Sometimes there’s not much glamour to driving a sports car. Sometimes there’s a real shortage of roads through the Black Forest or curbside parking next to a sidewalk caf in Monte Carlo. Sometimes you’re just going to work, driving on worn-out pavement in the concrete jungle. You make the best of it, hoping only for a single corner or a straightaway where you can let the car (and yourself) loose for a moment.
The Mazda RX-8 wants to be the right kind of sports car when you’re trying to make the best of driving in the real world. It’s light and easy to drive. It’s affordable, only $25,700 for an entry-level model. Most of all, there’s room in the back seat for those people you’re always shuttling around town, and there are even four doors to make such trips as practical as possible. The Mazda RX-8 is a real car, not just a toy.
And yet the RX-8 never wants you to forget that it’s a sports car. It wants to be the right car to have when you cut over to Mulholland Drive on your way to work so you can maneuver those last four corners before you hit the Hollywood Freeway. It wants to be the right car to have in the Second Street tunnel, where you can buzz the engine right up to its redline just to hear the sound of the exhaust reverberating against the concrete. It wants to be the right car when it’s your own personal Zen to find the time and place every day to drive 100 mph on the San Diego Freeway. When you’re driving in a gritty, urban world, the RX-8 wants you to be able to make the best of it.
We’ll admit that it took us a very long time to get the RX-8. After all, there’s something wrongheaded about the idea of a four-door sports car. It sounds like a marketing ploy, not a real car. We’ve watched as designers have fiddled with the notion for nearly a decade, and there have been no torchlight parades to support the idea, even after Mazda adopted the concept with its RX-Evolv show car at the 1999 Tokyo auto show.
We finally decided that we needed a little perspective on the whole concept of a sports car with four doors, so we put the RX-8 together with two cars that presumably embody its underlying character. On one hand, the Nissan 350Z defines serious sports car performance. On the other, the BMW 330i defines the serious sporting sedan. We weren’t sure if we’d finally see the light or just fall into some kind of schizophrenic episode.
Of course, we ought to be pleased that there is still any sort of rotary-powered Mazda sports car at all. The RX-7 story ended in 1995 when the third-generation car disappeared from our shores after just three years and fewer than 14,000 sales. Since Mazda was sliding toward the financial abyss at the time, it seemed the rotary engine was about to be tossed onto the scrap heap, troubled by emissions, noise, and limited power potential. But Mazda’s inventive engineers never quit on their signature powerplant, and the normally aspirated Renesis (the name is a kind of acronym for “rotary engine genesis”) now produces 250 horsepower at 8500 rpm–as much power as the turbo-charged rotary of the third-generation RX-7.
Yet the engine’s physical properties are the key to the RX-8. About the size of a magician’s suitcase, the lightweight rotary is tucked behind the centerline of the RX-8’s front wheels and positioned very low to the ground. This combination of a low polar moment of inertia and a low center of gravity lets the RX-8 change direction with little effort–the kind of dynamic response expected from a sports car. At the same time, the compact engine also allows for a four-passenger configuration and a trunk with 7.6 cubic feet of cargo volume to fit on a 106.3-inch wheelbase.
This kind of packaging efficiency has always been the spirit of Mazda sports cars, and you can see it even in the spare, chiseled shape of the RX-8. The front fenders and low hood seem shrink-wrapped around the components beneath. The RX-8’s profile isn’t so graceful, as the roof’s angular C-pillar (inspired by the first-generation 1979 RX-7) makes the car look heavy instead of purposeful. Altogether, the Mazda illustrates how automotive design has moved away from the stylized aerodynamic sleekness of the BMW 330i toward the geometric collage of the Nissan Z-car.
Surprisingly, there is no feeling of being shrink-wrapped when you’re behind the wheel of the RX-8. There’s an expansive view over the low hood, although the very high beltline to the side is in keeping with current sports car imagery. There’s a fraction more front shoulder room than in the BMW 3-series sedan, as much head room as in a 3-series coupe, and a bit more leg room than in the Z-car. There’s a lot of style as well: The indirect lighting on the instruments has a bluish cast, and the black plastic finish at the bottom of the center stack looks great. The black vinyl and leather elsewhere in the interior don’t look as great (only the Germans can do black leather, it seems), but Mazda offers dramatic color-keyed accents in red or tan for the seats, door panels, and even the steering wheel.
It’s the rear seat that everyone wants to know about, of course. To make the center-opening “Freestyle” rear doors possible, Mazda puts a lot of structure into the RX-8, notably a raised tunnel down the centerline of the car. The rear seat fits an adult, and there’s just an inch less head and shoulder room than in the BMW 3-series sedan. It’s the leg room that suffers, as the RX-8 has nearly two inches less than the BMW (although a bit more than the rear seat of a sedan). Fortunately, Mazda designers left a crucial amount of space for your feet beneath the front seats (this area in sedans is often filled by power-seat paraphernalia), so you’re able to use all the leg room that’s available.
Given a certain amount of athleticism, two full-size passengers can clamber into the rear of the RX-8 and live back there for about an hour. It’s safe enough–the closed rear doors are secured to the bottom of the chassis with a series of steel pins, while curtain-type air bags provide head protection–but it’s damn claustrophobic, thanks to the high beltline and the tiny rear window.
Once you rev the rotary engine to its 8500-rpm power peak, you’ll never give a second thought to the rear passengers again. Is there any engine that revs as sweetly as this? Like a racing engine’s, the rotary’s mechanical happiness increases as the tach needle swings around the dial, and the rising swell of power is tremendously exhilarating. The gearbox has a short-throw, light-effort shift linkage, and closely spaced ratios in the first five gears and a short final drive make it easy to keep the wave of engine power just at the verge of cresting.
As you trundle around on the city streets, though, you quickly discover the rotary engine’s dirty little secret, a conspicuous absence of torque: only 159 pound-feet at 5500 rpm. Compared with similarly peaky engines such as the Honda S2000‘s 240-horsepower, 2.0-liter in-line four-cylinder, the RX-8’s rotary is far more drivable thanks to its inherent smoothness and willingness to rev. But the Mazda can’t hope to have the authoritative bark of the Z-car’s 3.5-liter V-6, which has 115 pound-feet more torque, while the dynamo-like elasticity of the BMW’s 3.0-liter in-line six-cylinder might as well be in another dimension. After all, the twin-rotor Mazda 13B displaces just 1308 cubic centimeters and produces only two power pulses per engine revolution versus the reference cars’ three. The consequences show up in the 0-to-60-mph time and quarter-mile acceleration, in which the RX-8 trails the Z-car, and in top-gear passing time, where it’s far behind both the Z and the 330i.
But it’s senseless to go looking for the nature of the RX-8 in the numbers. It’s just not that kind of car. Instead, you need to drive it. Drive it around town, squeezing through holes in the traffic. Drive it around a corner, even if you have to apex in the bus lane. The RX-8 does not have the taut, muscular response of the Z-car. It doesn’t have the sure, carved-from-billet feel of the BMW. But it’s light to the touch, and the car does your bidding with just the pressure from your fingertips.
The RX-8 exhibits precision, efficiency, and imagination. Maybe it’s because the Mazda people are real engineers, the kind of people who pride themselves on being able to do for a dime what any fool could do for a dollar. This makes the RX-8 the kind of car that takes advantage of physics. To begin with, it’s lightweight at just 3020 pounds with a full tank of gas, which makes it 220 pounds lighter than the Z-car and a full 340 pounds lighter than the 330i. You find the goodness of low weight every time you’re at the RX-8’s wheel, because it delivers cornering grip almost effortlessly, each 225/45WR-18 Bridgestone Potenza RE040 sharing the load before the car finally understeers gently at the limit. The RX-8’s long wheelbase reduces forward weight transfer under braking, and it stops shorter than both the BMW and the Z-car. The front suspension’s wishbone-type control arms are built from lightweight forged aluminum, and Mazda’s engineers have made an effort to control camber change carefully, so the car always feels precise.
Detailing like this makes it feel as if you’re driving around with an antigravity device attached to the car. You barely brush the controls, and the Mazda makes its move, delivering dynamics that are reminiscent of a Miata. Once you get into the throttle, the rotary engine crackles upward to its 9000-rpm redline, and the gearchange seems supernaturally precise, especially if you pause for an instant in neutral to let the synchros do their work (there are triple-cone synchros for first, second, and third gears). Brush the brake pedal, and the short-stroke linkage delivers lots of braking power as you modulate pressure, the way all high-performance cars should. The steering wheel bends the front of the car effortlessly through the corner, and there’s just enough roll at the front to let you know that the front tires, not the rears, are determining your line of flight. The RX-8 is even lightfooted when you’re cruising, although there’s a lot of road noise and impact harshness that makes its way through the rubber bushings that locate the rear suspension subframes.
These are all the hallmarks of a light, precise car, something that sports car drivers have been talking about since Colin Chapman built the first Lotus Mark 6 in the early 1950s. The Z-car is terrific in its own right, a brawny car that you can drive with your biceps, feeling confident that it will never let you down. It’s faster than the RX-8, and you can work up a sweat in it. The BMW 330i makes time on the road without actually asking much from the driver, the pulling power of the in-line six-cylinder carrying you irresistibly forward. And yet, who wants to always work up a sweat while driving? And isn’t there something about the tall center of gravity in a sedan that makes you feel as if a block of lead is sliding across the rear package shelf every time you go around a corner?
Mazda hopes to sell 18,000 RX-8s each year, and we believe that this is possible. The entry-level $25,700 car, with its 210-horsepower rotary engine, paddle-shift, four-speed automatic transmission, and sixteen-inch tires, delivers sports car performance at the price of a sports coupe. The fully optioned $33,100 RX-8, with its 250-horsepower rotary engine, six-speed manual transmission, and sport suspension with eighteen-inch tires, is an authentic sports car with a dimension of practicality like an Infiniti G35 coupe.
It’s still hard to know what to make of the whole concept of the four-door sports car. If the RX-8 were a simple 2+2 that required circus-caliber acrobatics to climb into the rear seat, no one would say a word. But it offers real-world rear-seat accommodation, only not like a BMW. It delivers true sports car performance, only not like a Nissan Z-car. It’s simply not like anything else, much like the rotary engine itself. Certain kinds of drivers will make their way to this car, and they won’t be like Porsche, Nissan, or BMW drivers. They’ll be after something else.
The RX-8 is different, but it’s a true sports car. For this, Mazda should thank the intensity of its rotary engine. The truth is, the rotary engine has incredibly powerful imagery, and it defines Mazda in a world where brand identity is hard to come by. As for the whole notion of four-door sports cars, we’re not sure where it’s going, but if the RX-8 is any measure, it is making good speed.