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He Drove, She Drove

Mazda RX-8's style makes up for flaws
By Paul & Anita Lienert / Special to The Detroit News

Fans of the now-departed Mazda RX-7 should have been cheered by the arrival earlier this year of the all-new RX-8. This so-called "quad coupe" marries sports car styling with an extra set of rear-hinged doors to access the back seats.

We can't imagine anyone ever wanting to actually ride back there. But even as a two-seater, like its predecessor, the rotary-engine RX-8 is a hoot to drive.

We tested a manual-transmission model, which makes considerably more power than the automatic-equipped version. The bottom line: $31,239.

HE: At around $27,000 for the base model, Mazda's new RX-8 is a true bargain for sports car lovers. The twin-rotor Wankel engine produces a lusty 238 horsepower, if you order it with the six-speed manual gearbox, and it has an agility and poise you'd normally find only in much more expensive two-seaters. The domestic manufacturers, including Mazda's U.S. parent Ford Motor Co., don't make anything quite like it for the price. If I had to sum it up in a single sentence, I'd say the RX-8 is everything the Chrysler Crossfire wished it could be.

SHE: Yeah, but what about those guys waiting next to the car as I came out of the rest stop on Interstate 94 and then followed the RX-8 for miles? What about the guy who rolled down his window on 9 Mile to tell me what a great-looking sports car this was? Isn't that more important than horsepower? The fact that this new Mazda evokes such a strong reaction from men tells me that the styling is right on. Even though Mazda kind of overdid it on the little rotary triangle shapes all over the car, the package really works.

HE: The same week we tested the RX-8, we also had a Mini Cooper S "Works" model in the driveway, and it was a constant struggle to decide which vehicle to drive. If I had to choose one of the two cars to live in every day, it would be the Mazda. The handling is really crisp and responsive, and the suspension is just a tad harsh on really rough pavement. You'll notice it, but it won't jar your teeth loose. And those seats are superb -- some of the nicest we've sampled lately in a sports car.

SHE: I really appreciated those seats the day I put 400 miles on the RX-8, driving to and from western Michigan. But what I didn't like was the poor over-the-shoulder visibility. With those thick rear pillars blocking much of your view, you are completely dependent on your side mirrors. The RX-8 is also thirsty; I had to make three fuel stops on my 400-mile trip. More importantly, the oil light came on with only 1,500 miles on the car, and needed a quart.

HE: I never took a long drive in the RX-8, but put plenty of miles on the clock just doing short hauls around town. I noticed even after a week, I still had to hunt to find the digital speedometer readout buried within the big analog tach. Another pet peeve is the wide center console, which really cuts into leg and knee room. Speaking of room, those back seats are virtually useless -- which kind of makes the whole idea of rear doors rather pointless. I did think the red and black cabin was very cool, especially the piano-black trim.

SHE: I liked the little details, like the mesh visors and the aluminum pedals. Overall, Mazda seems to be doing some of the freshest, hippest cabins in the business. I also liked the standard safety features, which include antilock brakes, side-curtain air bags and a tire-pressure monitor. You have to pay extra to get stability control, which you really need in a high-performance rear-wheel-drive car like the RX-8.

HE: As much fun as that rotary engine is -- and it's the only one available in North America -- it has another downside in addition to mediocre fuel economy and above-average oil consumption. The torque is amazingly low compared to the horsepower -- only 159 pounds-feet on the manual-transmission model. Even the Volkswagen Beetle Turbo and the Mini Cooper S make more than that.

SHE: Never mind the nitpicking. I think the Mazda RX-8 is one of the most adorable and authentic sports cars we've driven this year. It actually lives up to that silly "zoom-zoom" advertising campaign. Happily, the RX-8 is also very civilized and easy to live with -- a great combination for the money.

Anita's rating: 4 out of 5
Likes: Trendy "quad coupe" layout sure to spark copycats. Great 48-month/50,000-mile warranty, plus free loaner and roadside assistance. Good safety features, including standard ABS and side-curtain air bags. Comfortable, supportive seats. Great stereo, Clever mesh visors.

Dislikes: Ride is harsh over uneven pavement. Lousy visibility. Too thirsty.

Paul's rating: 4 out of 5
Likes: It's everything the Crossfire wishes it could be. Very cool, distinctive styling. Sexy cockpit with handsome piano-black trim. Spunky 238-hp rotary engine. Crisp, responsive handling.

Dislikes: Unusable rear seat makes rear doors pointless. Front legroom is restricted by wide center console. Surprising lack of torque.

2004 Mazda RX-8
Type: Front-engine, rear-wheel drive, two-passenger four-door coupe
Price¹ : Base, $26,680; as tested, $31,239
Engine: 1.3-liter 2-rotor; 238-hp; 159 lb-ft torque
EPA fuel economy: 18 mpg city/24 mpg highway
12-month insurance cost²: $1,630
Key competitors: Acura RSX, Audi TT, BMW 3-series, Chrysler Crossfire, Infiniti G35, Mercedes-Benz C180 Sports Coupe, Mini Cooper S, Mitsubishi Eclipse, Nissan 350Z, Toyota Celica, Volkswagen GTI, Volkswagen New Beetle Turbo

Where built: Japan
1 Includes $520 destination charge
2 Estimated by AAA Michigan. Rates may vary depending on coverage and driving record.


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