want one, you’d better act fast.
Autos editor Greg Wilson on the slalom course, PMG Industries, Blaineville, Quebec
Click image to enlarge
I was similarly enthusiastic about the Mazdaspeed Protegé’s performance, particularly when compared with the previous MP3 model. The latter, as you may remember, had all the handling goodies and a killer stereo, but not the turbocharged engine. The Mazdaspeed Protegé drives like it has even more than an extra 30 horses (the MP3 had 140 horsepower), probably because the turbo boost comes on strong around 2600 rpm and continues aggressively up to the redline — too bad there isn’t a boost gauge. I’d have to disagree with Laurance that there is minimal turbo lag — below 2500 rpm, the engine isn’t particuarly impressive. But, as Laurance says, there are no flat spots after that.
I was also impressed with the Mazdaspeed’s Racing Beat-tuned suspension. Mazda gave us the opportunity to throw the car around a few pylons at the PMG test track in Blainville, Quebec. I found the car well-balanced, with flat, controllable handling, minimal understeer, and reduced lean, pitch and squat characteristics. The steering was also remarkably quick and responsive. At least some of this can be attributed to the car’s grippy Bridgestone Potenza RE040 uni-directional 17 inch radials. Still, I would rate the SVT Focus, which I drove last week, to be a better handling car. And another thing: the Mazdaspeed’s firmer suspension has a price — a fairly hard, bumpy ride over poor pavement surfaces.
Click image to enlarge
And while I found the 5-speed manual transmission quick enough to keep up with the car, its slim, aluminum gear lever is difficult to grip, and mounted a bit low for my tastes.
Still, my overall impression is that the Mazdaspeed Protegé is a blast to drive, and the only thing you have to do get one is to fork out approximately $27,500. With just 1000 of them available in Canada, you can be pretty sure that no one else on your block will have one — that kind of exclusivity is certainly worth something.