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Mazda RX8 and Nissan 350Z

Broadcast dates : 30th May 2004/3rd June 2004

The sports car market is alive and well and living in Rivonia Road. Or so it seems if you take a drive down the main thoroughfare through Sandton's money belt.

Audi TTs, BMW Z4s, Mercedes-Benz SLK's and SLís sprout like mushrooms after a rain shower, and it seems most of the world's manufacturers are aware of these boom times.

Two of the latest newcomers on the sport scene are Nissan's 350Z and Mazda's RX8.

Both are designed to help reposition their various marques.

Both Nissan and Mazda are in the midst of worldwide revivals after some dismal years in the 1990s, and both have global catch phrases designed to get people thinking differently.

In the case of both companies, there was a so-what attitude that developed amongst car-buyers, due largely to bland indifferent styling of their product range over the past few decades.

From an engineering viewpoint there has never been any doubt that both Mazda and Nissan produce excellent, reliable cars with very competitive performance. But both brands were almost entirely devoid of any kind of image.

In the case of Mazda, its "Zoom-Zoom" slogan is designed to emphasise zest for life. While Nissan has been imploring us to 'Shift Expectations" for the past year or so.

These are the two cars that are spearheading a complete model-range makeover for both companies.

Although they are both clearly sports cars, you couldn't really wish for two cars of more diverging feel and character, even though they are both of Japanese origin.

If you think of these two cars as weapons of choice, the Mazda RX8 would be the rapier, while the Nissan 350Z is the sledgehammer. Both highly effective, both beautifully engineered yet both so different.

The biggest obvious difference is that the Nissan is a pure-two-seater, while the RX8 has a unique four-door configuration that actually provides real room for four adults.

The Nissan even goes so far as to include a rigid chassis brace across the luggage compartment at the rear, indicating that this is a car for driving first and foremost.

The RX8 provides a unique "suicide" door arrangement for its rear portals, these being hinged at the rear, to give remarkable easy access for the rear passengers.

While there is more than enough space in the Nissan for two people and weekend luggage, the surprise package with the RX8 is that the rear of the passenger compartment is actually useable. Headroom is restrictive for very tall people, but you could spend at least an hour in the rear of the Mazda without getting too uncomfortable.

But the differences in the cars are more essential than just in their differing seating configuration.

The heart of the matter lies in the engine and in the approach to ride and handling

Starting with the engine the 350Z has gone the classic route with a 3,5-litre 24-valve V6, a powerplant that has been around in Nissan products for a few years.

In the 350Z this has been massaged to produce two hundred and six kilowatts at six thousand, two hundred rpm, and the 350Z will rev to six thousand six hundred in wonderfully throaty, raucous fashion.

It has a heavyish clutch, a very meaty, solid gear lever action, and the steering needs a firm hand. The suspension is stiff and uncompromising.

The Mazda uses a rotary engine, this Japanese company being the only manufacturer in the world that has persevered with Felix Wankel's revolutionary engine concept since it first appeared in an NSU in the 1960s.

Those viewers old enough and with good memories will remember the stir that the original Mazda RX2 created in the early 1970s with its raucous, free-revving, spitting rotary engine note.

A rotary engine is much smoother than a conventional piston engine because there are no reciprocating parts.

The engine in this case uses a pair of semi-triangular rotors and functions of induction, compression and exhaust are conducted in three chambers within the rotor housings.

The biggest problems facing the early rotary designs were fuel consumption and heavy wear of the rotor tip seals, which play the role of piston rings in a conventional engine.

But Mazda has sorted these problems after nearly four decades of development and the current rotary engines are durable and well-mannered.

Whereas the Nissan revs up with plenty of drama, the rotary spins to its seven thousand, five hundred rpm redline with an almost eerie lack of fuss.

There is a zesty free-spirited engine not, but it is all smooth and effortless.

Incidentally, this model on test is the cheaper five-speed model, with one hundred and forty one kilowatts. The six-speed model produces one hundred and seventy kilowatts and revs to a spine-chilling nine thousand rpm!

In terms of handling and driver feel, the Mazda is less demanding. Its gearchange action is much lighter, so is its clutch, and its suspension is more compliant.

As a point of interest, to identify the five-speed, this model is fitted with the smaller 16-inch alloy wheels. The six-speed has 18-inch wheels for a more dramatic look and sharper handling.

In heavy traffic we would prefer the Mazda, but out on the open road where you can stretch the car's legs, it is a matter of how you feel.

Both have excellent road manners and high levels of grip, although the Nissan would probably come out on top around a racetrack.

It is certainly much more powerful, and is rated as a six-second zero to one hundred kilometres per hour machine.

The Mazda will take about eight seconds to reach a hundred, and has a top speed of around two hundred and twenty. The Nissan is good for 250 kilometres per hour any day of the week.

This "serious-versus-fun" approach is also carried through to the cabins. The Mazda uses brightly coloured leather panelling to amplify its "zoom zoom" attitude..

The Nissan shifts your expectations via a rather austere layout in black, with business-like metal accents to indicate the no-nonsense experience that lies ahead.

As for the exterior, the Nissan is once again all purpose, but nevertheless one of the most beautifully-styled cars to come out of Japan in recent years.

The RX8 has an almost comic-book approach to sportscardom, emphasising fun, a free-spirited approach.

These are very different cars and yet they are both designed to pep up your life. The Mazda costs just shy of three hundred thousand Rand, while the Nissan sells for three hundred and eighty five thousand rand.

Both are exceptionally good value for money, if you have the cash to spend on a car that is somewhat less than practical, somewhat more than a mere conveyance.

Our choice? While David leans strongly toward the Mazda, the Car Torque team would plump for the Nissan.

But itís a close call.

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