The Mazdaspeed Protegé is the subcompact turbocharged sedan from the early 2000’s you probably forgot about. Why did you forget about it? Well, it’s rare, it wasn’t a huge hit when it first splashed into the market, and they seem to have all rusted away. Well, all of them except this immaculate one I had the opportunity to review.
The Mazdaspeed Protegé used the same bones as Mazda’s standard Protegé sedan, however it featured a two-liter four-cylinder turbocharged engine good for 170 hp and 160 lb/ft torque. It also featured a very “Fast and Furious” body kit including a revised front bumper with a huge air dam, flared sideskirts and a high-level rear spoiler. All Mazdaspeed Protegé’s came with a 5-speed manual transmission and a limited-slip differential. Adding to the 2000s vibe of the car, all Mazdaspeed Protegé’s came with Racing Hart 17” alloy wheels, Sparco aluminum pedals, a Sparco shift knob and a full Kenwood sound system complete with an 8” trunk mounted subwoofer.
In many ways, its competitors overshadowed the Mazdaspeed Protegé at the time, making it more of a flop than intended. The new (for America) Subaru Impreza WRX had similar looks to the Mazdaspeed, however it featured Subaru’s rally-proven symmetrical all-wheel-drive and made significantly more power out of the box. However, the main reason (I believe) that you do not see many Mazdaspeed Protegé’s nowadays is because they were fairly cheap cars when new ($19,980) and many of them got run into the ground. Parts are scarce and if you have a car that came from a climate with snow (hence road salt) you may as well kiss your quarter-panels, rockers and resale value goodbye.
My friend, Harrison, owns the particular car I had for the day. Harrison has had several Miatas and traveled down to Louisiana to purchase this fine example of a Mazdaspeed Protegé. The car is mostly stock with the exception of several items. Some of the notable modifications are: Pope Performance intake manifold, 3-inch downpipe into full 3-inch stainless steel exhaust, Street Unit solid hot pipe, HKS pod intake filter, Ralco RZ Short shifter, Exile Autoworks shifter bushings and AWR polyurethane sway bar mounts.
Now the big question – how does it drive? It’s just plain sweet. Driving a nicer-than-average example of one may have spoiled me compared to many of them out there, but man it’s good. The throttle response is instantaneous; the turn-in is sharp, precise and confidence inspiring. The best part about driving this car is the way it pulls itself out of tight corners. It’s a fairly light car (2,843 lbs) and the weight combined with the trick limited-slip differential makes this car nearly unstoppable coming out of corners. Boost comes on quickly and smoothly thanks to the small size of the turbocharger. I know the sales brochure says it only has 170 horsepower, but the gearing of the transmission, the light overall weight and the eagerness of the motor all adds up to an experience that is much more fun and feels much faster than that horsepower number may suggest.
All in all, the Mazdaspeed Protegé is a true treat for those who appreciate what it is. Much like the punk rock that likely blasted through the speakers of these cars, the Mazdaspeed Protegé was misunderstood, not for everyone and filled with angst. The vibrant colors, bold body kit and insane turbo noises are symbolic of the time when these were new. Though most Mazdaspeed Protegé’s are rusted, busted or totaled nowadays, I’m glad there’s at least one still driving around the Midwest with quarter panels that are as rust-free as they were in 2003. I know I tend to rave about many of the cars I review on here, but this one genuinely surprised me more than I had expected. The driving experience is raw, visceral and balanced. New cars should be taking some notes.
Photos and article by Nathan Christian. Check out his Instagram account (@speedenthusiasts) to view more of his work.