Introduction Style rules when it comes to sports cars and these two competitors have more than their fair share of rakish lines. By Ed Hellwig Date Posted 12-16-2003 One is the rebirth of a legend, the other a new twist on an old formula. Both are designed to look fast and go even faster, and both carry price tags that keep them well within reach of the average buyer. Their low-slung stances and high-powered engines help them deliver razor-sharp handling and fierce acceleration, but both can be docile when necessary. Yet as similar as the Nissan 350Z and Mazda's RX-8 are in purpose, the ways in which they go about their mission are worlds apart. The Nissan relies on the brutish power of its V6 power plant and a tightly wound suspension to deliver its sizzling performance, while the RX-8 uses an unconventional rotary engine, more compliant suspension and even an extra set of doors to round out its character. Such disparate personalities make choosing one over the other that much more difficult, but after a week of back-to-back driving we were able to pick a favorite. Whether our conclusion meshes with your idea of the perfect sports car depends on what you're looking for, but rest assured that either car delivers outstanding performance, eye-catching looks and enough features to keep you comfortable. We may have picked a winner, but when you have a choice of two sports cars this good at these prices, nobody loses. ----- Second Place: 2003 Nissan 350Z Some like the back view better than the front, but most agree there's not a truly bad angle anywhere on it. Yeah, we know, the 350Z is faster at the drag strip. And had we done hot laps on a road course, it might have turned in the fastest times there, too. It's got the big V6, the huge 18-inch wheels and stylish lines that get second glances even in L.A. But in the end, sports cars are more than just numbers and pictures on a page. They are about how you feel in the driver seat and how much you're dying to get back in it when you're not. There's no doubt that the Z has more than enough mojo to inspire a few desktop daydreams, but ultimately, the RX-8 was the one that left us smirking. The contender from the Nissan corner was our own long-term 350Z Track model that has been with us since the beginning of the year. Its gleaming Daytona Blue paint, bright alloy wheels and gold Brembo brakes haven't lost a bit of their luster, and with over 15,000 miles on the clock, the snarling V6 is well broken in and going strong. Months of seat time have generated a healthy volume of opinions, but it was the back-to-back drives with the RX that proved to be the real eye-openers. We've been on-again, off-again fans of the Z's precisely dialed-in suspension throughout the year. Its ability to provide serious grip and accurate feedback through corners has made it a favorite of the more enthusiastic drivers on our staff, but it has taken more than a few hits for its unyielding ride that makes more mundane driving considerably less enjoyable. While all 350Zs have identical suspension setups, the Track model's lightweight 18-inch wheels and stiff-shouldered Bridgestone Potenza tires give it some added grip in addition to a slightly stiffer overall feel than some of the lesser models. Threading through the testing slalom, the Z was flat, quick to turn in and consistently on the verge of sending its tail in a completely different direction — nothing new for a short-wheelbase, rear-wheel-drive car. Quick steering and ever-present torque allow for momentary corrections that permit the Z to push hard toward the limit, but it required some steady hands to get a good time without spinning into the dirt. At 64.9 mph, the 350Z was quicker than the RX-8 through the cones, but test-driver notes indicate that it required considerably more effort than the Mazda to extract the Z's quicker time. Acceleration numbers were solid, with a 6.0-second run to 60 and a 14.6-second quarter-mile time. Not the fastest numbers for a Z, but not bad for one with so many journalist miles on it. As capable as it is on the track, however, finding the Z's limits on the street requires even more finesse — and guts. Moderate-speed maneuvers barely dig into its formidable grip, while higher-speed corners put you right up against its limits without much of a safety net on the other side. There's stability control on hand to help out, but it's hardly the kind of assistance you want to rely on. Whereas the RX-8 feels forgiving and light on its feet, the 350Z is unyielding and heavy. It doesn't delicately pick its way through turns — it steamrolls right through them. And for the other 90 percent of the time when you're not playing out your Gran Turismo fantasies, the 350Z's suspension setup beats you to death on city streets. Every crack in the pavement feels as if you just ran over a parking lot curb and every pothole sends shudders through the cabin that make you wonder how long the body is going to hold out. Our long-termer also suffered from excessive tire noise — a situation we have only recently found the remedy for. Laying into the full power of the Z's 287-horse V6 has its moments, but even that cheap thrill loses some of its zing over time. There's no discernable power peak so every stomp of the pedal generates a nearly identical reaction. It's more like an on-off switch than a gas pedal. It's hard to knock a car for having power at every rpm, but more than one driver complained of the V6's lack of personality. Then again, no one has grown tired of the six's sultry exhaust note yet, so go figure. Other often-lodged complaints include an interior covered in far too many layers of cheap plastic trim. Even so, we find the cabin to be one of the Z's less offensive deficiencies. The overall design reflects the way a sports car should be set up — prominent gauges and not much else. The stereo is simple enough, the climate controls work well and even the auxiliary gauges across the top of the dash are a nice retro touch. Taller drivers can fit but it takes considerable time adjusting the controls to get comfortable. The natural seating position leaves you peeking out over the window sills and rearward visibility is poor, as you might expect. The seats themselves are firm but comfortable; although, some drivers complained about their lack of lateral support considering the car's ability to generate big-time Gs. If it sounds as if the Z has completely fallen out of favor with us, we can assure you that is hardly the case. Like most cars, bosses or girlfriends, the longer they're around, the more you find fault with them, deserving or otherwise. This may have put it at a disadvantage to the RX-8 in this test, but we're confident that over time the Mazda would prove to be the more livable machine. All-out speed and handling is one thing, but putting it all together into a package that's as refined as it is fast is another. For those who are willing to give up a fair amount of comfort in the name of performance, there are few cars that can match the Z. If, however, your performance tastes are less demanding, the Nissan's bumpy ride and stark interior put it a notch below the Mazda on the desirability chart. Even after well over a year on the market, the reborn Z still has enough flash to stand apart from the crowd. Ups: Never-ending torque, loads of grip, unique exhaust note, head-turning style. Downs: Overwhelming road noise, suspension delivers every pothole to your backside, low-grade interior materials. The Bottom Line: A fast and stylish sports car that lives up to the Z-car legend, but don't expect to like driving it every day of the week. Base MSRP of Test Vehicle: $34,619 (including destination charge) Options on Test Vehicle: Side-Impact and Head Curtain Airbag Package ($569); Floor Mats ($69); Splash Guards ($119); Trunk Mat ($59). MSRP of Test Vehicle: $35,435 (including destination charge) Consumer Commentary "I've been a Z owner for some years now, starting with the 300ZX model. For all of you enthusiasts like myself, the new Z is no letdown. The 350 is improved on almost every level; steering, handling, base power and so on. Of course, as always the Z is not really an all-weather car, being rear wheel with quite a bit of torque it's best kept for those sunny days." — 300ZxPwr, Sept. 6, 2003 "This is the 4th Z I have owned and I have loved every one. My last Z was a 1990 300ZX and I thought that car turned heads. It is amazing the looks you get in the new car. The 1st day I purchased the car, people stopped me to look at the car. The 1st time I washed the car 4 people came and looked at the car. When you add up price, performance, handling and styling, I believe the Z takes a backseat to no car on the road. It is the best bang for the buck." — Azjimbo, Aug. 30, 2003 "This car is rock solid !!! Power through every gear. The mystique of this car rivals the exotics. Many people are amazed when it arrives. Many are surprised by the price once they learn of it. I have 'played' with the spectrum of cars from Camaro SSs to Porsche 911s. This car can spank most of them, and hang with the rest." — blackTrack, Sept. 22, 2003. ----- First Place: 2004 Mazda RX-8 The integration of the rear doors does little to clutter up the nicely finished rear end. With four doors and a 1.3-liter rotary engine, the Mazda RX-8 is hardly your typical sports car. It looks different, sounds different and most certainly drives different than any sports car of the last decade. In some instances, such a level of uniqueness might relegate a vehicle to the "quirky" category and nothing more. In this case, however, the Mazda's distinctive character and impressive performance earned it the nod over a Z car that had it all but beat on paper. So how did the jack-of-all-trades RX-8 manage to pull out a win over the all-powerful 350Z? Consider it a collaborative effort between its remarkable suspension, innovative engine and comfortable cabin. Hardly an unusual collection of traits, but the way in which they come together in the Mazda gives it a feel that the Nissan simply can't touch. Introduced earlier this year, the RX-8 is a spiritual successor to the long line of RX-7s that preceded it. Unlike those classic coupes, however, the RX-8 adds a new twist in the form of reverse-opening rear doors that afford access to a pair of sizable rear seats. Their clever concealment allows the car to retain its coupelike profile while at the same time offering four-passenger capability. The RX-8 opens wide to reveal its unique configuration that makes it one of the more practical performance cars available at any price. It's a unique and practical arrangement, but we found it of dubious value. Sure, it makes getting into the rear seats considerably easier than in most coupes, and once you're in the seats, they're reasonably comfortable. But in the end, they're not comfortable enough for anybody to really want to sit back there for any length of time, so the car's ability to mimic a sedan is a stretch at best. But put aside the idea that the RX-8 is anything but a pure sports car, and the results will rarely disappoint you. From the moment you slide into the driver seat, it's apparent that this car was made for driving. The seating position feels natural from the start and the shifter is right where you want it. Forward visibility is excellent and even the view out the back isn't all that bad. Like the Z, the RX-8 features a tachometer front and center with auxiliary gauges on each side. It's a simple, easy-to-read setup that's more upscale than you would expect for a car in this price range. Getting it fired takes a few more spins of the starter than most cars, but once it's humming the diminutive rotary engine settles down to a barely audible idle. Stab the throttle and you're greeted by a high-pitched whine that instantly clues you in that there's something different about the lump under this car's hood. To some the RX's exhaust note sounds disappointingly feeble next to the roar of the Z's V6, but we grew to love the Mazda's distinct sound. Generating 238 horsepower from a measly 1.3 liters, the RX-8's rotary engine is a marvel of efficiency and smoothness. Its small size and minimal weight allow a more advantageous placement within the car, giving it an almost midengined feel. Its power peaks at a lofty 8,500 rpm (redline is 9,000), but the real surge begins around five grand so you're not completely left out in the cold at midrange speeds. As you might expect, low-end power is notably absent, a trait that's magnified after a drive in the torque-rich 350Z that never exhibits a weak spot. It's not much of a looker, but wind it up to eight grand and you'll quickly realize why rotary power plants have a cultlike following. Track testing yielded a best 0-to-60-mph time of 6.6 seconds and a quarter-mile run of 15.1 seconds. Without much off-the-line torque, the RX isn't much of a stoplight king, but once underway it makes up ground quickly. Its quarter-mile speed of just over 92 mph puts the Mazda about five miles per hour behind the Nissan. The numbers don't lie, if you're looking to dust off local high schoolers, the RX-8 isn't the car to do it with. But what it lacks in straight-line performance, it more than makes up for in the turns as the RX-8 is a supreme back-road corner carver. Quick steering, strong brakes and a predictable suspension have a way of making modestly talented drivers feel confident and the RX-8 delivers all three. Unlike the Z that hammers its way through bends, the RX-8 glides through them in a manner that's far less intimidating. Its moderate body roll gives you a better sense of how hard the car is working compared to the ultrastiff 350Z, and when the grip does finally run out, it does so in a more progressive and controllable fashion. Midcorner bumps are soaked up without a hitch, and even the stability control system stays out of the way until absolutely necessary. And all this despite the fact that it has none of the teeth-rattling tendencies of the Nissan. Although the stereo controls can be clumsy, the rest of the RX-8's interior is purely functional and driver-oriented. A large tachometer sits front and center with a digital speedometer tucked inside. Aiding in the Mazda's tossability is its short-throw shifter that snicks from gear to gear with little effort and precise movements. Although the wide power band makes constant shifting unnecessary, the ability to call up a new ratio with the snap of a wrist is always a welcome feature. The ultrasmooth power delivery of the rotary engine is another bonus, as it's able to spin contentedly at well over 7,000 rpm without even the slightest hint of strain. There's an audible warning as you near the redline and we heard it more than a few times. As adept as the RX-8 is at flinging its way through mountain switchbacks, it's equally capable of managing the everyday commute. The same suspension that sticks to every undulation in the pavement also manages to deliver a compliant ride that's more sedan than sports car. With the Z, you're constantly reminded of its performance potential by its buckboard ride, while the RX masks its abilities until you feel like exploiting them. It's a personality that's easy to live with as opposed to one that you learn to accept. Mazda likes to say that the RX-8 has a dual personality because of its backseat and extra pair of doors, but we found its ability to pose as both track star and commuter car the Mazda's most appealing combination. Compromise is rarely the best recipe for true performance cars, but in the Mazda's case, it offers just enough of everything to make it hard not to like. Then consider its stylish and comfortable interior, usable rear seats and very reasonable price, and it's easy to see why it makes the 350Z look crude in comparison. The Z may be faster, but the RX-8 is the better sports car. Even a dull gray RX-8 looks dramatic thanks to its exaggerated wheel arches and unusual greenhouse. Ups: Silky smooth rotary power, short-throw shifter, precise suspension tracking, quick steering, strong brakes. Downs: Needs plenty of rpm to build power, shifter handle too small, rear doors are a novelty. The Bottom Line: We could do without the rear doors and more power would be nice, but the RX-8's ability to deliver thrilling performance and a livable ride makes it the sports car of choice in this narrow field. Base MSRP of Test Vehicle: $27,200 (including destination charge) Options on Test Vehicle: MT Sport Package ($1,200 — includes xenon headlights, Dynamic Stability Control with traction control and foglamps); Floor Mats ($60). MSRP of Test Vehicle: $28,460 (including destination charge) Consumer Commentary "I am very happy with almost all aspects of the car. I have 1,300 miles on it and it has loosened up nicely. The seats are excellent and it is quiet and rides very well. A little better visibility in the rear would be helpful and a 6-disc changer should have come with the Bose system. I was quoted $900 for one, outrageous. My mileage has improved to just over 20 in mixed driving. I hope it continues to improve, but Wankels are not known for great mileage. I would highly recommend this car for anyone who wants a sports car they can live with year round." — Srm858, Sept. 24, 2003 "A great car all around. I haul two kids everyday (9, 15) and soccer practice equipment and school bags and still have plenty of room. Try that in a Boxster or Z4!! Suspension is incredible — can take corners without any sway at 30 over posted and yet it handles speed bumps very well — kudos to Mazda. Only thing so far is lower gas mileage than spec — 15-17 in town depending on whether you let it rev or not; may improve as the engine breaks in further. Get all kinds of thumbs-up and stares and waves as I drive around." — Carhead, Sept. 19, 2003 "This is one of the best sports cars I have driven. I had an old RX-7 and loved it. This one is almost 200 percent better. Step on the throttle and you get a real quick response throwing you back into your seat. The ride quality is what a sports car should be like. Fun, fun car. Very quick and agile. Outside and inside of this car are awesomely done. The cockpit is beautiful. Much better than the 350Z. Seats are very comfortable (again better than the Z). Backseat and suicide doors are great, too." — Guyusc350, Sept. 1, 2003 ----- Conclusion 350Z and the RX-8 through their paces not only revealed their respective strengths and weaknesses, it showcased just how far sports cars have come since the days of the original 240Z and RX-7. While those icons of the sports car world were overflowing with personality and performance, their modern-day successors have all that and more. With its throaty V6, minimalist interior and slightly retro looks, the 350Z is exactly what many sports car shoppers are looking for. It has more potential than most drivers will ever require and even when you're just cruising slowly, its shape rarely fails to turn a few heads. Knocking the Z down a notch for its hard-edged suspension might seem like an overly critical comment on a performance-oriented car, but after experiencing the handling ability of the Mazda, it's clear that such an unyielding setup isn't necessary for maximum fun. Although most editors agreed that the RX-8 would be just as good with two less doors and a more traditional shape, no one was complaining after experiencing the car from the driver seat. With its lightweight feel, incredibly smooth power delivery and stylish cabin, the RX-8 offers a combination of performance and comfort that few sports cars can match. Its personality doesn't overwhelm you at first, but spend any amount of time behind the wheel and the value of proper balance, minimal weight and a precisely tuned suspension become immediately obvious. If the RX-8 represents the future of the sports car, we can't wait to see what's next.