The cars we loved.
Often times car makers can’t keep a good thing to just one market. Collaborations between manufacturers usually allow them to tailor cars to markets where they might have been weak at on their own. I the case of Ford and Mazda, the relationship spans back to the 70’s with Mazda sourcing parts for Ford’s small Courier trucks. Today the Relationship is as strong as ever, although the two companies have divested in each other stock-wise, their product lineups of small and mid-sized cars are still tightly intertwined.
Of the small cars, the Escort/Laser/Protégé/323 is one of the world’s bestselling compacts. Ford’s marketing power and distribution network made it possible for Mazda to extend it’s otherwise small reach. In North America the Ford Escort had long been a favorite. In the early 90’s the Mazda 323 and Escort became platform mates, boosting the Escort’s build quality and reliability. The pairing produced a media star with the Escort GT and to a lesser extent the 323 GT in Canada, raking in performance kudos. The 323 would eventually become the Protégé sedan and would develop a reputation as a fun to drive and affordable car like the Escort GT before it.
The market for small inexpensive and sporty cars was growing. Nearly every major manufacturer who sold in America had their interpretation of a pocket rocket (in looks if not performance). Mazda’s were not known to the most exciting cars to look at beyond the occasional Miata or RX-7. While ground effects added instant impact, Mazda sought new ways to make it’s newly revised compact sedan stand out. To raise the Protégé’s profile with younger buyers, Mazda developed a special lifestyle version built around the then new most people MP3 music format.
Like other targeted activity or lifestyle vehicles like Volkswagen’s Jetta Trek, the new Mazda would try to connect with a very specific demographic. The tuner boys who were glorified in films like the Fast and the Furious were as passionate about the music coming from their cars as the exhaust notes. Recognizing this trend, the Protégé MP3 would have a first of its kind Kenwood stereo that played MP3 files from its CD player. In addition to having 380 watts of power, the car was fitted with custom wheels 17′ from Racing Heart, Racing Beat exhaust and a Nardi Steering wheel. The MP3 was a half-inch lower than other Protégé and featured Tokico dampers.
The handling was impressive, although the 140hp engine was not the most powerful. Yet it was 5 hp more powerful than a Protege ES. At 8.7 seconds to 60 mph, the MP3 was about average in straight line performance, but the handling (and trick stereo) put it a cut above most of the Civics and Cavaliers of the day. The MP3 lasted one model year and was replaced by the rare Mazdaspeed Protege in 2003 as the sportiest model. It’s turbocharged 170 hp engine addressed the biggest shortcoming of the MP3 and instantly became an enthusiast favorite. The Protégé line would become more varied with the sporty and practical Protege5 wagons as the enthusiast model. The Mazda 3 would replace the Protégé line altogether by 2004.
Other parts of the world where not without their sporty versions of the car. Often called the Laser in Asia, it mirrored the Escort and at times the Mazda 323 in general appearance. The most desirable versions of the car are more likely to be referred to by their platform code names than generation. Built as sedans and hatches, the KN/KQ models reference cars from 1999-2004, although in some places they were sold as late as 2006. Laser’s as sport hatches were usually SR or SR2 models. The most attractive version was the Ford Laser Lynx RS, usually sold in places like Singapore, Vietnam and Taiwan.
The name recalls some of the nomenclature Ford used on its sporty Mercury cars in America during the 80’s. Like the Protégé,
the Laser used a 2.0L inline four-cylinder DOHC 16 valve engine. Most cars were sold with the optional four-speed automatic, but a few were equipped with a five speed manual. Power ranged from 135 to 140hp. The Ford Laser in Lynx RS trim may have been the most attractive variation of all the small sedans that came from the Ford/Mazda partnership.
Like the MP3 or Mazdaspeed Protégé, the Lynx RS had attractive ground effects. From the rear, it reflects styling trends from the Fusion while the front looked very Contour SVT and Focus like. The interior was a mirror copy of the MP3/Mazdaspeed cars with whiteout gauges and metallic colored dash trim bits. Sometime after 2006, the Laser was replaced by the Focus, as Ford was narrowing in on the ideal of a single world car for it’s popular compact.