NEW YORK – When Mazda Motor Corp. redesigned its compact Protege model for 2003, renaming the car the Mazda3, it did so with a performance version very much in mind, says a company official.

Also predetermined was the choice of the 5-door, rather than the sedan or wagon, to be the sole Mazda3 variant to wear the Mazdaspeed moniker, a result of customer clamor during the heyday of its Mazdaspeed Protege predecessor, offered only as a 4-door sedan.

“We got a lot of requests for a Mazdaspeed Protege 5,” Robert Davis, Mazda North American Operations senior vice president-product development and quality, says of buyer feedback during the Mazdaspeed Protege sedan’s limited run in 2003.

“(And) the demographic and the target customer for the Mazdaspeed3 matches what we already have with the Mazda3 5-door,” Davis says of the decision to make the Mazda3 hatchback the sole recipient of the turbocharged engine.

“Because we knew we were going in with a Mazdaspeed up front (during the development of the current Mazda3), we built the 5-door with enough structural rigidity to be able to handle (a turbocharged engine),” he adds. “I couldn’t do that with the Protege 5.”

Although designed from the get-go to withstand the estimated 250-plus hp and 280 lb.-ft. (380 Nm) of torque from Mazda’s 2.3L DISI inline turbocharged 4-cyl., the Mazda3’s frame did receive some local reinforcements to stiffen the vehicle for the high-output engine. The auto maker says it employs a reinforced front cowl member, joined directly to a plate in the top section of the front shock mount to maintain proper suspension geometry.

Torsional rigidity is improved via a large closed section member that reinforces the floor tunnel, and in the Mazdaspeed3’s rear a gusset placed at the bottom end of the suspension towers prevents them from shifting inward, again preserving correct suspension geometry, the auto maker says.

Mazda also upped the spring rates of the Mazda3’s MacPherson strut front suspension and multi-link rear suspension, as well as installed larger-diameter stabilizer bars, to accommodate Mazdaspeed3’s more potent mill.

That, in combination with raising compression and rebound damping force at low and moderate piston speed, leads to 60% greater roll stiffness in the Mazdaspeed3 vs. the Mazda3, the auto maker says.

Other changes include larger diameter 4-wheel disc brakes (front vented) with standard antilock, electronic brake force distribution with brake assist and dynamic stability control. Front fenders are wider to accommodate the larger, 18-in. wheels and under-floor parts have been added to improve vehicle aerodynamics. The car also gets a roof spoiler with integrated light-emitting-diode brake light and a black interior with red stitching detail on seats, shift knob and steering wheel.

A limited-slip differential also is part of the Mazdaspeed3 package.

Powered by the same turbocharged mill used in the upcoming CX-7 cross/utility vehicle and already available in the Mazdaspeed6 (it also will share that car’s 6-speed manual transmission), the Mazdaspeed3 will be the top trim level of the Mazda3 lineup.

“There’s going to be a limited allocation,” Jim O’Sullivan, president and CEO for MNAO tells Ward’s. “I anticipate that car will be in relatively short supply. I think the build will be percentage-wise very much in the single percentile (of total Mazda3 volume).”

Last fall the turbocharged version of the Mazda6 midsize sedan, the Mazdaspeed6, went on sale in the U.S. Although O’Sullivan characterizes sales as “OK,” he says the auto maker is pleased with the numbers to date.

“We’re selling a few hundred a month. But we’re just starting to get into our stride a little bit now,” he says of Mazdaspeed6 sales thus far.

MNAO said last fall it wanted to sell 5,000 units annually of the Mazdaspeed6 in the U.S.

The front-wheel-drive Mazdaspeed3 is slated to go on sale in the U.S. in late summer/early fall. Pricing has not been released. The current Mazda3 tops out at $19,725, including destination but sans any options.

O’Sullivan says reaction to the vehicle at the recent Geneva auto show was positive. The Mazdaspeed3 is known as the Mazda3 MPS (for Mazda Performance Series) in Europe and Mazdaspeed Axela in Japan.

Davis says customers shouldn’t expect Mazdaspeed versions of the upcoming CX-7, or larger CX-9, CUVs.

– with David E. Zoia