To some people, the sound of a rotary engine revving at 9000 rpm is like nails on a chalkboard. Not me. But its constant, high-pitched hum sounds similar to that of a busy beehive. It’s one of the most distinct sounds in the automotive world and has experienced great success both on the road and on the racetrack.
The Mazda RX-8’s chassis is superb; it honestly doesn’t get much better. Precise turn-in, balance, and grip, the RX-8 has it all. The low torque numbers (159 lb-ft @ 5500 rpm) mean you need to rev the living daylights out of it for any power, but the rotary engine has no problem climbing the tachometer to numbers a conventional engine can only spit oil at.
This R3 package looks really, really good: nineteen-inch smoked-gray wheels, Recaro seats, and a body kit with rear wing. My only gripes: $33,000 is a tough pill to swallow, and as great as the engine is, it needs more power. Address these issues, Mazda, and you’d have yourselves a perennial Automobile Magazine All-Star in my book.
Mike Ofiara, Road Test Coordinator
On paper, a $33,000 sports car that makes 159 lb-ft of torque and gets worse fuel economy than a Chevrolet Camaro SS (which 420 lb-ft of torque) sounds about as appealing as ordering a grilled cheese sandwich at a fancy Japanese hotel. (Trust me, this is a perfect simile. I once made this mistake and wound up with a $40 hunk of something that tasted neither grilled nor cheesy.)
But like Mazda’s other great sports car, the Miata, the RX-8 is a vehicle for which the stat sheet does little justice. Put simply, the RX-8 is the best handling coupe this side of a Porsche Cayman. It turns in well, displays no body roll, and then sticks and sticks and sticks, finally losing traction in a progressive, predictable manner. One stat sheet item that is quite telling here is curb weight: 3064 pounds. That’s 200 pounds lighter than the very lithe 370Z and nearly 800 pounds less than the not-so-lithe Camaro. Much of this lightness, of course, comes from the compact rotary engine, which, for all of its torque-deficient, oil-using quirkiness, is absolutely splendid in this application, whirring right up to its 9000(!) rpm redline.
I’m not incredibly optimistic about the future of this offbeat, wonderful car. Even if Mazda plans to continue offering something like an RX-8 in the future, the rotary’s shortcomings might just do it in. Impending CAFE regulations leave little room to justify such an inefficient engine just because it’s lovely, and Mazda, now forced to survive without a large corporate patron, will likely be tempted to employ one of its upcoming new four-cylinders. However, I hold out hope that the company will stubbornly hold on to its strange affection for the Wankel and that, by extension, the RX-8 will stay with us.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor
It’s easy to forget the odd little RX-8, and then you get into one after a long absence and you immediately remember what a great chassis this is. Wow. So, so fun to rev up the rotary, throw yourself into a freeway on-ramp, and burst into the traffic stream at 80 or 90 mph. The interior is still very fresh after all these years, and the rotary-engine design cues, like the rotor-shaped top to the shift knob, are endearingly cool. Our test car also had a set of superb Recaro bucket seats.
If you want an entertaining sports car, you’re not put off by the oddball powertrain or the horrendous fuel economy, and you want something different, the RX-8 is still well worth considering.
Joe DeMatio, Deputy Editor
The rotary’s depressing torque output may actually be a boon to the RX-8. Instead of the simple kick of easy acceleration, the RX-8 leads you to handling nirvana where the thrills are much more satisfying. It’s unfortunate that the RX-8 is a relative outcast in the sports car set, as it’s an absolutely wonderful car. The Recaro seats are comfortably snug, the stubby shifter feels wonderful, and the engine spins effortlessly. The only thing the RX-8 wants is that sizeable dose of torque.
Unfortunately, it looks like the Wankel must dramatically evolve or face certain extinction. The dismal fuel economy doesn’t stand a chance against the coming regulations and the low volume means each engine could practically be classified as a science project. Hopefully the 16X engine concept that Mazda showed in 2007 will come to production. With that engine’s direct injection, larger displacement, and a modified crankshaft, Mazda claims both increased torque and fuel economy.
Eric Tingwall, Associate Editor
Joe DeMatio stole my lead-in comment almost verbatim: indeed, it is easy to forget about the Mazda RX-8 since it’s been on the market for quite a few years now. But this Mazda remains, and always has been, one helluva fun car. Sure, it’s lacking in the power — and especially torque — departments, but the handling, steering, and gearbox are so good that it makes it one of the faster slow cars that are fun to drive really quickly. The clamshell-door coupe’s packaging is incredibly good, too, as I noted a couple years ago after chauffeuring three friends to a Detroit Tigers game. If only the RX-8 weren’t so expensive to buy and operate (the latter due to its poor fuel mileage and high oil consumption), I’d give it a resounding recommendation to other guys like me-car buffs with young children.
I will disagree with Joe about one thing: those Recaro seats, because there’s a weird bump at the base of the seatback that I found fairly uncomfortable.
Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor
Base price (with destination): $32,740
Price as tested: $32,740
1.3L rotary engine
6-speed manual transmission
Four-wheel disc brakes
Limited slip differential
Bilstein shock absorbers
Front and rear stablizer bars
Front strut tower brace
Dual power mirrors
Rear wing spoiler
AM/FM stereo with 6-disc CD changer
300-Watt Bose system with 9 speakers
Auxiliary audio input jack
Recaro sport seats
Leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio/cruise controls
Leather-wrapped shift knob
Auto-dimming rearview mirror
Tire pressure monitoring system
DSC with traction control
Options on this vehicle:
Key options not on vehicle:
16 / 22 / 18 mpg
Size: 1.3L two-rotor engine
Horsepower: 232 hp @ 8500 rpm
Torque: 159 lb-ft @ 5500 rpm
Curb weight: 3064 lb
19 x 8-inch aluminum wheels
225/40R19 Bridgestone Potenza RE50A summer performance tires