Another notable feature of the RX-8's design is the prevalence of triangular symbols inside and out: a reference to the engine's three-sided rotor, these devices adorn the headrests, the gear shifter, and even the top of the hood, giving the cabin a slightly Masonic feel. Our car also came with the optional "rotary accent package," which includes two polished badges of the same shape attached underneath the front and rear bumpers.
If the RX-8 is a car for sports car purists from the outside and under the hood, then it is even more so in the cabin, as there are precious few gadgets to tempt the driver's eyes from the road. For entertainment options, our top-of-the-range Grand Touring model came with all the RX-8 has to offer in the form of a highly stylized stereo head unit with black-piano lacquer finish. (The number of pianos that give their lives each year to furnish Mazda interiors does not bear thinking about.)
The standard audio system comprises an in-dash, six-disc changer without the ability to read MP3 or WMA discs. From the evidence of a redundant button on the right of the stereo, it appears that the RX-8 may have once offered tape deck and even minidisc playback capabilities. While the trip down music format memory lane was pleasant, however, we would like to have seen at least an auxiliary input jack for hooking up our iPod.
Our car did come with the Sirius Satellite Radio option ($438), which gave us an alternative to Red Book CDs and AM/FM stations. However, as we found in our review of the MazdaSpeed 3, Mazda's designers don't appear to test the integration of satellite radio in their navigation-lacking models. If they did, they would see that the means of selecting stations is far from intuitive.
While it is possible to call up the name of the current channel--and current artist--on the monochrome LCD screen above the dash by pressing the DISP button, it is not possible to change that channel without reverting to the channel number. You can then search for other stations only by number, calling up the text for the channel name only by further pushes of the DISP button. If you're anything like us, you probably don't know all 134 Sirius stations by number.
Somewhat surprisingly, the RX-8 does come with GPS navigation as an option: for an extra $2,000, drivers get a voice-activated navigation system with a 7-inch touch screen that pops up out of the top of the dash. According to Mazda, the navigation system's touch screen can also be used to program the car's climate control and audio systems. In the absence of the navigation system, however, we were reduced to using the RX-8's head unit controls to program our music selection.
Under the hood
As noted above, the real story with the RX-8 is its Renesis rotary engine, which is the only one of its kind currently in production. It works by replacing the pistons, valves, and other reciprocating parts of a regular internal combustion engine with two chambers, each containing a three-sided rotor orbiting a central axle.
As the rotors spin in their respective chambers, they create a constant cycle of suction and compression between their apexes and the chamber housing. This action sucks the fuel-air mixture into the combustion chamber, where it is sealed, compressed, and ignited by two spark plugs.
The power created by the ignition of the fuel is translated to the gearbox via offset (or "eccentric") lobes on the output shaft. As the rotor spins around the chamber, it pushes on the lobes, which, in turn, cause the output shaft to spin. (For a good visual impression of how it works, check out Mazda's video.)
Due to its unique mechanism, the Renesis engine is far smaller--and therefore has need of less displacement--than a comparably powered piston engine. Not only does this save weight, it also enables the engine to be mounted aft of the front axle, adding to the RX-8's near 50-50 front-to-rear-weight distribution. This balance, combined with an as-standard limited-slip differential, gives the RX-8 the kind of superior handling and road-holding prowess that invites spirited misbehavior.
The lack of moving parts in the rotary engine relative to piston engines also ensures a noticeably smoother ride. When driving around in the RX-8, we found the usual judder associated with manual up- and downshifts in piston-engined car.
As we saw in our 0-to-60 mph runs, the RX-8 can feel anemic off the line and through the lower rpm range, but once you have the ground speed and engine speed up, it is a delight to drive, especially when changing down for quick acceleration and holding gears all the way to redline, which results in a melodious growl from the exhaust.
The downside of all this fun is the RX-8's pitiful gas mileage, which results principally from the inefficiency of the rotary engine, compared with piston-power plants. We managed just more than 220 miles on a full 16-gallon tank of gas, translating to a meager 14 mpg, nearly half of which was in highway driving. (We can't even blame this poor fuel economy on our 0-to-60 runs, which we did after refueling).
From its distinctive exterior styling to its unique rotary engine, the Mazda RX-8 is a mold breaker. It is in serious need of a cabin tech upgrade, and its gas mileage would be disappointing for a piston engine car with three times as much displacement.
Stoplight speed demons will also be put off by its lack of low-end oomph. But there is more to spirited driving than shredding tires, and the RX-8's precise handling and high-revving engine are a joy. It might not win over Ford Mustang fans, but those looking at the Nissan 350Z and the Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder might want to consider this zoom-zoomer as an option.