Within minutes of leaving our parking garage I wished for a chance to take this Mazda RX-8 to a road course. It’s rare to experience a car that likes to rev as much as this one and has such a great chassis. The rotary engine is much better suited to track use than street driving because it drinks gas and oil at an impressive rate and doesn’t ever produce much in the way of torque. But keep the revs up and this Wankel will provide power exactly where you want it for a track day. There’s a lot of shifting required to daily drive an RX-8, but this particular example seemed more powerful than others I’ve driven. Maybe it’s because I’ve been driving so many four-cylinder compact cars lately that I’m used to not having much torque.
Mazda only managed to move 1134 RX-8s off dealer lots in 2010, so it’s very possible this will be one of the last times I experience a new RX-8. Although the rotary engine fails to meet the fuel-economy, torque-delivery, and oil-consumption expectations of modern car shoppers, there’s an abundance of personality in this wacky powerplant that you’ll never find in a piston-driven engine. I would almost like to buy an RX-8 to preserve this interesting specimen once it inevitably falls out of Mazda’s production portfolio, but I don’t really fit behind the wheel. When a sunroof is present, I find my head brushing up against the headliner, and there’s no telescoping wheel to allow me to slide the seat farther back. Since I’d really want to take this car to a track, that’s a bit of a problem. I can’t imagine trying to drive an RX-8 with a helmet on if I can just barely fit in the car without one. I suppose drivers shorter than six feet won’t have a problem with this, though.
Phil Floraday, Senior Web Editor
The RX-8 embodies all that is good about Mazda. It’s a rare car that places more priority on chassis balance, steering precision, and grip than on power. The result is an engaging, light-footed sports car that’s the closest you’ll get to a poor man’s Lotus (along with the Miata). Because the RX-8 is slightly underpowered, there’s more opportunity to spin the engine relentlessly and zip around in that high-fun, low-speed zone. It’s a big reason why the RX-8 performs so impressively on public roads. It’s also a car with no direct competitor. That’s fantastic, because it keeps Mazda honest. Rather than getting caught up in horsepower or fuel-economy one-upmanship, this fun-to-drive car can just hum along doing what it wants to do.
Unfortunately, the RX-8 also demonstrates all that is not good about Mazda. Namely, that the independent automaker doesn’t have the resources to keep a full lineup fresh enough to remain competitive. Mazda’s halo car is crawling toward its eighth year of existence without a single significant update. You can’t blame the market for failing to get excited about a sports car that is standing still while the rest of the market moves forward. If Mazda wants the rotary engine and the RX-8 to remain relevant — as it should — the company needs to rush to develop a next-generation version with all-new styling and an engine update that shows Mazda is still committed to the technology. However, the company has been silent about the 16X rotary engine since showing it in 2007. That prototype promised improved fuel economy and torque thanks to larger displacement, direct injection, and a longer “stroke.”
Eric Tingwall, Associate Editor
The RX-8, to me, is what every mainstream automaker’s halo model should be. Not only is it attainable at some $27,500 (for the base model), it also embodies the best qualities of the brand. Pilot an RX-8 down a twisting road, and you instantly understand and appreciate why all Mazdas, from the 2 through the CX-9, are charismatic, relatively lightweight, and generally better to drive than their competition.
The practical side of me, like Eric, understands that there are aspects of the RX-8 that make it a poor halo model. It uses as much fuel as (and more oil than) the aforementioned CX-9, which weighs 1500 pounds more. And if a halo model is going to be affordable, it must also sell in strong volumes. As Phil noted, fewer than 1200 people purchased an RX-8 last year. That’s about 10 percent of the Nissan 370Z’s volume and 1.4 percent of the Chevrolet Camaro’s volume. What makes this truly sad is that the RX-8 is more enjoyable than either of those cars, and more usable, too, thanks to its relatively spacious interior and four doors.
It’s probably a bit much to expect a small, independent automaker to invest in not one but two affordable sports cars. If the Miata and the RX-8 are both thrown off a boat and I’m able rescue only one, I’m chucking the life preserver over to the Miata. From conversations I’ve had with Mazda people, it seems they’re thinking along the same lines.
All of this goes to say that life is unfair. The RX-8 deserves to survive simply because it’s so unique and so brilliant, but the cutthroat realities of the modern auto industry don’t recognize such subjective qualities. Nevertheless, here’s to hoping against hope that Mazda scratches together the cash to update it and find more fuel economy in the weird but wonderful Wankel.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor
I’m glad this RX-8 found its way to our offices — I’d never driven an RX-8 (or a Wankel-powered automobile, for that matter) before, and considering that the RX-8’s future is shrouded in uncertainty, it’s better to get into one now than to wait.
The rotary is one rev-happy engine, but it’s also one that loves to sip oil. I thought this was a mere stereotype until my commute home: thirty minutes in to it, the dreaded “low oil” tell-tale came on, and sure enough, the engine was frightfully low on 5W20. Not a big deal, except that Mazda’s designers thought it a good idea to bury 90 percent of the engine compartment beneath molded polyurethane; an access door is provided for the dipstick, but reaching the oil fill (or the battery, for that matter) requires ripping away all sorts of beauty covers.
Apart from this minor hiccup, the RX-8 proved flawless and incredibly enjoyable. I can’t recall the last time I drove a sports car that gripped the road half as well as this, let alone one that can be had for under $30,000, and is actually somewhat usable in everyday life (those rear-hinged half-doors are a boon for loading cargo, even if passengers can’t be convinced to squeeze behind the front seats). Enthusiasts eyeing a $24,000 Volkswagen GTI should give serious thought to picking up a $27,000 RX-8 Sport instead — it’s a completely different level of sports car for essentially the same money. That’s arguably a bargain, but like most deals like this, you’ll have to act fast. RX-8 production ceases at the end of this year, and as my colleagues note, it may be a while before a similar proposition arises again.
Evan McCausland, Associate Web Editor
The RX-8 hasn’t seen all that many changes since hitting American dealerships in 2003, but this car remains a total joy to drive. You have to rev the hell out of it, but it’s pretty fun to spin the Wankel beyond 9000 rpm. It probably wouldn’t be so fun to put fuel in the car, however; the EPA rates it at 16/22 mpg city/highway, which is as bad as some full-size pickups.
But no pickup could ever match the RX-8’s nice steering, slick manual gearbox, or fantastic balance and grip. This Grand Touring model allows slightly more body roll than I expected, but it’s more than acceptable and permits ride quality that’s quite comfortable. More than comfortable enough, I decided, to shuttle around my two kids for the weekend, which I blogged about elsewhere on automobilemag.com (Mazda RX-8: The family man’s sports car).
Like my colleagues, I’ll be sad to see the RX-8 disappear. Heck, I still even find its good — and weird — looks to be pretty eye-catching, a feeling that’s surely helped by the fact that so few of these cars are on the road.
Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor
2011 Mazda RX-8 Grand Touring
Base price (with destination): $33,055
Price as tested: $33,055
1.3L rotary engine
6-speed manual transmission
Power assisted 4-wheel ventilated disc brakes
Limited slip differential
Sport tuned suspension
Direct drive electronically assisted steering
18-in. aluminum alloy wheels
Dual exhaust w/ chrome finishers
Dual power heated mirrors
Automatic on/off headlights
Rear LED taillights
Rain-sensing variable intermittent windshield wipers
Rear lip spoiler
Automatic climate control
AM/FM stereo w/6-disc CD changer
Auxiliary-audio input jack
300 watt BOSE system w/ 9 speakers
Power windows w/front auto up/down feature
8-way power driver/passenger seats w/3 memory settings
Leather-wrapped shift knob
Mazda advanced keyless entry
Scuff plates – black w/aluminum accents
Leather wrapped steering wheel
Center console w/power outlet
Overhead sunglasses holder
Auto dimming rear view mirror w/Homelink
Rear bucket seats w/trunk pass-through
Bluetooth hands-free phone capability
SIRIUS satellite radio w/6-month subscription
Carpeted floor mats
Alarm & engine immobilizer system
Side airbags & side air curtains
DSC w/traction control
Options on this vehicle:
Key options not on vehicle:
Navigation system — $2000
Spare tire kit — $400
Front/rear splash guards — $320
All-weather floor mats — $80
Door edge guards — $75
Cargo organizer — $70
Collapsible cargo carrier — $60
Moonroof wind deflector — $60
Cargo tray — $50
Cargo net — $40
16 / 22 / 18 mpg
Size: 1.3L rotary
Horsepower: 232 hp @ 8500 rpm
Torque: 159 lb-ft @ 5500 rpm
Curb weight: 3065 lb
Wheels/tires: 18 x 8.0-inch aluminum alloy
225/45R18 performance tires
Competitors: Nissan 370Z