2003 Mazdaspeed Protege
2003 Mazdaspeed Protege. Click image to enlarge

Article by Chris Chase;
Photos by Laurance Yap

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Mazda has a history, albeit a fairly short one, of selling hopped-up versions of otherwise mainstream cars. The earliest in recent memory were the turbocharged versions of the company’s old 323 compact, sold until the very early 1990s. The 323 GTX was an all-wheel drive version of the 323 three-door hatchback, while the 323 GT used the same engine, minus the all-wheel drive system, in sedan form.

Then there were turbocharged versions, too, of the 626 and MX-6 mid-size sedan and a couple in the late 1980s and early ’90s. As with many other manufacturers, Mazda largely abandoned turbocharged engines in its North American line-up for most of the ’90s and the early part of the 2000s.

It wasn’t until 2003 that Mazda would get back into turbocharging with a version of its popular Protegé compact, tuned by its MazdaSpeed performance division. Known as the MazdaSpeed Protegé, this effort was followed in 2005 with the MazdaSpeed Miata and MazdaSpeed6, turbocharged versions of the Miata and Mazda6. Then there’s the recently introduced CX-7 crossover – which uses a slightly less potent version of the MazdaSpeed6’s engine – and a model that isn’t even available yet: the MazdaSpeed3, a hi-po version of the immensely popular version of the Mazda3 Sport hatchback.

2003 Mazdaspeed Protege
2003 Mazdaspeed Protege. Click image to enlarge

While it’s clear that turbocharging is once again a part of Mazda’s vocabulary, let’s go back to the car that started the company’s recent fascination with forced-induction technology.

The MazdaSpeed Protegé (known in enthusiast circles as the MSP) was a bit of an odd duck in the sense that it was a new version of a model on the verge of being replaced – the all-new Mazda3 was introduced about a year later. Mazda would do it again in 2005, though: the MazdaSpeed Miata was a one-year proposition, too, and disappeared with the introduction of an all-new 2006 version of that car.

Many high-performance versions of everyday cars – the old Neon-based Dodge SRT-4 and Mazda’s own MazdaSpeed6 in particular – use heavily modified engines reinforced to handle the rigours of big power production, but Mazda opted against this for the MSP, most likely in the interests of keeping costs low. Instead, well-known aftermarket tuner Callaway was tasked with designed a turbo kit that could be bolted straight onto the 2.0-litre four-cylinder used in more pedestrian Protegés. That kit was pretty simple as engine modifications go, consisting of the turbocharger itself and an intercooler to help keep intake air temperatures under control. Without the use of low compression pistons or under-piston oil-squirters (common items in heavily boosted, factory-modified engines), turbo boost had to be limited. As a result, the power increase was a relatively modest 40 horsepower over the base 2.0-litre, for 170 total.

2003 Mazdaspeed Protege
2003 Mazdaspeed Protege
2003 Mazdaspeed Protege
2003 Mazdaspeed Protege
2003 Mazdaspeed Protege. Click image to enlarge

Still, this made for a well-balanced little car. The Protegé had always had terrific handling, so the extra power, suspension tweaks and other extras, like a limited-slip differential and upgraded brakes that came with the MSP, turned it into a great small sports sedan.

Despite the MazdaSpeed Protegé’s extra power, fuel consumption wasn’t affected, according to Natural Resources Canada’s testing. The turbocharged car used 10 L/100 km (city) and 7.3 L/100 km (highway), numbers virtually the same as those for non-turbo, 2.0-litre Protegés. The only consideration here is that the MSP requires premium fuel.

Like lesser Protegés, the MazdaSpeed version wasn’t offered with side airbags, though anti-lock brakes were standard equipment. There are no crash test results specifically for the MSP, but both the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) tested the basic model. The Protegé earned five and four stars respectively for the driver and front seat occupant protection in frontal impacts, and three and four stars respectively for front and rear seat occupant in side impacts. The IIHS gave the Protegé an “acceptable” rating for the car’s performance in a frontal offset crash test, citing a high likelihood of foot injuries.

The MSP boasted good genes, being based on the third-generation Protegé, introduced in 1999 (though the car’s roots go back much farther, to the days of the 323). This last-generation of small Mazda to bear the Protegé name is a durable little car, but the rigours of turbocharging – particularly on an engine with none of the reinforced internals normally found in a boosted motor – can take their toll over time.

2003 Mazdaspeed Protege
2003 Mazdaspeed Protege. Click image to enlarge

While there doesn’t seem to be a history of serious problems with the MSP’s modified drivetrain, there are a couple of accounts on www.MSProtege.com of sudden, unexplained stalling. Other than that, common issues, according to posters at www.MSProtege.com, include stress cracks in the windshield, likely caused by the car’s stiff suspension; engine coolant leaks; broken intercooler pipes; brittle exhaust connections; a transmission “crunch” when making a quick first-to-second-gear shift; noisy suspension and troubles with the car’s upgraded stereo system. A comprehensive list of what to look out for can be found here.

Due to its limited production run – only 1,000 MSPs were sold in Canada, along with a portion of 2,500 2003.5 allocated for Canada and the U.S. – used MazdaSpeed Protegés are a rare find, but they are out there. As with many higher-performance cars, and especially rare ones, some buyers will ask inflated prices. Canadian Red Book values these cars at $15,350; regional factors will affect real world values, but the $18,450 asking price for the only MSP listed on Auto Trader in Ontario (as of this writing) is too much.

2003 Mazdaspeed Protege
2003 Mazdaspeed Protege. Click image to enlarge

There are a couple of other, more common small and fun-to-drive cars available at around the same price point: the Ford Focus SVT was produced from 2002 to 2004; Nissan’s had an SE-R version of its soon-to-be-replaced Sentra since 2002. Both are reasonably reliable, too. If you’re willing to spend a little more money, a 2002 or 2003 Subaru Impreza WRX or a VW GTI might fit the bill. The Subaru’s the more dependable of those two, but the VW is a more refined ride. The Mini Cooper S is fun, too, but tends to be more expensive still thanks to strong demand. The muscle car of the bunch is the 2004-2005 Dodge SRT-4, a very quick little car that has proven fairly dependable, too, at least in terms of its basic mechanicals.

The MazdaSpeed Protegé is a great choice for a fun compact car, and if the decision was based mainly on pure driving fun, we’d certainly go for one. Of the other cars listed above, we’d pick the Focus SVT as a close second. Neither is perfect in the reliability department, but most issues common to both are relatively minor and seem to be well documented, which will make diagnosing and fixing problems much easier.

Online resources

  • www.MSProtege.com – This website offers discussion forums for just about every Mazda model, but the section dedicated to the MSP is the busiest here. There is lots of useful info. Just watch for the odd four-letter word or off-colour comment, as many of the members here are younger drivers. Other than that, this is a great place to go to get the goods on this sporty little car.

Related stories on Autos

  • Test Drive: 2003 Mazdaspeed Protegé

Manufacturer’s Website


No recalls

Used vehicle prices vary depending on factors such as general condition, odometer reading, usage history and options fitted. Always have a used vehicle checked by an experienced auto technician before you buy.

For information on recalls, see Transport Canada’s web-site, www.tc.gc.ca, or the U.S. National Highway Transportation Administration (NHTSA)web-site, www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on vehicle service bulletins issued by the manufacturer, visit www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on consumer complaints about specific models, see www.lemonaidcars.com.

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