With the RX-8, Mazda brings back the innovative rotary engine in a sports car package with video game looks. The diminutive 1.3-liter, two-rotor engine is 40 percent smaller than a conventional four-cylinder, yet it produces 238 horsepower at a smile-producing 9,000rpm. The RX-8's 50-50 fore-and-aft weight distribution and low center of gravity add to its race car-style handling. Its unique steel-cage structure creates a sports car the size of a Porsche 911 but with four doors, two of which are small suicide doors for access to the rear seats. Mazda packages its rotary technology in unique style with fenders that wrap tightly over the wheels, as well as clean, contemporary lines. Inside, Mazda extends the high-tech look with a black center stack set off with a large circular accent. On the minus side, fuel economy is well below that of conventional engines, and emission control is only a fair LEV; both attributes are a problem with rotary technology. Cabin technology doesn't go beyond a nice stereo system and power seats, although Mazda offers a navigation option for $2,000.
Short on options
Inside, the Mazda RX-8's cabin is comfortable and contemporary, without a hint of wood grain or the faux-fiber and brushed-steel accents that seem to dominate current interior designs. Front bucket seats are firm and supportive with enough side bolstering to keep occupants in place during aggressive driving.
Rear suicide doors offer access to the backseats.
Controls are fairly intuitive and grouped within easy reach, although there are a few more buttons than necessary. The stereo has both a seek and a tune function, in the form of a rocker switch and a knob below it, where one switch could easily do both tasks. The same is true with the moonroof, where open and tilt functions are separately switched.
The control that does work flawlessly is the six-speed transmission lever. It feels like it's connected directly to the gears beneath it, providing short, precise connections with each gear. A soft, yet direct clutch action works nicely with the transmission to make the most of Mazda's modest 159 pound-feet of torque.
There's little in the high-tech touch-and-feel department to thrill and amaze gadget aficionados. You won't find a Bluetooth interface for cell phones or keyless starting lurking inside the RX-8, but you'll find a well-equipped sports car with solid performance that's priced just above compact sedans. For those who want more, a Grand Touring package adds a 300-watt Bose stereo, heated and powered leather seats, a moonroof, HomeLink, xenon headlights, fog lights, and stability control. The package also adds $4,250 to the window sticker.
The RX-8 abounds in these triangular design cues, which refer to the rotary engine.
The technical highlight of Mazda's RX-8 is its rotary power. The tiny 1.3-liter engine produces 238 horsepower, enough to launch the light Mazda from 0 to 60 in a little less than 6 seconds. Although there's enough power on tap, the modest torque won't snap your head back. In fact, this is an engine that requires just the right gear selection to maximize its efficiency.
The rotary sensation isn't about stump-pulling torque or tire smoking--it's about enjoying the turbine whine and smooth acceleration. For most adult enthusiasts, this is not a difficult taste to acquire. And the six-speed manual transmission has close ratios to match the RX-8's engine speed with the requirements of spirited driving.
The rotary engine takes up a minimal amount of space and revs high, but it uses too much gas.
Mazda has given the low torque a boost by using a fairly high rear-axle ratio. At highway speeds, the little rotor is humming at 4,000rpm, a speed that invites an upshift in most new cars. But the higher engine speed is neither harsh nor obtrusive to driving enjoyment; it just extracts a fuel economy penalty. The RX-8 gets an EPA rating of 18mpg in the city and 24mpg on the highway. By comparison, an eight-cylinder Corvette gets 18mpg and 28mpg for city and highway, respectively.
The Mazda RX-8's greatest contribution to safety is its ability to avoid that lumbering SUV driven by an avid conversationalist. The vehicle's perfect balance is complemented with independent double-wishbone suspension up front and multilink in the rear. Big antilock disc brakes with vented rotors and electronic-brake assist bring the 3,029-pound coupe to a quick stop, and the electric-assisted rack-and-pinion steering is precise. If a collision is unavoidable, the RX-8 protects its occupants with a steel safety cage and dual-stage front air bags supplemented with side air bags mounted in the seat backs.
There are lots of sport cars vying for attention in today's market. The average buyer in this category wants a combination of high style and performance. Mazda delivers a nice balance of those attributes at an affordable price along with a four-year/50,000-mile warranty for peace of mind.