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New car Review: 2004 Mazda RX-8

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MODEL: 2004 Mazda RX-8
ENGINE:  1.3-liter two-rotor rotary 
HORSEPOWER/TORQUE:  238 hp @ 8,500 rpm/159 lb-ft @ 5,500 rpm
TRANSMISSION:  6-speed manual
WHEELBASE:  106.3 in.
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT:  174.2 x 69.7 x 52.8 in.
TIRES:  225/46R18 

The first thing you notice about the RX-8 is its styling. It has wide wheel flares and unique "cooling vents" behind the front wheels that set it apart from all other sports coupes. While I didn't particularly like the styling, many of the young people I talked with did.

Unlike the two-door RX-7, the RX-8 is a four-door coupe, with the doors to the rear actually access panels, similar to those in the Saturn coupe. These access doors do not open unless the accompanying front door is opened, and they must be closed before the front door is closed. They do offer improved access to the rear - we used them primarily to store golf clubs, etc., because the 7.6 cubic foot trunk only holds one golf bag, and then won't hold a long driver in the bag - rear seat legroom is limited. Rear seating is comfortable with the front seat reasonably forward, probably more forward than I would like for a long drive.

But the RX-8 isn't all about styling, nor is it about rear-seat legroom. It's about that beautiful two-rotor rotary engine that seems to want to wind on forever. Where a conventional engine uses pistons that go up and down to produce power, the rotary has triangular rotors that spin inside oval housings to produce power. Horsepower is listed at 238 with the 6-speed manual transmission.

The engine is smooth all the way up to the 9,000 rpm redline, which is well beyond the redlines of "normal" engines. And there's plenty of power all the way up as well. Conveniently, there's also enough torque so that you can leave the shifter in fifth or sixth for some long stretches, even though it's rated at "just" 159 lb-ft.

. I loved the sound of the engine. It's more in the neighborhood of a Formula 1 engine sound that the mighty roar of a Viper, and that's less bothersome to the neighbors.

The shifter has nice short throws between the gears. The knob falls conveniently to the driver's hand and the shifts are easy. There were times when I had problems finding fourth and sixth gears (I felt the higher gear positions were canted to the right a slight bit). But there's enough room in the engine rpms to make small errors like that without major damage.

Instrumentation consisted of a large center-mounted tachometer with a digital speedometer inside, fuel level, water temperature and oil pressure gauges. The small digital speedometer was sometimes overlooked while driving, which led to sometimes excessive speeds. I was always surprised by how fast the RX-8 could go. Not that I didn't expect it to go fast, but it always seemed as if it was traveling 20-30 mph slower than the indicated speed.

We had the sport-tuned suspension in our tester that didn't create the harsh ride some sport suspensions do. While the ride was stiff, I didn't feel every bump in the road.

Interior styling is dramatic, another feature that appealed to the youths but not the elders. The seats are red and black leather, the steering wheel is the same combination, as is the side panel trim is also red and black. It's striking, but a bit much for older people.

On the shifter and in the headrests are triangular-shaped motifs to remind you that there's a rotary engine underneath the hood. Incidentally, under the hood there could be anything, with the massive engine cover. Also, the oil dipstick was hard to find.

The pedals are slotted aluminum - "racing style" - and there's a "dead pedal" off to the left.

Visors are equally unique. There's solid in the middle, with a mirror behind. But on the side's they're perforated. They block the sun perfectly well and offer a different perspective.

Between the two front buckets rest that slides rearward to expose two cupholders, similar to Jaguar. There's also a center-mounted armrest for the rear passengers. I liked the little drawer by the driver's left knee that's perfect for a cell phone.

Mazda's RX-8 is a worthy successor to the RX-7, and embodies the company's spirit of "Zoom-zoom." It's fun to drive without being offensive to other cars or neighbors. With a base price of $26,680 to which was added a $4,000 grand touring package (Bose sound system, power driver's seat, heated seats, Homelink, heated mirrors and Xenon headlights and fog lamps), and $520 for delivery, processing and handling, the bottom line of $31,200 is acceptable for a sports car.

2004 The Auto Page Syndicate