Mazda RX-8

Amazing, all-round Wankel winner

Model: Mazda RX-8 Hi-Power;
Price: £22,000 (on sale October);
Engine: 1,308cc rotary, two rotors, no valves, 231bhp at 8,200rpm;
Transmission: Six-speed gearbox, rear-wheel drive;
Performance: 146mph, 0-60 in 6.4sec, 24.8mpg (official average);
CO2: 284g/km.

There is no other car quite like the Mazda RX-8. It has the singular body style to go with its singular engine, and it brings a whole new slant to the notion of a sporty GT coupé.

Its Audi arch-rival is a four-seater, but only just. The new Nissan 350Z and Chrysler Crossfire do not even attempt that feat. In the Mazda, though, we find not just a pair of habitable rear chairs but also dedicated doors through which to reach them. Mazda calls them "freestyle" doors; they are short and hinged on their rear edges, and have no pillar ahead of them against which to close.

Instead, they latch at the top and bottom of their front edges, to form the "pillars" against which the long front doors then shut. It is an inspired piece of packaging, but another piece of RX-8 is arguably even more inspired: its rotary engine.

This smooth-spinning, piston-less engine design, invented by German engineer Felix Wankel, was first used in an NSU sports car. It gained equal adulation and notoriety powering NSU's fabulous but flawed Ro80 saloon of 1967, a futuristic car whose warranty claims sunk its maker, but Mazda, which has made rotary-engined cars since 1967's Cosmo Sport 110S, rendered it reliable.

But Mazda could not solve the fuel thirst and noxious emissions, which is why the RX-7, descendant of a sports coupé line begun in the 1970s, was denied to Europe after 1997 although buyers on the Japanese home market could purchase one until last year.

Now, the RX-8's new "RENESIS" (Rotary Engine Genesis) engine has fixed the emissions and economy issues well enough to satisfy EC pollution police, and we can again enjoy an engine with less vibration than any other internal-combustion unit. Its two convex-triangular rotors sweep chambers with 1,308cc total volume, but because of the way the engine works this equates to 2,616cc of normal motor.

You can sense the difference as soon as you start it. The sound is halfway between a regular straight-six and a two-stroke engine without the pops and bangs. This Mazda comes with a choice of power outputs, the regular 192bhp matched to a five-speed gearbox (£20,000) and the Hi-Power with 231bhp, xenon headlights with washers, aluminium pedals and, crucially, a six-speed gearbox. It costs an extra £2,000, and is worth every penny.

I drove the 192bhp version first. It looks just like the more powerful RX-8 apart from the lack of headlamp washers, with front wheel arches so bold and a bonnet so tapered it almost seems to have the separate front wings of a pre-war sports car. And then there are the engine-rotor motifs, on the lower front air intake, the rear foglight, the holes in the headrests and on the gearlever. They are there to remind you; apparently, many American RX-7 owners did not even know their cars had rotary engines.

First, the downsides. The perforated sunvisors do not shield the sun well. The accelerator response can be snatchy, there is engine surge in traffic and occasionally the transmission clonks. Then, when you are out on a fast, open road you find the engine runs out of puff on hills so you have to downshift and rev it to oblivion.

But, on the bends, the RX-8 is total joy. The steering's response is instant and precise, a true mechanical connection to the front wheels without the initial uncertainty found in the Mazda's key rivals. The front wheels bite cleanly into the road, and you can power out of corners with that balanced, slingshot feeling only a powerful rear-wheel drive car can give. It also feels solid and well-made, so the firm suspension does not result in a turbulent ride. But should it not feel a little faster?

It should, which is why the Hi-Power is the RX-8 to have. The engine revs to crazy heights (well past 8,000rpm) and that extra gear exploits this broader rev-range. It does not matter that the engine speeds are higher because it is so smooth and musical, and the engine is never caught napping because there is always a suitable gear to keep it interested. I have not driven a more beguiling engine all year.

In every major way, this is the best of the new breed of sporty coupés. The driver of a grey-import RX-7, who followed me for miles before passing with a thumbs-up, thought so too.

THE RIVALS

Audi TT 1.8T: £26,8000
Still looks good after all these years, and we buy more here than are bought any other country. Driving experience is inert, though. Newly-available but costlier V6 has a terrific sequential-shift transmission.

Chrysler Crossfire: £27,260
US-designed, German-built, the Mercedes SLK-based coupé has radically-straked styling but feels less sporting than its rivals and the manual gearchange is poor. The most exciting Chrysler in years.

Nissan 350Z: £24,000
Nissan boosts its image by relaunching its Z-car line, a sculptural-looking, two-seater fastback coupé with a powerful V6. A firm ride and a stiff structure, but vital options push the price up.

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