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Mazda RX-8 2003 Review

It's the RX-8, which gives new heart and soul to a carmaker that lost its way – and nearly its future – in the 1990s.

The RX-8 has the rotary heart and the sports car soul that proves Mazda is on track, and does it in a far more visible – and outrageous – way than the baby Mazda2 and family-focused Mazda6.

The four-door sedans have a sporty look and feel and have sold well against tough rivals, but the RX-8 lifts the action to a new level.

It has also introduced the world to a crossover concept that is a combination of hard-edged sports car and four-seat/four-door practicality.

Mazda could have taken the easy way with a revival of an RX-7 and tweaked its old turbo rotary motor.

But instead it went for a mechanical package that's efficient, new-age and still pretty potent.

Its latest Rensis rotary, without a turbo, gives 177kW of power and 211Nm of torque, unless you go for the auto when power falls to 141kW.

The engine gives its best at a screaming 8200 revs, far beyond the reach of any other real-world road motor, and that provides a lot of the car's character.

But it also has looks that stand out in traffic, a cabin that's big enough for four adults, and doors that open the whole side of the car.

The mechanical package is impressive, with an engine set back and low for good handling, fully independent suspension, big anti-skid brakes and electronic stability control that's up with the best.

There's also CD sound, cruise control, alloy wheels, electric assists and all the rest.

And the RX-8 is well-priced, and not just because the $56,170 bottom line is about $20,000 less than the last of the old RX-7s.

It's also a little cheaper than the two-people Nissan 350Z and well under the latest open-air BMW Z4.

There is also a luxury pack, with leather trim, xenon headlamps, a Bose sound system, electric seats and other trinkets. This lifts the price to $62,610 for the six-speed manual and $63,280 for the auto.

We were happy when we first drove the RX-8 because the car proved engineers were back in charge at Mazda.

They got the car they and RX-8 buyers wanted, with only minor meddling from the sales department and stylists.

They've also delivered a car that's surprisingly close to the motor show concept, including the clamshell doors, which is a reflection of a carmaker that knows where it's going and is committed to bold calls.

On the road

We could live with an RX-8. No problem. It's a daily driver that makes plenty of sense, even if you only have to duck down to the shops or face Punt Rd traffic on a rainy Friday in July.

It coaxes you into having fun, even if it's only a snap-quick gearshift, a blat to 9000 revs in first or a taut turn at the end of the street.

When you have time and space to really get going, the RX-8 is one of the best drives around.

It's quick and fluid, responsive and enjoyable, and the engine and gearbox are a perfect match.

Pop the cork on a summer Sunday and you'll really understand what the engineers have been doing at Mazda and why the rotary engine makes so much sense.

You have to re-think a few things because it gets going only at 5000 revs, when many motors are dying, and it loves to run all the way to the 9000 redline.

So you sometimes have to be down the gears to keep it honking.

But it doesn't take long to need the next, and the next, and so on.

The six-speed manual is a sweet shift with a short, positive change.

The brakes are terrific, with great bite and feel, and you'd need a racetrack to make them fade.

And we were most impressed by the suspension and how it works in all conditions. It doesn't feel as tight as a 350Z, or as firm as the Z4, but it really grips and lets you know what's happening down at the Bridgestone rubber.

It is surprisingly compliant and smooth over any surface, and even soaks up mid-corner lumps without bumping or wobbling.

Fuel consumption was better than expected in city commuting, and nothing like the V8-style gargling of the old turbo RX-7s.

But we suspect it would dip sharply on special Sunday mornings.

There is a lot more to talk about and like, including the brilliant electrically assisted steering, the small "eyebrows¿ on top of each wheel, the sound system, and even the user-friendly design of the dash.

We also enjoyed the car's comfort and have to back away from doubts about the front seats. They were great in the leather test car.

We also tried the back seat and found plenty of space, surprising visibility and enough legroom.

But the boot is nowhere near big enough for four people, and it would get worse with the spare wheel.

The design work on the doors could have been better. They look too clunky. Still, they work and access is good.

Also, just like the Honda Accord Euro and the Lexus RX330, we didn't like the mis-matched xenon-halogen headlamps.

And the car is tough to park, with a pinched view out the back.

We also wonder if Mazda has tried too hard with the RX-8.

It is a brilliant car, and a lot of people will love the combination of selfish driving fun and family space, but it has created a car that's very different in its styling and execution.

On balance, it's a car that's going to take time to fit in. Or to let others catch up.

We love the way it drives, and we love the song of the rotary engine, and it could easily emerge as the best car of 2003.

But it doesn't quite clear the bar for a five-star rating, though it would get nine out of 10.

In case you are wondering, and many people will be, it doesn't have the hard edge or instant hit of the 350Z and it cannot match the top-down fun of the Z4.

But unless things change when we get them side by side next month, it is looking a better choice for people who need more than just a Sunday fun car in the garage.

The RX-8 proves you really can have the best of both worlds and not pay a fortune to get it.

It's also proof that the Mazda we have known, loved and respected is finally back doing what it does best – making top cars.

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(base) 1.3L, PULP, 6 SP MAN $3,700 – 6,050 2003 Mazda RX-8 2003 (base) Pricing and Specs
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