SANTA MONICA, CA – The ’03 MazdaSpeed Protege arrives in showrooms this week as Mazda North American Operations presses its campaign to promote the brand’s performance-oriented image.

'03 MazdaSpeed Protege

Just 2,000 units will be distributed in the U.S. and Canada. Stickering for $19,980 – more than $6,600 over the base Protege’s starting price – it features Mazda’s 2.0L 16-valve 4-cyl. engine, boosted by a Garrett T25 turbocharger system.

Tuned by Callaway Inc., it delivers 170 hp and 160 ft-lb. (217 Nm) of torque at 6,000 rpm. Other collaborators include Racing Beat (suspension and exhaust), Racing Hart (wheels) and Sparco (interior).

Says Charlie Hughes, MNAO president and CEO: “The MazdaSpeed Protege was initiated by a group of Mazda engineers here in the U.S. who are hardcore enthusiasts.

“They’ve taken everything that made the MP3 an automotive-press superstar and engineered it to the next-highest level,” Hughes says, referring to Mazda’s previous tuner-style treatment of the Protege.

The auto maker ruled against slapping the MazdaSpeed label on MP3 because – while trendy-looking – it did not offer class-leading performance, Ward’s is told.

In the future, this benchmark must be achieved before any Mazda product earns the MazdaSpeed label, says Robert Davis, MNAO vice president-product development. Mazda’s goal, Davis says, is to create a sustainable performance-product niche within the brand, similar to BMW AG’s M cars.

Expect a line of MazdaSpeed performance parts, accessories and even apparel, the car maker says, “all designed to celebrate Mazda’s sports car roots.”

Further indication of MazdaSpeed’s direction rests with plans to produce a turned-out version of the all-new Mazda6.