TOKYO AUTO SHOW

Two long awaited halo cars take the stand in Tokyo

TOKYO MOTOR SHOW
Truett's scorecard
The 350Z vs. the Mazda RX-8
350Z RX-8
Styling C- B+
Performance potential A B-
Utility (Layout, space) D- A
Details C+ A
Emotion D C+

TOKYO - Here's the one sure thing about the introduction here last week of the production-ready versions of the Nissan Z and Mazda RX-8: The long-awaited resurrection of two of Japan's most cherished sports cars is sure to be accompanied by plenty of heated analysis.

Consider these hard points:

  • Appearance: The styling of the new Z - universally referred to as, but not formally named, the 350Z - and the RX-8 pays little homage to the much-loved originals, which dominated the sports car market in America in the 1970s and '80s. Does this mean Nissan and Mazda have cut themselves off from the retro enthusiasts?

  • Competition: When the 240Z and the Mazda RX-7 were introduced, MG and Triumph cars were ancient or unreliable. And the various Fiat, Lancia and Alfa Romeos of the day had more problems than an algebra book. But the new Z and RX-8 will compete against the Audi TT, BMW Z3, Honda S2000, Porsche Boxster and Mercedes-Benz SLK, tough competition indeed. How will they fare?

  • Economics: The last thing either company wants is a repeat of what happened in the late 1990s. Prices of the 300ZX and RX-7 ballooned to around $40,000, and cars piled up at dealerships. Pricing on the new models will be crucial to their success. The 350Z will go on sale in the spring at a promised starting price of under $30,000. The RX-8 is due in the 2003 model year. Price has not been mentioned, but don't expect it to top $35,000.

    The Tokyo Motor Show provided the first opportunity for journalists to do a side-by-side comparison of the production-ready versions of the two cars. Here's how this reporters thinks they compare:

    The 350Z

    Nissan Fairlady Z

    Click for larger photo

    The old 300ZX had a cramped interior - and the new model is no different. Drivers taller than 6 feet still will bang their heads on the headliner.

    The 350Z remains a two-seater, but this time the rear cargo area is even more restricted. A support bar runs through the trunk to tie the tops of the rear struts, limiting storage capacity to nothing larger than a couple of grocery bags.

    "For a (rear-wheel-drive) sports car we need strong body construction, and the engineers wanted a bar there," said Mamori Aoki, Nissan's chief product designer.

    The 350Z's interior is bland. The plainly styled center stack, with its round knobs that are standard-issue items, could be in any modern sporty sedan. The instruments protrude from the instrument panel.

    Exterior styling is uninspiring. The front fascia looks heavy, and the large square grille is plain. The bulging rear flanks ape those of the Porsche 911. The sharply sloping roof comes courtesy of the Audi TT. Huge headlights extend far back, almost to the top of the fenders. The only trace of Z heritage is the rear quarter window, which retains the shape of the old 300ZX.

    Things look a little better under the hood. The engine, a 3.5-liter overhead-cam V-6 with electronic valve control, will produce between 260 and 280 hp and is teamed with a standard six-speed manual transmission. Suspension is four-wheel independent with disc brakes at all four corners.

    Nissan's beloved Mr. K., Yutaka Katayama, the man who introduced the 240Z in the United States in 1970, posed for a few photos with the 350Z. He said he likes the styling and that Nissan was right not to do a retro version of the car.

    But Mr. K seemed cautious when asked if he thought the new Z would be a big success in America. "I hope so," he said.

    The RX-8

    Mazda RX-8

    The four-door RX-8 is clearly the more original and daring of the two cars. It also does a better job of incorporating trends. The massive shift toward trucks and sport-utilities shows that drivers want more room. Until the RX-8, they haven't been able to get it in a sports car.

    Beyond the four-door, four-seat layout, Mazda has placed a greater emphasis on details. The RX-8 has unique styling touches inside that give the car a custom look and feel.

    The top of the RX-8's gearshift, for example, is in the triangular shape of the rotors in the engine. There's a red "Engine Start" button on the left side of the instrument panel. The instruments have nicely styled dull aluminum trim rings with indents, much like those in the Audi TT. There's a stylish circular layout in the center stack for the radio buttons.

    The RX-8 has plenty of room inside, front and rear. As with the Saturn SC coupe, Mazda has nicely integrated the doors into the shape of the body. The rear seat is easy for adults to enter and exit. The car also has a trunk, so the interior need not be used for cargo.

    "When we brought out the first (RX-8 concept) car, the RX-Evolv, that was kind of a point of controversy," said Charlie Hughes, Mazda's U.S. boss, of the four-door layout. "But as the car has taken a more definitive shape, that's beginning to go away."

    Overall, the RX-8's look is fairly tame. The only trace of the RX's lineage can be seen in the sloping rear glass, which is vaguely reminiscent of the glass hatchback of the first generation RX-7.

    Mazda says the new nonturbo rotary engine cranks out 250 hp. The last RX had a turbocharged engine, which greatly added to the cost.

    "The only problem with the last model was where it was priced. People actually thought the car was pretty sensational; I mean 0-to-60 mph in 4.9 seconds, 5 seconds depending on the driver," said Hughes.

    "But at the time we withdrew it, it was a $40,000 car. I think most people would say that's not Mazda territory."

  • You can reach Richard Truett at rtruett@crain.com

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