The auto industry moves too fast to fully appreciate the cars it builds. We haven’t even driven the 580-hp Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, and the mere announcement of a 650-hp Ford Shelby GT500 has already hijacked the Chevy’s supercharged, eight-cylinder thunder. We typically wouldn’t take issue with such a competitive market that consistently leads to faster, more efficient, or simply better replacements, but when the Lotus Elise and the Mazda RX-8 left the U.S. market for 2012, there were no replacements. And that’s a problem.
When we learned of those models’ mutual demise, we took stock of what the rest of the industry had to offer and then realized that, for the past four years, we had largely ignored two sports cars that are without peer. Both were celebrated as Automobile Magazine All-Stars early in their careers and then…then we more or less forgot about them. Yet even at the end of their life cycles, they are unique vehicles. The Lotus is impossibly light; the RX-8 is powered by an unusual, free-spinning rotary engine.
Suddenly aware of what we were losing, we sought out an RX-8 and an Elise to give these overlooked, singular sports cars their due recognition. OK, we admit it: we selfishly wanted to take one last drive in a couple of cars that we’ll miss more now that they’re gone than we appreciated when they were here. The ensuing day of track laps and back-road driving was arguably the best possible funeral procession.
These two cars have common origins in 1996. That’s the year the rotary engine disappeared from the States for the first time. After just three years on sale, the third-generation RX-7 was pulled from our market despite a sterling reputation. It was a phenomenal car, cherished by owners and praised by critics, yet there weren’t enough people willing to lay down $38,000 for the privilege of owning one.
At the same time Americans were bidding farewell to the RX-7, Lotus was birthing the Elise. Following the controversial front-wheel-drive Elan and the problem-child Esprit, Lotus got off on the right foot simply by sending power to the correct set of wheels and starting with new hardware. A modest four-cylinder engine packaged in a remarkably lightweight architecture — composite body panels over an epoxy-bonded aluminum chassis — made the car far more significant than any recent Lotus. It was a dynamic masterpiece, but American enthusiasts could only admire Hethel’s creation from afar.
Nine years was plenty of time for us to contemplate what we were missing, as the Elise picked up several accolades from European publications and the rare RX-7 became something of a legend. Then, in 2003, Mazda brought back the rotary with the new RX-8 and Lotus announced that its second-generation Elise would be shipped to America in 2004.
Mazda wouldn’t make the same pricey mistake with the RX-8 that it made in 1993. To control costs, the RX-7’s twin sequential turbochargers were eliminated. The price was slashed, but so was engine output. Power fell from 255 to 232 hp. Torque plummeted. The RX-8’s defining characteristic was born.
The dearth of torque — just 159 lb-ft — and an 8500-rpm horsepower peak mean going anywhere quickly in an RX-8 requires using lots of revs. The torqueless wonder feels less punchy than many compact cars, but deliberate, committed acceleration is the fast path to love in an RX-8. With the right pedal pinned, the rotors build revs with the quickness of a motorcycle engine and the smoothness of an electric motor.
The RX-8 feels particularly at home on the track, where parking the tach needle in the upper third of its range is more practical. Flicking the stubby shifter back and forth through the tight pattern is a reward for keeping the engine on boil between 6000 and 9000 rpm. That’s a powerband normally accessible only in cars like Lamborghinis and Ferraris, and an RX-8 costs a tenth as much as those cars. For another perspective on just what the 9000-rpm redline means, consider that Mazda limited automatic-transmission RX-8s to 7500 rpm. Why? The torque converter self-destructs if it spins much faster.
Mazda claims a dry weight of just 250 pounds for the 13B Renesis engine, a fact made even sweeter by the rotary’s tidy dimensions, which allow the engine to be tucked low and far back in the chassis. Through corners, the RX-8 is planted, its neutral handling nothing but predictable. The RX-8’s steering is quick without being edgy. Its convincing weight masks the fact that it is electrically assisted, as it has been since 2004, well before the infinitely tunable, fuel-saving technology became widespread. That the RX-8 — and contemporaries such as the Acura NSX and the Honda S2000 — absolutely nailed the execution is a testament that such systems can be just as good, if not better, than hydraulically assisted setups.
If the RX-8 is so special, why would Mazda kill it? Back in 2004, lowering the price point wasn’t enough to guarantee success. Rather than err toward Elise-like simplicity, Mazda hedged its rotary revival on a suspect premise: practicality. With a pair of rear-hinged half doors, the RX-8 would lay claim to being a truly functional four-seat sports car. No one would ever have reason to buy another Toyota Camry.
That idea — predictably — didn’t pan out. Splitting the focus between driver and passengers resulted in a wheelbase of 106.3 inches, up from 95.5 inches in the previous RX-7, and as a result the RX-8 isn’t as tossable as its predecessor. Compared with the knife-edged Elise, the RX-8 feels almost minivan-ish. The seating position is high, the ride is relaxed, and the view out is framed by so much more car. Relatively speaking. The RX-8 wasn’t the great sports car it could have been; it was a great grand tourer. It was also a great engine plunked into a car that wasn’t sure of itself.
Mazda has made it clear that rotary development continues even if there isn’t an RX-8 successor to announce just yet. Delivering the keynote address at the Los Angeles auto show in November, Mazda boss Takashi Yamanouchi promised, “I am very attached to the rotary engine, so as long as I’m president of Mazda, our R&D in this area will continue.”
Nevertheless, it’s been a quiet four years since the 16X rotary engine concept was shown at the 2007 Tokyo auto show, and we don’t expect a rotary reveal any time soon. Mazda first needs to create a new generation of passenger cars without help from Ford — an exercise that requires massive financial resources. Japan’s fourth-largest automaker is just now launching the engines, transmissions, and platforms for the cars that form the bread and butter of the business (see page 36), and Mazda will almost certainly introduce new compact and mid-size sedans before it’s ready to bring forth a new Wankel-powered sports car.
Over in England, Lotus is undergoing a similar reconciliation with market realities, hoping for newfound relevance with five new models aimed at Porsche, Ferrari, and McLaren. But until those cars arrive beginning in early 2013, Lotus’s trajectory looks disturbingly similar to a going-out-of-business sale. Although the prototypes are designed around uncommon modularity and promise competitive specs, the manufacturing and funding schemes remain nebulous. Not to mention Lotus’s constant state of uncertainty for the past six decades. The Elise had to bow out in 2012 because Lotus lost its exemption to sell cars without the dual-stage, weight-sensing air bags required by U.S. law, a seemingly low hurdle to clear when Nissan can package the requisite hardware in a $12,000 Versa. When Lotus couldn’t come up with a car for this story, we tapped our friends at Fox Motorsports in western Michigan, and they produced a pristine 2009 Elise with just 3000 miles on the odometer.
Compared with the fiery, track-only Lotus 2-Eleven and the barely street-legal Exige that are built from the same architecture, the base Elise is a model of restraint and well-rounded balance. The most modest Elise is our favorite, and it need not apologize for the few concessions it makes to civility, because even by sports car standards, it is still radically extreme. There are no carpets, seat padding is thin, and the doors appear to be afterthoughts in this minimalist car. All for good reason, though. Whereas adding power improves acceleration, removing weight improves acceleration, cornering, and braking. Lotus’s noble pursuit of low weight resulted in a sub-2000-pound car with perfect dynamic manners.
Freed of a conservative Toyota host, the 1.8-liter 2ZZ-GE engine (codeveloped by Toyota and Yamaha) is an unexpectedly awesome performer. Lotus engineers added their own intake and exhaust and revised engine mapping to lift output by 20 hp and bolster low- and midrange torque. At 6200 rpm, a valve-timing shift prompts a second surge in the engine, one that you can hear as well as feel. The exhaust note crescendos and the seat pushes against you more firmly as the Lotus surges toward its 8500-rpm redline.
Then you turn the steering wheel, and the mid-engine Elise carves its way to the place in your mind reserved for the important memories in life like weddings and births and that time you picked up a girl who was totally out of your league. The unassisted steering leads to revelations about how a car should communicate with the driver. Affected only by the speed of the pavement passing beneath the tires, the effort behind every movement of the steering wheel rises and falls as your pace falls and rises. The fast rack means that even the tightest turns around the track require little more than a quarter turn of the wheel.
While the RX-8 changes directions with benign compliance, the Elise moves with rabid obedience. The difference is massive in the mind of a focused driver. The Lotus is more eager to follow the driver’s commands, intentional or otherwise, into oversteer or understeer. This level of honesty and control makes it a singular driver’s car. The Elise’s few faults — like a balky shifter and abhorrent ingress — recede with every mile driven. The humble yet hungry engine, the pure steering, and the Elise’s willingness to follow your every intention make it one car that changes how you feel about all other cars. I should own an Elise. I should own this Elise.
Unfortunately, that very thought has already planted itself in the mind of the Elise’s handler, this magazine’s former road test editor Marc Noordeloos. Now would be a wise time to invest in featherlight, mid-engine sports cars before the market makes a run on them. Every car nut with a properly calibrated brain will inevitably come to the same realization. While the future for Mazda’s rotary looks promising, the Elise’s ideals appear to be in jeopardy. It doesn’t actually exist yet, but Lotus says the next Elise will have power-assisted steering and 400 pounds of additional stuff. That takes it halfway to a Porsche Cayman — a great car but not nearly as special as the Elise.
These two cars do things differently from other sports cars. Each one creates a driving experience unlike any other car. Their only common bond — being normally aspirated, high-rpm screamers — is an increasingly rare characteristic when so many performance cars rely on turbochargers to produce performance within the bounds of fuel-economy regulations.
In adopting a different approach to internal combustion and in making a car that corners, accelerates, and brakes like the world’s most respected supercars, Mazda and Lotus have done something rare in the auto industry these days.
It’s too bad that you can’t buy a new car with a rotary engine or one that weighs less than a ton (save for the Smart ForTwo), but when good cars can’t be bought in dealerships, they trade in a market that values them as more than cars. Prized by dedicated enthusiasts and collectors, they ascend to a legendary status. Even if the Lotus Elise and the Mazda RX-8 aren’t quite legends yet, their retirement certainly puts them one step closer.
BY THE NUMBERS
The Final Countdown
U.S. Introduction 2003
Total sold 73,242
Peak Sales 23,690 (2004)
2011 sales* 705
Price at introduction $25,700
2011 price $27,590
Assembly Hiroshima, Japan
U.S. introduction 2004
Total sold 5400**
Peak sales 3300 (2005)**
2011 sales* 200**
Price at introduction $40,780
2011 price $52,970
Assembly Hethel, England
*through October 2011 **est., per Lotus PR