Weighing in at just 2,725 pounds, we have the Mazda MP3, a factory-built tuner based on the Protegé platform. Mazda tweaked the Protegé's suspension, bringing you Tokico shocks and larger front and rear sway bars courtesy of Racing Beat for a tighter chassis and zippier handling. Racing Beat also upgraded the exhaust and now, the MP3 sports a satisfyingly throaty Racing Beat stainless steel after-cat.
One of the vehicle's more unique aspects is the 280-watt Kenwood MP3 player, which Mazda is touting as the first ever player of its kind to come as an OE component. It plays both CDs and MP3-encoded CD-Rs (see sidebar). To complement this component, Mazda has also mounted a 100-Watt 10-inch subwoofer in the trunk.
In the other corner, we have the island of Hawaii, measuring in at 4,028 square miles. Hawaii is famous all over the world for its incredible sunsets, baby-faced sea turtles, and five-star resorts (and yummy chocolate-covered macadamia nuts.-SC; And girls.-CHU). Volcanoes, blue oceans, flowers, warm breezes these are mods the aftermarket hasn't even begun to touch yet. Hawaii also boasts miles of twisty, loping roads, perfect for putting the MP3 to the test. So, without further ado, let the bloody free-for-all begin.
Round One: Exterior
The MP3 comes out swinging and scores a couple easy points for styling. The 17-inch Racing Harts and low-profile Dunlop tires are damn sexy, and when the MP3 is in motion they lend the vehicle a particularly light and nimble look. The rear spoiler and body kit are just enough to snap the Protegé frame free of its sanitary, Third-grade school teacher, company car looks. However, while Mazda covers all the textbook styling basics, and the MP3 is aesthetically adequate in a quasi-aggressive kind of way, the car still cries out for more balls-out mods something more extreme than safe. Hawaii, meanwhile, takes an early beating on account of its West Coast's charred lava moon landscape but manages to regain some ground after revealing its lush, plant-friendly Eastern side.
Round Two: Interior
The materialization of a seemingly endless supply of Mai Tais wins Hawaii some favor with the judges. However, the ploy is no match for the Mazda Kenwood CD/MP3 player. Mazda wins our hearts for taking a risk and supporting relatively young MP3 technology although we didn't actually get to play any MP3s on the system because our test vehicle didn't come with any CD-Rs. Unfortunately, we were also unable to put the rest of the sound system to the test, as the crap Enya CD that Mazda provided wasn't ideal for putting the subwoofer through its paces.
Round Three: Performance The short throw shifter and European-spec gearing ratio make running through the gears a precise and responsive pleasure, although the MP3 shows major vulnerability when it comes to horsepower. While the upgraded suspension builds a warm fuzzy feeling with tight and responsive handling, it all comes unglued when you gun the motor and begin to grow old while the needle takes its time wandering over to the right side of speedometer. The engine finds itself clearly overmatched by the Protegé heft. In the meantime, Hawaii (taking advantage of the MP3's poor reaction time) breaks out the drunken boxing and draws blood.
The Winner: Super Street Hawaii begins to show signs of tiring as 12-dollar hamburgers and overpriced macadamia nuts begin to take their toll. The island starts to topple, but on its way down, sneaks in a viscous jab to the MP3, revealing a glaring weakness on Mazda's part: a production run of only 1,500. So, regardless of what you think of the MP3's chances are, you'll never be able to buy one. In a disappointing finish, the MP3 and Hawaii fall onto the mat simultaneously, declare they just want to be friends, and embrace.
In retrospect, perhaps the most important issue at hand is not so much the MP3, which is a nice (albeit conservative) effort as an OE showroom tuner (despite being disappointingly underpowered), but rather what the MP3 bodes for the future. If this launch goes favorably for Mazda, we may be seeing similar, more enticing efforts with this and other platforms in the future (and perhaps on a larger scale). (Maybe with engine packages more suited for spirited driving than boiling water.-MD).