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The Mazda Protege MP3 was quintessentially of its time. The Hiroshima brand wanted to capitalize on early ’00s tuner culture, so this car came on the scene with a spoiler, sporty body kit, 17-inch wheels, an enthusiastic four-cylinder powerplant, and most importantly a bangin’, MP3-ready sound system. A year after its debut, it morphed into something wilder, too — the turbocharged Mazdaspeed Protege expanded on the idea with extra HP. Both versions still look pretty good today, despite being so obviously products trend-chasing 20 years ago.

There was a lot going for the 2001 Mazda Protege MP3; it was not all show and no go. Not unlike its Fozda (Ford/Mazda)-era sibling (or maybe, cousin?) the Ford ZX2 S/R, this was a labor of love engineered by both Mazda and the aftermarket.

The MP3 had stiffer springs and anti-roll bars from SoCal Mazda tuning legends Racing Beat, shocks and struts by Tokico to improve handling over the standard Protege economy car, sharp wheels by Racing Hart, and the guts of its MP3-ready sound system came from Kenwood. Then, Mazda re-programmed the ECU to nudge the car’s personality a bit more from “frugal” to “sporty”, touched up some minor things like seats and pedals, followed the NB Miata’s liner notes by adding a thick Nardi steering wheel, and threw some on some sticky Dunlop tires.

Despite its somewhat cringey name (“say there kids, you like these new-fangled musical M-P-3s?”), what Mazda created was actually pretty cool.

The Mazdaspeed Protege and Protege MP3 Were Great Cars of the Ford/Mazda Alliance Era
LOL “check out this internal combustion MP3 player!” Image: Mazda

A True Classic Sport Compact

Mazda only built 1,500 Protege MP3s as a sort of special edition in 2001 (two years before I got my driver’s license). Mazda made 1,000 in Laser Blue, and 500 in Vivid Yellow, so don’t be surprised if your extensive Craigslist research doesn’t yield anything for a while.

The fun factor was very much there, according to Car and Driver. “From the thick steering wheel, ergonomically sculpted buckets, and machined-steel pedals, the Protegé MP3 streams data to your appendages regarding lateral grip, slip angle, and road irregularity” detailed car reviewer Aaron Robinson. “You feel the car’s organs working to digest corners. You also feel the understeer, but it rotates the MP3’s rear satisfyingly when you back out of the throttle lightly, a trait that helped the car post a blazing 0.85 g on the skidpad.”

It had the minerals in acceleration, too. Thanks to a re-tuned ECU pinned into its 2.0-liter, FS-DE four-cylinder engine, it made 140 horsepower and 142 lb-ft of torque. That was enough to pull its 2,782 pounds to 60 mph in just over eight seconds. That’s not bad for a small-engined non-turbo car in 2001; it’s comparable to what a Honda Civic Si would have done at the time. Heck, a Mustang GT was hitting 0 to 60 in about six back then.

Again, not bad, but this was the Zoom Zoom-era of Mazda. The era in which it proudly placarded Mazdaspeed all over their marketing, campaigned the Protege in World Challenge and had a long, proud heritage of driving fun. Mazda needed to refine its formula for the street and make the Protege faster.

The Mazdaspeed Protege and Protege MP3 Were Great Cars of the Ford/Mazda Alliance Era
Image: Mazda (FavCars)

A Tiny Turbocharger Earned The Mazdaspeed Moniker

The Protege MP3 name didn’t last long; everyone was up to speed in the ways of Napster and LimeWire by the time the Mazdaspeed Protege came out. And at this point, the Mazdaspeed name was actually starting to stand for something serious (the turbo Mazdaspeed Miata would be in the mix around this time as well).

And the development of the Mazdaspeed Protege was taken seriously. Mazda contracted Callaway Cars — a longstanding SoCal-based tuner known for making ultra high-HP Corvettes — to develop this car’s turbo system and it still sells replacement parts.

Mazdaspeed’ing the Protege gained 30 horsepower thanks to its little turbo, with the output claim now totalling 170, with 160 accompanying ft-lb of torque. That’s barely anything by today’s standards, but again, much appreciated in the early aughts. Now the little ‘Ge could lunge to 60 mph in just under 7 seconds, and suddenly it was right up there with the sharpest U.S.-market sport compact cars. It also came with a limited-slip differential by Tochigi Fuji Sangyo to improve traction, some beefier driveshafts, and even a sporty Sparco shift knob! The Protege was now two tons of fun in the corners and pretty ambitious in a straight line.

The body kit was refined a bit over the MP3 as well, and Mazda changed up the wheels. The Mazdaspeed Protege looked, and still looks, really freaking good.

The Mazdaspeed Protege and Protege MP3 Were Great Cars of the Ford/Mazda Alliance Era
Image: Mazda (FavCars)

Good Proteges Are Rare Cars Today

Mazda made a few more of the MSPs than the MP3s — 2,000 to be exact. But that still wasn’t a huge production total to begin with, and time has not been kind to these little cars.

Like I seem to always say at the end of these bite-size sport compact history posts, I’d love to find a decent example today and restore it back to its OEM glory. It’d be so cool to cruise around in either an MP3 or Mazdaspeed.

My parents actually test-drove a Mazdaspeed Protege when it was fresh and new on dealership lots. They were in search of a car for my brother and me to share in high school and ultimately found the Mazdaspeed to be too expensive… and in light of my very short driving history up until that point, too fun. They bought a Nissan Sentra SE with the 2.5-liter four-cylinder instead. That car was decent, but man the Protege would’ve been so much more fun. Though it probably would’ve rusted away and returned to the Earth really quickly in my Chicagoland stomping grounds.

If you’re ambitious and patient, it seems like Mazdaspeed Proteges fetch anywhere from $4,000-$10,000, whereas MP3s command anywhere between $2,000-$5,000. These figures vary a bit depending on their condition, title status, amount of rust, etc. But my God are they rare… even finding a clean, non-performance Protege is a lofty goal.

Both of these cars were most definitely flogged regularly during their lives, so expect to have to replace some crucial mechanical parts, like an entire engine. Speaking of: the FS-ZE engines that Mazda used were pretty weak, so big boost aspirations are out of the question unless you’re up for investing in some pricey parts like high-strength rods, pistons, etc. So maybe for most of us, these cars are best appreciated in pictures and retrospectives like this one. But if you do find yourself a sweet Protege, you’ll know you’ve found friends when somebody recognizes how cool it is.

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