They Hug The Road And Your Wallet

Sports car imitators clog the road, but for the genuine article, check out the new Mazda RX-7 and Porsche 968. The RX-7 is a blazingly quick makeover of a previously built version; the 968 is a refinement of the venerable 944.

The RX-7's low, wide hood, broad stance, and curvy lines shout, "look at me." And it's a gas to drive. A 255-horsepower, twin-turbo rotary engine launches the car to 60 mph in a mere 5 seconds. Top speed is about 160.

The 968, Porsche's "entry-level" speedster, is no slouch, either. It hits 60 mph in 6 seconds and has about the same top end as the RX-7. But the car turns fewer heads.

QUICK START. Behind the wheel, these automobiles have distinct personalities. The 968's 3-liter four-cylinder feels a bit limp at low speeds, but once the engine hits about 4,000 rpm, the car takes off with a whoosh. The RX-7, however, pulls hard from the start, then seems to run out of steam as the engine winds up. And the steering mechanism feels light, almost darty.

Both cars hold the road with amazing tenacity. Each has standard antilock brakes, which makes for straight stops even on slick pavement. Sling them into a quick turn at high speed and they're rock solid. That kind of grip has a drawback, though: The stiff suspensions make for a punishing ride on rough roads.

Inside, the RX-7 has a cozy, cockpit-like feel. All of the gauges and controls are simple and easy to use. The seats have plenty of lateral support, but lack it in the lower back. A driver air bag is standard; none is available for the passenger. The RX-7 has no backseat, and cargo space under the hatch is very limited.

SAFETY FOR TWO. The Porsche's interior is less friendly. Some switches are confusing. For instance, there are two power side-view-mirror controls, one on the driver's door for the left mirror and another on the center console for the right side. But the optional leather seats are quite adjustable and comfortable. Driver and passenger air bags are standard, and there is a backseat--in name only.

Driving fun has its price. The RX-7 starts at $31,300 and runs to more than $35,000, including leather seats, sun roof, and compact-disk player as options. The Porsche starts at $39,850 for a coupe with six-speed manual transmission and tops $60,000 for a convertible with automatic transmission and other options.

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