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Road & Travel's 2004 Sexy Car Buyer's Guide

Mazda RX-8
2004 Mazda RX-8

As any true maverick can tell you, if you're different you might as well make it a blast. Like abandoning those old-style piston engines and opting for the twister-like whirl of a smooth-humming rotary instead.

Despite the bevy of sexy two-seaters, we defer to a maverick here, in a stunning, eye-candy package. It's the Mazda RX-8 for four, a true individualist in a landscape of uniformity that takes thinking outside the box at its serious word, then adds smile appeal as a bonus. (Remember the speedy cartoon road runner that leaves its coyote adversary to "boing, boing" -- like a sputtering piston engine, perhaps -- down the road in a cloud of dust?)

The RX-8 is tight, agile, and reads the road. It's a solid performer with a glimpse of a "how'd they do it?" future, from the half-size engine that generates 238-HP with a six-speed manual or 197-HP with Sport Shift automatic. Reaction from competitive owners says a lot about its presence: the SVT Mustang owner who stopped to stare; the Porsche Boxster driver who peered over his shoulder while driving full speed; the sandlot coach who broke up a game to go look.

Presumably, Mazda worked out some earlier kinks that had pinched the rotary's lifespan. The U.S. reintroduction in volume (as the twin-rotor RENESIS, combining rotary engine and genesis) pleased true believers who had waited out a near decade-long absence for its return. Mazda's had some 30 years to perfect the technology, and claims this clean engine generation has the best-ever rotary fuel economy, something a few critics might dispute. But that could reflect the kick of pushing the high revving engine toward 9,000 RPM red line territory in a lower than optimum gear.

On the safety side, an ultra-sensitive tire pressure monitor compensates in the absence of an optional spare. If you're a pound too low or high, it will tell you. And among surprises: doors that open clamshell style to reveal a truly usable back seat. The passenger bonus relegates trunk room to smaller sized carry-ons, but leaves more seat room for cruising companions. (Hey. We're not mean girls. Think we could coax a Mel or a Brad or a Hugh to go along or a ride?) This is one hunk we think can turn How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days into winning a whole stable of them.