MazdaSpeed Protegé: Zoom-Zoom Will Boom
Souped-up Protegé is the first of many Mazda Factory speed projects
By MARK VAUGHN/AutoWeek
2003 MAZDASPEED PROTEGÉ
ON SALE: Late September/early October
BASE PRICE: $20,500
POWERTRAIN: 2.0-liter, 170-hp, 160-lb-ft turbocharged I4; front-drive, five-speed manual
CURB WEIGHT: 2843 pounds
0 TO 60 MPH: 6.8 seconds (est.)
The big story here isn’t just about this car.
It could be, since the new MazdaSpeed Protegé is loads of fun, with all the performance enhancements found on the Mazda MP3 plus a good dose more horsepower. It’s cool enough to warrant its own story, what with its tighter, lowered suspension tuned by Racing Beat, 17-inch Racing Hart alloy wheels, MP3 player from Kenwood, aero goodies all over the outside and Garrett T25 turbocharger fitted to the Protegé by the great Reeves Callaway himself.
So it has all the elements kids in the target audience crave and adults in any audience who love power and performance like, too. And it’s coming out in mid- to late-September. But that’s only part of the story and we’ll come back to that in a minute.
First, the big news is that Mazda really means all that “Zoom-Zoom” stuff. At first it seemed like it was just marketing hoopla, like when it claimed its minivan was raised by Miatas, or when it spent $7.5 million for the title rights to Laguna Seca racetrack and started calling the place its “spiritual home.”
But now it looks like the Zoom-Zoom is for real. On what do we base this conclusion? Mazda is officially launching MazdaSpeed here in the United States, with a complete line of cars, performance parts, performance accessories, support of racing and even hats and T-shirts. They’ll be coming to selected Mazda dealers this fall, along with corporate interest in the import drag racing scene, Speed Channel World Challenge and other motorsports endeavors. The Protegé is the first fully tweaked car to officially bear the MazdaSpeed name in the United States but word is that it will be followed by MazdaSpeed versions of the Mazda 6, the Miata and then the RX-8. And that’s not just good news for people who like driving, that’s a call for motorsports rejoicing.
Mazda is making "Zoom-Zoom" for real with the MazdaSpeed Protegé, the first MazdaSpeed product to make it to the States.
How did it all happen? Let’s start with some background. MazdaSpeed is to Mazda what AMG is to Mercedes and M is to BMW, an in-house tuning arm that takes mass-market sedans and coupes and transforms them into street racers. Like its European counterparts, MazdaSpeed used to be a separate entity, in this case a team of racing enthusiasts at a dealership called Mazda Auto Tokyo, Japan’s largest Mazda dealer.
They called themselves “Mazda Speed Corner.” That was in 1967. Mazda Speed Corner kept racing its rotary sports cars, from the Cosmo 110S to the RX-7, for 15 years. In 1983 it became a semi-autonomous part of Mazda Motor Corporation and was moved to Hiroshima with the name MazdaSpeed.
The racing continued, with more corporate backing, highlighted by a victory at Le Mans in 1991 and more IMSA GTO and GTU wins than you could shake a rotor at. Some MazdaSpeed performance parts were sold in the United States through Mazda Racing Development, but there were no MazdaSpeed cars. Not then.
By 1997, Mazda North American Operations started discussions with its corporate parent to bring MazdaSpeed to the United States, with the Protegé as the first logical candidate.
“The platform was just terrific,” said Robert Davis, vice president of product development and strategy at MNAO.
The first rough of a complete vehicle was the bright yellow MP3 shown at SEMA in 2000, a year after Mazda Motor Corporation took over full control of MazdaSpeed. The MP3 had suspension upgrades, aerodynamic parts added on and an MP3 player in the dash. Reaction to the SEMA show car was strong, along with customer research that showed there was a market for it. But convincing the suits at MNAO was another problem.
“The MP3 was an underground project” Davis said. “Eventually, with some pounding on the head, the executives began to realize it was a viable product.” The MP3 came out a year later but without the MazdaSpeed badge.
“With only 140 hp, it wasn’t up to the performance requirements of a Mazda-Speed,” said Kelvin Hiraishi, director of research and development engineering. Work began on a new version of the MP3, with appropriate horsepower and the hearty backing of MNAO’s new chief Charlie Hughes, just nine months ago. Engineers knew what they wanted from the car.
“You can’t just add 40 hp,” said Davis. “This isn’t just an MP3 with a turbocharger.” Indeed, a true MazdaSpeed car would need several things, Davis said. It would have to be a limited production run (there will be only 2000 MazdaSpeed Protegés for North America); it would have to be true to its donor car lines yet be distinguishable as a unique vehicle from 100 feet away; and it would have to offer significant improvements in steering, braking, handling and drivetrain performance.
It was not a job for a huge corporation. In fact, it was pretty much done by six guys, “Mike, Scott, Tod, Kelvin and two guys in Japan,” said Davis, referring to Mike Zoner of Callaway, Scott Rasmussen, Tod Kaneko and Kelvin Hiraishi of Mazda R&D in Irvine—and two so-far anonymous guys in Japan.
Piece of cake, eh? They got to work. The exterior has a lot of parts from the MP3, the wing, air dam and skirts. The 17-inch five-spoke Japanese-made Racing Hart wheels are unique to this car, with Z-rated 215/45 Bridgestone Potenza RE40 tires. There are two colors, both also unique, either Spicy Orange or Black Mica.
Inside, Davis said they went for “big audio”—a 450-watt Kenwood MP3 player with 50 watts per channel, four channels and a unique head unit. Unfortunately the controls are still perfect for spindly- fingered elves and not normal-fingered humans, just as they were on the MP3 Protegé. And the controls will take new owners a while to figure out, using the owner’s manual and additional research. This ain’t no Visteon or Delphi faceplate here—it has programmable working graphics of leaping dolphins, fer cryin’ out loud. The best part about the audio system is how all the parts stow so neatly under a customized rack beneath the rear parcel shelf.
The seats have new inserts with three headrests in the rear. There’s a Sparco shifter knob and pedals, and a Nardi steering wheel. Underneath, Racing Beat, working with Mazda, added stiffer bushings, higher-rate springs and stiffer shocks to control the MacPherson front struts and twin trapezoidal rear links, bigger antiroll bar and a front strut tower brace. Brakes are discs, 11 inches in front and 10.8 inches in back, with ABS standard.
The engine started as a 2.0-liter 16-valve four-cylinder on which Callaway went to town. The goal was for it to be “powerful, driveable, reliable, emission-compliant and producible,” according to Zoner. Callaway engineers were able to model the Garrett unit and the air-to-air intercooler on a computer to speed development. The result is an engine that makes 170 horsepower and 160 lb-ft of torque. Ninety-five percent of the torque is available from 2500 to 6500 rpm.
Mazda engineers added a heavy-duty clutch disc and pressure plate, a Tochigi Fuji Sangyo KK Super limited-slip differential and thicker driveshafts to get the power out of the engine and down to the ground.
In all there are 1200 part number changes on the MazdaSpeed Protegé even before you count those in the audio system, aerodynamics package and the turbo. How does it all work? Mazda rented out one of the runways at the former Marine Corps Air Station in El Toro, California, a few blocks from Mazda R&D headquarters, and let us have at it.
Like the MP3 before it, we immediately noticed the responsive suspension. It was tight but didn’t crash over bumps and potholes. It was like a little race car with seating for five. The steering felt perfectly tight, but Hiraishi said they had to give up just a little bit of feedback when they switched from the European-spec rack of the MP3 to the U.S.-spec rack from the ES in order to handle the greater power routed through the front end. He also said they kept the castor and camber but added one degree of toe-out front and rear vs. zero toe-out on the MP3.
“Alignment is an art,” he said, adding that the MazdaSpeed dealer will have to set the final alignment when each car leaves the showroom.
We took many a lap on the old runway, around a big slalom course set up specifically for the MazdaSpeed car and us. The added power of the turbo had us gaining plenty of speed before we realized it. Consequently we whacked a good many cones for the first several laps and even spun a couple of times, which was tremendous fun, of course. There was nothing to hit and we had the green light from Mazda to wear the rubber off the tires, so there was no reason not to, no steel Armco or concrete K-bar to worry about hitting. Ask any autocrosser: On a slalom course, no one can hear your tires scream.
We made the Protegé oversteer and understeer with equal ease. The tires were quick to hit their limits of adhesion at high speeds; there was not a lot of warning, but they held on mightily up until then. It was a very fun package.
A Mazda employee happened by with his own MP3, which would have been great for comparison’s sake, but, perhaps after seeing us destroy half the cones on the Air Base, he opted to hang on to his keys.
In straight-line performance, Hiraishi said Mazda got a 15.3-second quarter mile at 90 miles an hour and that independent tests have returned quarter miles of 14.9 at 93.18 and 0-to-60 times from 6.6 to 7.0 seconds. So it’s as fast as it felt.
All that performance will cost you, though. The MazdaSpeed Protegé will sticker at $20,500, including delivery. Compare that to the Honda Civic Si at $19,440, the Ford SVT Focus at $18,895 or the Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V at $17,539 and you begin to think the same thing we thought about the MP3 Protegé: Drop the expensive and ludicrously complex MP3 player and save a grand or more. Or at least make it optional.
Where will you go to get one when they arrive in late-September or early October? We don’t know. At press time, Mazda still hadn’t sorted out which of its 700 dealers would sell the cars and parts, and get involved in the racing that Mazda has planned for the brand. It wanted to make sure it got only performance- and racing-minded dealers, not just the ones willing to cut the checks to be purveyors of MazdaSpeed. Which is another good sign about the company.
The final good sign? Mazda’s North America chief Hughes came out to the autocross course in his Bass Weejuns and whacked a few cones on his own. This could be the golden age of Mazda yet.
My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.
My next Ford.....