Mazda RX-8 Review


Mazda RX-8 ReviewIf there's one sports car we never thought we'd see again, it's the Mazda RX-7. With a high retail price, shifting consumer tastes, dwindling corporate cash, and unit volume-obsessed bosses at Ford calling the shots, all odds were against it. Well, the odds won, we never did see an RX-7 again and we probably never will. We'll just have to make do with this RX-8.

The RX-8 differs sufficiently from that last rocket sold back in - wow, has it been that long? - 1995 to warrant the new digit. Four seats in a sports car? Tsk. And four doors, too? Double tsk. The pop-up lights were deep-sixed, the suspension was softened, and the turbo's gone. Fattening it up and slowing it down - hey, what kind of sports car is this? We'll address that in a moment, but at least the latest Mazda to wear the RX name continues the proud tradition of carrying an engine that routinely provokes the question "what the hell?"

Road TestMazda RX-8 Review
Yes, we're talking about the rotary here. No pistons, no valves, no connecting rods, which of course means no cylinders. With one little triangular rotor getting exploded around and around in an elliptical chamber, ownership of a rotary engine adds one more vicious cycle to a man's life.

But it is, in fact, less vicious than your standard engine. Unlike the pistons in your car, rotors aren't subject to changing direction several thousand times per second, so what you should notice first is how smooth it is. Secondly, you'll notice how it seems to rev to infinity, because the day Honda lengthened the stroke of the S2000's engine is the day this Masda became the redline champion of the world: 9,000 RPM! Numbers like that just dare you to shoot for them; before you know it, your pursuit has you breaking 100 MPH. The rotary revs so high and so easily (though there's no power spike anywhere in the powerband as in most other high-revving cars) that you can't help wonder "How did that happen??" Hey, Mazda didn't throw in the 8,500 RPM warning buzzer for nothing.

So the heart of the Mazda RX still beats. The flesh is still strong, too, contrary to the implications of the other changes. Is the suspension softer? For sure. This is easy to tell because the ride doesn't crush every bone in your body en route from point A to point B like the RX-7 did. There are loud, disturbing bangs over the really sharp bumps but the ride is almost sedan-like overall; six freeway hours just fly by. If you really need to feel pain in an RX-8, go crash into a wall. The rest of us are perfectly content with its day-to-day drivability.

Don't think this results in flabby responses. Body lean is noticeable but nowhere near excessive, and the huge 18-inch Bridgestone Potenza RE040 tires (which seem to come on just about every Japanese sports car) stick like glue, aided by a limited-slip differential. The tail has high limits before breaking loose, and even with stability control off, it's easy to catch once it does. The light, smooth-takeup clutch is free of the disappointing vagueness of the unit Mazda installs in its 6 sedan, the shifter's throws are crisp, and the brakes instill confidence. Oh, and the steering is the BMW of electric-assist racks. Come to think of it, it's pretty sharp in the overall picture anyway - realistic effort buildup, not too slow or fast, not too light or heavy. The RX-8's ongoing theme is balance.

In fact, the RX-8 is perfectly balanced, with an emphasis on the "perfect": weight distribution is 50/50 front to back. There isn't a whole lot of weight to distribute, either: 3,029 pounds (only 303 of which come from the rotary engine). Hmm, now it all comes together: the light engine allows the neutral numbers, the neutral numbers allow the balanced handling, and the low weight allows the RX-8 to have inherent agility without having to beef up the shocks to the point of destroyed ride quality, like Nissan resorted to with its 350Z. Truthfully, the RX-8 handles better anyway.

Even in the best designs, you can't get something for nothing. What you get with the rotary's revvability you give up in grunt. If you don't yet know the definition of torque (in three words: low-speed muscle), this would be the time to learn, because the RX-8 has one of the most glaring torque-to-power discrepancies on the great global automotive specs sheet. 159 pounds-feet puts it on par with a 4-cylinder Camry at normal speeds. Yawn. Also, the rotary's low-rev shuddering makes it feel pretty stall-prone. In case you were hoping to make up for this with Earth-shattering racing potential, it may sadden you that the RX-8's quick 0-60 time of 5.9 seconds stands a full second behind the last RX-7 and nearly every peer at its price point today. Not good.

Oh, and the RX-8 trails the pack with 19 MPG when you mix your driving. Worst acceleration and worst fuel economy? Hmmm...

And if you pick the lazy man's transmission, the engine's glass ceiling comes crashing down to 7,500 RPM thanks to a torque converter that can't keep up with the engine. A an all-time record of FORTY ONE HORSEPOWER gets shaved off the rotary's top end, transforming the RX-8 into a borderline poser car. Then again, you only suffer this staggering loss if you buy the automatic. May the punishment fit the crime.

Lessons learned: buy the stick, keep the revs up, do your racing on curved roads, and never look back.

Inside and Out
Mazda RX-8 ReviewHere's a tip that should save you six-foot-plusers a lot of time: stay away! Speaking as someone who falls four inches south of that mark, I fit, but I also have vivid memories of a track event where I raced 20 different cars and the RX-8 was the only one with headroom so intolerable that my helmeted head banged on the roof pillars every time I turned a corner. Methinks Mazda misunderstands the type of pain sports cars are supposed to provide.

Two six-foot colleagues of mine who fit fine (though they sit reclined) insist they have no idea what I'm talking about, plus both of these cars had headroom-eating sunroofs. Just remember to sit before you spend.
Now onto the rest. Would it surprise you to know that the sports car with both the best ergonomics and the most class came from Mazda? Well then, act surprised. It won't knock your socks off, but so far this RX-8 presents the only cockpit that manages to squeeze in some style without getting garish or breaking ergonomic norms. The operation of every switch is standard-issue, and materials feel fairly expensive. The thematic triangular rotor accents add some decoration, and if you ask me, it makes the shifter feel better, too. Mazda's ideal steering wheel returns in 3-spoke form, there are neat little disco reflectors in the map lights, and aluminum pedals are always cool. So is the Volkswagen-style Swiss Army Knife key/remote (though the trunk is way too easy to pop open by accident). And the RX-8 has to be the last surviving car with a power lock switch that makes sense: down for lock, up for unlock. The only flub is a trunk release button that took me a week to discover since it's only visible when kneeling on the ground. If you're wondering what's up with the parking brake, they were trying to make it look like a rifle reloader. Whatever.

The 9-speaker, 300-watt stereo from the Touring Package is one of Bose's better systems. Just hope it's good enough for you since, as on all other Mazdas, the integrated design mean all bets are off for aftermarket swaps. I'm sure I could live with the sound, not so sure I could live without MP3.

I didn't care for the digital speedometer at first but soon came to appreciate its advantages: both the tach and speedo stand directly in front of you, where they belong. With one digital and the other analog, you'll never confuse the two at a quick glance, and glances take very little time or thinking since the exact speed is read right to you. Meet the Mazda RX-8: digital done right.

Aside from the headroom thing, no complaints with the front seats. Don't expect the same contentment with the rears. Access is easy thanks to those rear half-doors (which operate like a truck's: suicide style, and only after the fronts have been opened) but once back there, you'll notice the snug quarters. With the RX-8 being a small rear-drive car, it was wise to replace any possibility of a middle-rear seat with cupholders, a console, and an armrest for the other two. But all this extra stuff bisecting the seats adds to the walled-in feeling started by the small, far-forward windows. Don't think of the RX-8 as a family car substitute - four doors or not, it's still a "subcompact." Still, average-sized adults really do fit, and if it can't beat real sedans like the Impresa and Evo, it does beat the Mustang's while Nissan couldn't even squeeze any seat in the back of the 350Z, and the RX-8 is lighter than all of them! And Mazda protects everyone with side-curtain air bags.

I'll let you decide if the extra doors' utility was worth the unsightly cut lines down the middle of the body and the obstructed visibility out the left-rear. No B-pillar means no rigidity was gained, either. The trunk is pretty small, too, though Mazda made the most of it by using expensive space-saving struts instead of hinges. Plus, I came to find the large rectangular indent really useful.

Other ThoughtsMazda RX-8 Review
One thing the RX-7 is welcome to keep in its grave is its $37,000 price. This resurrected Mazda came back with a much more inviting price of $25,935. That's less than the average price of a new car, and considering the levels of equipment and engineering that went into it, it's almost modest.

That's for the automatic model, though. The 6-speed RX-8 starts $1,500 higher at $27,435, though they do compensate with bigger brakes, a limited-slip differential, 18-inch wheels (replacing 16s), and the entirely tolerable sport suspension.

From there on, there are three option packages, each of which requires the last. First is the Sport Package consisting of xenon headlights, fog lights, and traction and stability control for $1,300. On automatic RX-8s, it also adds the standard stickshift stuff mentioned earlier, bringing the package's cost to $2,000. (Since they apparently value the stick model's equipment at $700 while the model itself costs $1,500 more, Mazda is effectively charging $800 for the stickshift itself, I point out with mild disgust.)

After that comes the Touring Package, which inexplicably adds $1,675 to manuals and $1,775 to automatics, adds the Bose stereo, power moonroof, and auto-dimming mirror with HomeLink.
Last is the Grand Touring Package, which tops off all mentioned equipment with heated mirrors, heated leather seats, and 8-way power driver's seat with lumbar support. This time, it's cheaper on automatic RX-8s: $1,175 vs. $1,275.

2005's new Shinka Edition RX-8s are all about Black Cherry paint, white leather, polished wheels, headlights, taillights, and interior pieces, a Sirius radio subscription, and two suspension upgrades: longer-travel shocks and a Urethane foam-filled front cross member for added rigidity. Since Shinkas already have the Grand Touring package, they essentially cost $1,345/$1,375 above manual/automatic RX-8s.

All that matters is the basic manual model at $27,435, which has it butting heads with the Nissan 350Z. When it comes to feel through the wheel, the RX-8 seems like the easy victor in both sports car and passenger car roles. It handles sharper and safer, revs higher, stops shorter, holds twice as many passengers, and doesn't beat them up as much. Magazines frequently pit these two against each other in contests. Doesn't seem like much of a contest to me.

Of course, a ton of the RX-8's unique strengths are due, directly or indirectly, to its rotary engine, which some believe is a godsend or the greatest engine in the world. Well, if it were the greatest, everyone would be using it, so maybe it's time for some scrutiny. It makes incredible power for its size (183 freakin horses per liter!) and it's got that incredibly high redline (9,000 RPM!) - both world records in a production car - but come on, 19 MPG? Even 300 miles in nearly uninterrupted cruise control mode couldn't break 23. (The technical culprits: low compression and a long, narrow combustion chamber that makes the flame travel a long way.) Basically, this rotary engine has the torque of a 4-cylinder, the horsepower of a V6, and the consumption of a V8.

There's another way to look at it: take the Honda S2000, a car the RX-8 mechanically mimics a lot more than the 350Z. Honda's 2.2-liter 4-cylinder engine makes horsepower and torque figures nearly identical to the RX-8's (at 240 and 162, they're actually stand 2 and 3 above). Its redline of 8,300 RPM is nearly as lofty. So here's the main difference: it will go about 27 MPG on every gallon of fuel. Assuming $2.70/gallon for premium fuel and 12K miles/year, that's an extra $550 a year on Mazda's part. Yes, the rotary's super-lightweight nature has a domino effect on the rest of the car, but the S2000 manages to weigh even less, so who cares? In the end, the RX-8 looks like an S2000 with a drinking problem.

Tree-huggers might want to know that rotaries have often flirted with the boundaries of emissions limits, spewing lots of unburned hydrocarbons into the atmosphere. When was the last time a Honda engine was anything less than a model citizen for air quality? And while the rotary does sound different, it doesn't necessarily sound better, at least not to me.

One last thing. Rotaries have fewer moving parts and a reputation for lasting forever if you maintain them, but they're as thirsty for oil as they are for gas, needing an extra quart every month or so. (You know what happens to an engine running on no oil, don't you?) Does anyone else question the wisdom of unleashing such a high-maintenance motor on a populace whose cars sometimes come with warning buzzers that their turn signal has been blinking for a mile? Mazda didn't help the situation much by concealing the dipstick down in the engine compartment, not marking it with intuitive labels, and using a color that almost camouflages with oil. I just hope the RX-8 falls into the hands of avid readers who come across page 8-12 of the owner's manual - the only real mention of the issue. If you're in the market for an RX-8, this might be a good time to be honest with yourself about how meticulous you are on maintenance.

Last WordMazda RX-8 Review
Fun, fast, practical, and entirely livable in the daily grind, it's hard to think of a better all-around sports car under $30,000 (if not $40,000) than the Mazda RX-8, especially if you want a balance of attributes. Mazda's will have to stuff its old 2.5-liter V6 under the hood before I buy one, but if the rotary's for you, what are you waiting for?
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