Home » The 2001 Mazda Protege MP3 Is a Forgotten Sport-Compact Legend

The 2001 Mazda Protege MP3 Is a Forgotten Sport-Compact Legend

Mazda Protege Mp3 Ts
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There are fewer cars out there that are more quintessential to the late ‘90s and early ‘00s than sport compacts. Helped along by the debut of The Fast and the Furious in 2001, a good variety of brands were keen on cashing in on the craze with sportier trims of any applicably sized vehicle in their lineups. Among the best was a modest offering from Mazda, which I bet you either haven’t heard of, or at least haven’t thought of in a long time: The Protege MP3.

This sporty iteration of the Hiroshima brand’s little four-door only lasted a year, but it was properly cool. Thanks to some passionate folks at Mazda USA, and a handful of aftermarket institutions offering up the hotrod treatment, it was not only a hit, it also paved the way for its more powerful replacement: The Mazdaspeed Protege.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

Here’s the story of Mazda’s largely-forgotten-yet-supremely-cool sport compact.

2001 Mazda Protege Mp3
Mazda

The Origins Of The Protege MP3

To learn about how this hot compact Mazda came to be, I reached out to James Jordan, former Merchandising Manager for Mazda North American Operations’ Western Region. His job was to plan and/or attend special events, as well as help dealers sell more cars. His experience really paints a picture of what was going on at the company in the late ’90s and early 2000s.

“One of the first things I got involved with was Hot Import Nights (HIN),” Jordan told me via phone interview, referring to when he moved up from a district sales manager position. He was asked by his superiors to help Mazda’s design department man a display of the Mazda Protege Turbo StreetCar Concept at HIN at San Bernardino, Calif. in 1999. “What was fascinating to me, was, it was obvious that there were Mazda enthusiasts out there who were desperate for anything Mazda-related.” 

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At the same time, Jordan and his colleagues saw in general that young folks in the tuner scene were helping Honda sell more Civics, and knew that there was enough interest out there among Mazda fans for something of their own. “Someone in product planning said ‘let’s build a limited number of Proteges with a very similar aggressive styling package to the StreetCar Protege, it’ll be the first car to have an MP3 player in it, and we’ll just see what happens.’”

2001 Mazda Protege MP3
Mazda

Fast forward to a pivotal product planning meeting that Jordan was invited to sit in on when Mazda was discussing the viability of producing the Protege MP3. A lot of people were against it, and at least 500 of the cars needed to be built to make it economically worthwhile. “The numbers were coming in from all the [MNAO] regions, and I was keeping track of all them on a piece of paper. Only 150 were ordered.” Things weren’t looking great, but Jordan knew this car would sell, so he strongly recommended that his colleagues at the Western Region put in for the remaining 350. They did, it got built, and the rest is history. By the end of its run, 1,500 Protege MP3s were built and sold.

And what timing: The Fast and the Furious came out while units were hitting dealership lots. “By the time the actual car came around, all of a sudden the whole tuner thing was very hot, but I think the Western Region only ever got the original 350 that we committed to,” he said with a chuckle. 

“But for me, I was just happy that the car got built, which led to the Mazdaspeed Protege and a lot of good stuff following. In my 26-year career at Mazda, that was a really fun moment.”

We chatted more about the culture at Mazda during the era, which I’ll save for another blog someday. But man, talk about figuring out the enthusiast market, zeroing in on what it’d truly dig, and getting the timing incredibly right. Thankfully, it ended up being a solid overall car, too.

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Mp3 Specs Graf
This is a crop-in on the Mazda spec sheet. Click to view the full document.
Mp3 Specs
This is a crop-in on the Mazda spec sheet. Click to view the full document.

It Was Well-Equipped

The Protege MP3 easily won over enthusiasts with its spoiler, Racing Hart 17-inch wheels, sporty body kit, and 17-inch wheels. Then, there was perhaps its most on-brand feature for the era: an MP3-ready, 280-watt stereo by Kenwood.

Remember when MP3s were still new and fascinating? Mazda was pretty smart here: Why not let the youths know that this hot compact enables them to crank their Limp Bizkit, Ja Rule, and Saliva files with ease … by making it the car’s namesake. It seems silly by modern standards, but this kind of audio tech was still quite fascinating in 2001.

But looks and dispensing decibels weren’t its only qualities—the Protege MP3 was amply sporty, too.

Chassis-wise, the MP3 got stiffer springs and anti-roll bars from aftermarket company Racing Beat, plus upgraded dampers by Tokico to match. To make the most of its enthusiastic handling, 205/45/17 Dunlop summer tires were mounted up. Mazda then tuned the ECU to produce a few more horses over the non-MP3 Protege, and gave the interior slightly sportier seats and pedals. Finally, like sportier iterations of the NB Miata, a thicker Nardi steering wheel was bolted up.

Mazda Protege Mp3 4
Mazda

People Liked It

A re-tuned ECU gave the car’s 2.0-liter, FS-DE four-cylinder engine 140 horsepower and 142 lb-ft of torque, up about 10 each when compared to the non-MP3’s 2.0. That gave the 2,725-pound ‘Ge the ability to hit 60 mph in just over eight seconds, which was respectable for something non-turbo back in the early aughts. Heck, it’s comparable to what its Honda Civic Si contemporary could lay down, which is way more canonized among enthusiasts.

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The MP3 was generally very well received by the press and consumers, and among the fans was 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,” reviewer Aaron Robinson wrote. “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.”

2001 Mazda Protege MP3
Mazda

It Paved The Way

Of the 1,500 MP3s that Mazda produced for 2001, 1,000 were in Laser Blue and 500 in Vivid Yellow — two great colors that I bet anyone would appreciate seeing roll down the road today in a vast, bland sea of black, white, and silver.

1,500 units isn’t much in the grand scheme of things, however it’s important to point out that it paved the way for the Mazdaspeed Protege the following year—a turbocharged take on the MP3 formula that received a lot more fanfare. Both were the right cars at the absolute right time. Don’t worry, I’ll whip up a blog on the latter another day.

When I think of the Mazda Protege MP3, I can’t help but get a little misty-eyed and nostalgic for the era of Zoom Zoom and Mazdaspeed. There’s no doubt that Mazda still knows how to produce fun stuff—the ND2 Miata is one of the best cars I’ve ever driven—but I miss when the brand really took fun-to-drive engineering deeply to heart, and was quirkier and more inclined to cater towards the tuner and performance end of the enthusiast market.

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ADDvanced
ADDvanced
1 month ago

That chassis drives really, really, really well.

The downside is they rusted out SO BAD. Literally was driving one when the rear shock towers ‘ceased to be’. Honestly I feel like their ability to rust out is almost more impressive than anything else about this chassis. It looked good, drove great, and rusted faster than anything else.

Mike G.
Mike G.
1 month ago

This car has a special place in my heart. Not because I owned one, but because it planted the seed that ultimately got me into a 2003 Mazdaspeed Protege (one of 550 sold in Spicy Orange).

When I got my first job out of college I desperately wanted a 2000 Honda Civic Si, but I didn’t land a full-time job until the fall and the Civic Si was discontinued as Honda was rolling out a new generation of Civic. So I ended up in a 2001 VW GTI 1.8T.

I enjoyed the GTI, and even used it to get a start in recreational Autocross, but it was problematic and after a short while I wasn’t in love with it.

I saw the MP3 come out, I lusted for it but was stuck with my new GTI and as a new-to-the-workforce employee couldn’t afford to dump it so quickly. So I waited.

Then I saw the ads for the MazdaSpeed Protege (MSP), more power, a color I loved, reasonably priced, I had to have it. Nearly 2-years to the day after receiving my Rave Green GTI I traded it in for a Spicy Orange MSP. I continued to expand my Autocross experience and even took it to a Track Day at Gingerman. I had a blast with that car, but I racked up 76,000 miles in just three years and had taken a new job where I wasn’t daily driving, so I sold it to an even younger enthusiast and bid it farewell.

I followed it later with an NC MX-5 and eventually a MazdaSpeed 3. I did eventually get my Civic Si, but had a lot of fun Mazda’s before it.

Jacob Rippey
Jacob Rippey
1 month ago

I had one aunt with a bright yellow Protégé 5 and one with a NC Miata. Both were manuals. Both jumpstarted my love for Mazdas, and at this point, I’ve owned 3.

Roger
Roger
1 month ago

The graphic brought back memories – I had a Rio PMP300 MP3 player in 1999. It could hold about 8-10 songs depending on the kbit/s.

Damn I was cool.

Lockleaf
Lockleaf
1 month ago

I had a P5 for a number of years, in the stereotypical of that model yellow. Lowered it on a set of Teins and put a set of the MP3 Racing Harts on it. The car got demolished while it was parked on the side of the road, but I still have those rims laying around somewhere. It was a great car. I think about buying another periodically as a beater.

No Kids, Just Bikes
No Kids, Just Bikes
1 month ago

I was a CompSci major in college when this came out. I remember liking the idea of the car, but REALLY thought the mp3 moniker was stupid. But it did make me think of other possibilities: Civic FLAC, Corolla WAV, Daytona JPEG. Are there other cars with filetypes as part of their names?

Saul Goodman
Saul Goodman
1 month ago

I feel like “Zip” would be great for another sporty car.

Lockleaf
Lockleaf
1 month ago

While cheesy for sure I’ve always believed it was a double entendre. It was also the 3rd generation of the use of the name Mazda Protege. Mazda Protege 3rd. MP3. Maybe that is just serendipity.

Rad Barchetta
Rad Barchetta
1 month ago

YES

Toyota has/had an XLS trim level. For all you spreadsheet nerds.

Also, while not a filetype, Honda has a car reminiscent of the shortlived Jaz drive.

Box Rocket
Box Rocket
1 month ago

.zip would have to be a sporty wagon.

No Kids, Just Bikes
No Kids, Just Bikes
1 month ago

No mention of the ‘pagoda’ style rear wing? Wasn’t it only on the MP3?

Mike G.
Mike G.
1 month ago

The first batch of MazdaSpeed Protege’s (Orange and Black ones) had the same spoiler, but the second batch had a different spoiler (Yellow and Gray ones).

Last edited 1 month ago by Mike G.
Gary Lynch
Gary Lynch
1 month ago

Even and old Boomer like me remembers those days quite fondly. Mainly because I was a lover of small cars to begin with. Owning several Miatas I git very familiar with the Racing Beat catalog. Good times.

But by far my favorite Protoge was the Protoge5.

WaitWaitOkNow
WaitWaitOkNow
1 month ago
Reply to  Gary Lynch

Loved my 2003.5 P5. The blue was amazing, as was the subwoofer. I bought and sold it between its 10th and 12th birthdays, it moved me cross-country and finally met its demise on the streets of Manhattan as an unloved runabout with a friend of mine. It was a near equivalent to my Integra LS it replaced, just not as zippy.

Last edited 1 month ago by WaitWaitOkNow
Otter
Otter
1 month ago
Reply to  WaitWaitOkNow

I went from a 1987 Integra five-door to (briefly) a 1996 Civic coupe to a 2002 P5. Now I have both a coupe and a wagon because I just can’t do without an indoor pickup truck.

changedmynameasIworkinadealershipandsomeofourbrandsarentgreat
changedmynameasIworkinadealershipandsomeofourbrandsarentgreat
1 month ago

I really like BJII Mazda 323s. I’ve had two, a red 2002 manual 1.6 Astina hatch and later bought as a cheapie, a maroon 2002 manual 1.8 protege sedan. Aside from (only very) slight crashy suspension and only a drivers airbag in the first one, the perfect everyday car from a performance, practicality and ergonomics standpoint. Ditch the spoiler and an MP3 sounds great to me.

Piston Slap Yo Mama
Piston Slap Yo Mama
1 month ago

It was quite noteworthy for all of the I.T. and technically inclined people that finally a car was on the market that could play our library of mp3’s. A friend had an Aiwa headunit that could “play” mp3 files though it failed to show more than eight characters on the display and navigating folder structures was borderline impossible. That was also before file tagging had been fully standardized so a lot of files could only be read by their file name. Mazda really leaned into something noteworthy with this car.

Jb996
Jb996
1 month ago

Right. Those early mp3 players were terrible, weren’t they?
Now that you’ve reminded me, I’m going to have nightmares about trying to navigate through files on those.

Piston Slap Yo Mama
Piston Slap Yo Mama
10 days ago
Reply to  Jb996

And they often added a ~ before the file name leaving you with just 7 characters to identify your artist-album-track name.

Faloopa Jones
Faloopa Jones
10 days ago

My solution was a tape adapter from the factory head unit in my 94 Tempo to a knock-off Discman that could play MP3 CDs. I could fit multiple albums on a single disc and that was great, but the skip protection didn’t do much for MP3 discs.

CC
CC
1 month ago

I had a 2003 MSP and loved the car. Its steering was absolutely sublime. Great handling car. They were truly a car in search of an engine.

Ariel E Jones
Ariel E Jones
1 month ago

“Sport Compact Legend”? Eh, I dont know about that. If noone remembers them, how can they be a legend? I do remember them and remember thinking that they were OK. I think Mazda did a good job of taking a decent platform and giving it a comprehensive once over to make for an overall more special car for a modest upcharge. All that said, with 1500 produced, I couldn’t even say if I ever saw one in the tin.
This, of course, was an Era when every manufacturer was trying to get in on that sweet sweet sport compact money. We were awash in Ford ZX2s and Neon Srt4s, and Sis and the list goes on. Who knew at the time that the darling of the aftermarket scene would go from the cheap to buy Honda Civic to a $60k Jeep Wrangler?

AlfaWhiz
AlfaWhiz
1 month ago

Indeed Mazda was right on time with their MP3, right as CD-ROM popularity was fading.

Trecoolx
Trecoolx
1 month ago

These pics make the MP3 look like a smaller, sharper first-gen Mazda6 that would come out the following year. It remains a looker!

Slow Joe Crow
Slow Joe Crow
1 month ago

I definitely remember them, but my mental image is a yellow hatchback. I never drove that generation but Mom’s 91 was a hoot to drive. I have a Mazda now but the CX-5 is more a grown up car than the Protégé ever was. I also remember early oughts Crutchfield catalogs had all sorts hard drive and flash devices for cars, remember the Music Keg?

JerryLH3
JerryLH3
1 month ago
Reply to  Slow Joe Crow

If you’re thinking of a yellow hatchback, you’re thinking of the Mazda Protégé 5.

OttosPhotos
OttosPhotos
1 month ago

Used to see these back in the days when the import scene was hot, and I’d go to all the import car shows.

I remember thinking “Whoa a car that can play MP3s, sweet!”. Mazda could have come up with a better name.

Shooting Brake
Shooting Brake
1 month ago

Love seeing these get some attention, always wanted one, or a MZSD Protégé, but I always liked both pretty equally. And I miss this version of Mazda a lot too.

i3 Driving Indicator Fetishist
i3 Driving Indicator Fetishist
1 month ago

This brings back all the memories! I had a brand new blue 5MT 2002 Protege5 back then, such a fun little car!! Wasn’t fast but handled great, light and tossable, a classic case of “drive a slow car fast”.

The Dude
The Dude
1 month ago

I had a roommate in the early 2000s that had a Protege. Not the MP3 version but I’m pretty sure a base model. It was pretty nice, had good materials, and looked good. Then I got to drive it and I was shocked at how slow it was.

I could see why a high performance version would be enticing.

Logan King
Logan King
1 month ago

“Heck, it’s comparable to what its Honda Civic Si contemporary could lay down, which is way more canonized among enthusiasts.”

lol *that* one sure isn’t.

I do see a couple of these (rather, one of these and one Mazdaspeed) around me fairly often, and they are still pretty sharp looking cars.

Last edited 1 month ago by Logan King
Cerberus
Cerberus
1 month ago

I thought these were cool when they came out, but they were surprisingly slow, especially with a turbo. With rust proofing that wouldn’t have been state of the art for the bottom end cars of the malaise era, Proteges all but disappeared within a short time. I should have known better before buying a 3 in ’05 as there were plenty of Proteges already showing rot like they were 20 years old and had been used to pull boats out of salt water. The “Zoom Zoom” 3 was disappointing to drive, too, but maybe the Protege was on a whole other level for engagement, IDK.

Derj
Derj
1 month ago

The first car I ever bought was a MT 2002 P5; I’d been saving up for years to get one. My grandpa taught me how to drive at a shockingly young age on his Cosmo, and really instilled a love for the Mazda brand in me.
What an absolute piece of shit that P5 was. It was fun to drive, but my God, the entire Protege line was trash on wheels. Like literally every other Protege on the road, mine was essentially just a pile of rust with a bucket of paint quickly dumped over top. I’m pretty sure they came pre-rusted from the factory. The rear quarter panels were so rusted after about 5 or 6 years that the bumper cover just fell off while I was driving one day; I had to jury rig an attachment by welding a long plate to the frame and running a bolt through the bumper cover. It ate headlight bulbs like it was a friggin’ coked-out Cookie Monster who didn’t care what he ate, as long as he was constantly shoveling *something* into his mouth. The engine started sputtering and running rough pretty early on, and I couldn’t find a mechanic who was able to figure out why. It needed a new transmission at around 85000 km. When the electrical system died in traffic at around 105000km, I pushed it off to the side of the road, took my stuff out of the back seat, removed the license plate, left the keys in the front cupholder and walked away, doors unlocked. I called the Kidney Foundation, gave them the address and wished them godspeed.
I’ve made it my mission over the past 15 years or so to dissuade every person I can from EVER buying a Mazda.

So please, spare me the nostalgic fawning over the “Zoom Zoom” era ????

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
1 month ago
Reply to  Derj

Rust problems varied by region. It was a complete non issue where snow and salt aren’t a thing.

The paint WAS an issue as it was on a lot of other cars of the era.

We had a DOHC Protoge’. It was a damn fun car! I even used the peeling paint as a selling point.

Last edited 1 month ago by Cheap Bastard
Greg
Greg
1 month ago
Reply to  Cheap Bastard

Agreed – I owned a 2002 5-speed from new for 15 years here in Australia. NO RUST when I finally parted with it because kids/life. The one car I regret selling to this day, an absolute blast to drive.

Ours were also Japan-built, were US versions locally/Mexico built with different steel perhaps? Not sure.

changedmynameasIworkinadealershipandsomeofourbrandsarentgreat
changedmynameasIworkinadealershipandsomeofourbrandsarentgreat
1 month ago
Reply to  Cheap Bastard

Me too. I’m in Aus and never had an issue with rust on the two I had nor any of the other 17 vehicles I’ve owned. The second 323 I bought of grays, had 223000kms and was about 19 years old and body was great nick inc paint. I do hear the complaint though that japanese cars do rust on british sites too so maybe we are just lucky we dont need to salt our roads

Taxi maniac
Taxi maniac
1 month ago
Reply to  Derj

I always wanted a protégé as I always read they were a blast to drive. My zx2 escort never was all that fun.

But I didn’t know the protégé rotted out that bad. I never noticed that in pa or new england.

But I got a 2010 fusion were the rockers went from rust bubbles to completely disappearing in front of the rear wheels in about 9 months while living near the beach in new england now. I couldn’t believe how quick it’s dissappearing last time I thoroughly inspected it

Jb996
Jb996
1 month ago
Reply to  Derj

Okay, but past the early 2000s, Mazda is pretty good. I daily a 2014 Mazda 3 (manual), which is fun to drive, has required no repairs, body is in great shape, and it has 180k miles. I recommend Mazdas quite often.

IanGTCS
IanGTCS
1 month ago

I owned a 2002 protege5 for 5 years. Great handling car. Loved it and kind of wish I’d kept it for winter duty when I bought my mustang. Mine was fairly rust free which is amazing considering how badly they did in these parts.

If I’m remembering right those wheels were quite heavy.

StraightSixSymphony
StraightSixSymphony
1 month ago
Reply to  IanGTCS

I miss my P5. Inexperienced buyer at the time so I bought a poorly kept example for way too much. Southwest car so no rust. Fun, and looked great in yellow. I tell myself I’ll buy another some day.. but kinda doubt it.

Pretty cool Mazda stuck on some Racing Beat parts on the MP3. Are there more modern examples of aftermarket parts being put on by the manufacturer?

Carbon Fiber Sasquatch
Carbon Fiber Sasquatch
1 month ago

I know we rag on the loss of the cheap sport compact, but Mazda still has something like this in their stable. You can get a stick Mazda 3 hatch with 191 hp for around $32k which is $15k under the industry average according to Cox Automotive.

A soul red hatch with a stick is hard to pass up if I were shopping for new car

Ben Hutcheson
Ben Hutcheson
1 month ago

Eh, sort of. There’s a lot more to the formula than just being the right shape and having some horsepower.

I owned a Protege5 (not the performance model, sadly) with a stick, and it was an absolute riot. Even without the suspension tweaks from the MP3 and Mazdaspeed, the chassis tuning came down pretty solidly on the side of “fun”. On low-traction surfaces it was downright tail-happy.

I also owned a 2014 Soul Red Mazda3 hatch, also with a stick, and it was mildly entertaining at best. It was overall much more grown-up and respectable. To be sure, it was a better car, and it was still a good drive, but it wasn’t anywhere near the same kind of fun. I haven’t driven the latest generation, but everything I’ve read and the other Mazdas I’ve driven since tells me it’s probably moved even further in that same direction. It’s sporty for a compact by today’s standards, but only because most of the competition has moved even further towards being boring (or stopped existing altogether).

Jb996
Jb996
1 month ago
Reply to  Ben Hutcheson

Well, your right, but…
On my 2014 Mazda 3 Sedan, with decent tires, and aftermarket wheels, (with a slightly different offset that reduces the scrub radius), it feels alot more nimble.
Add in an ECU tune, which I don’t think added any HPs, and I didn’t expect it to, but it did increase the power in the middle of the band, especially around 3000rpm, where the stock tune had a big hole in power.
And it’s a lot of fun!
And respectable.

It’s obviously not a sports car, and never will be. But it’s a small car with a manual, with engaging driving.
It’s definitely not a Corolla/toaster-appliance, which is about all we can hope for.

Mark Tucker
Mark Tucker
1 month ago

A 2002 five-speed Protege DX was the only car I ever bought new. Fantastic car, even without the MP3 treatment. In fact, the DX was a bit of a sleeper: in 2002 they made the FS-DE standard across the line, which gave the DX a 25 horsepower bump. It also got 15 inch wheels instead of 14. (But still no tach…) It all made for a wonderful little driver’s car, that I stupidly traded in on an automatic Ford Focus because I let LA traffic get to me. Wish I had kept it.

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