Mazda's RX-8 is a sheer joy to drive in first and second gear. Its 238-hp rotary engine has a lot of low-end torque that propels the car off the line like it was shot out of a cannon. I confess to zipping out my driveway and down our little cul-de-sac, accompanied by a couple of dirty looks from neighbors.

On the road, the RX-8 behaves something like a lighter version of a Vette. It is well balanced and has a ride that, thanks to a sport-tuned suspension on the vehicle we tried, gives a connectedtothe-road feeling. Wide tires on 18-in. wheels can break free when you switch off traction control and whip the back end around aggressively. And its low-tothe-ground cockpit, too, may remind you of the venerable sports car with its handsome center console.

They only non-Vette part of the experience is the distinctive revving of its rotary engine. There are lots of rpms available; the two-rotor Renesis red lines at about 9,000 rpm and purrs along at 70 mph doing around 3,000. (Top speed is listed at 150 mph.) Thankfully, the engine sound is not buzzy. You won't mistake it for a cheap four cylinder. Nor is the car overly noisy. The cockpit is quieter than in some competing vehicles we've driven.

We found the steering responsive and the brakes are a strong point. This thanks to 12.7-in. front and 11.9-in. rotors in the rear. ABS comes standard. The car goes from zero to 60 in about 6 sec with a standard six-speed manual transmission. Potential buyers should note, though, that its midrange torque performance isn't exceptional. Shifting is easy, as the transmission is characterized by short, sure throws. An automatic is an option, but at the cost of less power. (Automatics can't handle the higher revs of the 238-hp rotary.)

On the outside, the car has an aggressive look to it. Big aluminum wheels and dual chrome-tipped exhausts add some class. There are bulges on the body panels meant to suggest the shape of the engine rotors.

Gages are easy to read except for the speedometer. It takes the form of a single digital number displayed in the tach dial. Frankly, we found it distracting. Visibility out the back is fine, better than several similar cars we've tried. But there is a significant blind spot on the sides. One of the distinctive features of the car is its half doors that open for access to the back seats. There is no pillar between the front and rear half doors, which makes access easy. The downside is little legroom in back.

Still, people don't buy cars like this for the backseat room. And even taller occupants should fit well in the two front bucket seats, which are also comfortable. Trunk space is okay for a sports car β€” we've seen much smaller. Two medium-sized golf bags will probably fit.

Our test vehicle carried a grand touring package of options that included the leather seats plus front seat heaters and power driver seat, a Bose audio system, a moon roof, a day/night rearview mirror, and fog lamps, as well as heated outside mirrors. This $3,900 package plus delivery and special badging boosted the $26,680 base price up to $31,239. Finally, mileage ratings are 18 and 24 for city and country driving. These are improvements over what was possible in intake and Mazda's old RX-7, thanks largely to a redesign of the engine's exhaust ports.