These are the halcyon days of horsepower-off-the-assembly-line auto production. There are those who argue that this is environmentally stupid, wasteful, and dangerous. There are those who point out that, yes, today's cars have more horsepower than ever, yet the engines are far cleaner - and in some cases more fuel efficient - than the less powerful engines of yore.

To date, Americans have voted with their purchase orders, which is why we see a plethora of 200- and 300-horsepower SUVs, performance sedans, luxury sedans, and pocket rockets. In the midst of this sit the modern hot rods - cars, appealing greatly to young buyers, with relatively small engines tuned with computer chips and exotic exhausts. Models from Honda, Hyundai, Audi, Subaru, and the Ford Focus are the hottest of hot rods right now. That's why it's interesting to see Mazda step to the table with the first of its Mazda Performance Series cars, the 2001 Protegé MP3. That's MP3 as in downloadable music. As in MP3 player mounted in the dash - an auto industry first. As in, hey, kids, here's the car for you.

And by bringing the hot little MP3 to market for around $18,000, Mazda has carved out an interesting niche well below Audi, somewhere between Subaru's WRX and the offerings of Hyundai and Ford. It's a car that will compete well with the Honda Civic Si, Nissan's new Sentra SE-R, Hyundai's Tiburon, the Focus, and others.

Mazda has been here before - sort of - with the 1977 GLC. Here was a sporty, if underpowered, three- or five-door hatchback. It gave way to the 323, which gave way to the Protegé, and Mazda lost at least some of its sporty edge. The MP3 is here to re-download that sporty image. How? Looks and at least moderate power. They've replaced the standard 1.8-liter, 122-horsepower Protege engine with a 2.0-liter, twin-cam four. Given hotter control module, a better manifold, and Racing Beat exhaust, it produces 140 horsepower. Not a rocket, but certainly respectable.

From the outside, its profile has been lowered an inch using Osaka Bane springs; 17-inch alloy wheels with low-profile tires give it a crouched look. A chin spoiler scoops in the lead while a rear spoiler defines the trailing edge. Side skirts and round, bug-eye fog lamps add to the road/rally look.

And the colors? Laser-blue mica and vivid yellow.

Inside, it's got that requisite durable techie look, with dark charcoal fabric and silver, space age inserts on the front bucket seats, rear bench, and door panels. Add aluminum foot pedals, a carbon-fiber touch to the instrument panel with black-on-white gauges, and leather to the wheel and shifter, and you've got a car with a cutting, entry-level edge.

The rear seat really only holds two comfortably, and even then legroom is not expansive. Up front, the buckets hold well along and up the sides, even if they seem a bit soft at the seat.

Of course, given the badging of the car, the interior highlight has to be the 280-watt Kenwood audio system with CD and MP3 players. It's a four-channel system with two 6x9-inch, three-way speakers on the rear deck, 5x7-inch two-speakers in each front door, and, pulsing in the trunk, a 10-inch 100-watt subwoofer. Can you say KABOOM, KABOOOOOM?

At 140 horsepower, there are those who will find the MP3 underpowered for its class. I doubt that Mazda (through future models or options) or tuners (through the aftermarket) will let that deficiency linger for long. Power is transferred through a five-speed manual transmission that has crisp, short throws.

The suspension features standard dual stabilizer bars with, up front, struts, offset dampers and coil springs and, in the rear, twin link independent with struts and lower control arms, dampers and coil springs.

Overall handling is sharp, with firm rear-to-front hold when braking. Cornering produced just a hint of body roll. I was troubled only by a hint of torque steer in early, rapid cceleration. I ope this doesn't become a problem as horsepower is increased.

Mazda is making an entry into what is a hot market (can Miata and 626 MP3 versions be far behind?) and the MP3 has set its sights squarely on a growing, dynamic chunk of the market. Mazda plans to manufacture only 1,500 MP3s this year, but it is a fine, basic start.