Forgive the skepticism, but we've seen it happen too many times before: Lithe, electric-handling Japanese coupe gradually acquires kids and a conscience; packs on the pounds; guts turn to goo; winds up as a pathetic, plaid-trousered parody of itself.
Eleven years ago, Mazda promised this would never happen to its rotary-rocket RX-7. So, how is an RX-7 that's sprouted four full-sized seats and 2+2 doors meant to maintain the edge?
The RX-8 hasn't managed to rewrite the laws of physics that govern weight and inertia, but Mazda sure has worked hard to get the law on its side. Or, more accurately, the yaw. The rear doors, of course, are a major talking point. Chief designer Ikuo Maeda won't say what first inspired him to try the rear-hinged, "freestyle" doors on his 1999 RX-Evolv concept.
"I don't want to say pickup trucks! But to keep the sporty proportions, I was going to need a compact cabin. With a conventional B-pillar, the wheelbase would have to be six inches longer for rear passengers to get in and out."
The cabin truly works. Front occupants enjoy supportive sport seats, steering column height adjustment, and sedanlike space around the footwells. Rotor-themed interior styling ranges from real metal details (tasty) to silver-painted plastic (tacky).
The back seat is strictly for two but easily accessed via the large door opening. Once inside, you can slide your feet under the front seats and enjoy that crucial inch or two of head and knee room. Ominously, but obviously, the trunk was designed around two golf bags.
When the RX-8 tees off in the United States next spring, there will be two engine versions: 207-horsepower Standard with a four-speed automatic and 250-horsepower Hi-Power mated to a six-speed manual. Pricing is rumored to be around $27,000 and $32,000 for the base cars.
Reborn as Renesis, the RX-series' trademark rotary engine has shed the previous 13B's turbochargers but has become Mazda's most powerful normally aspirated rotary. Engine displacement is the same, but the new rotary has its exhaust and inlet ports relocated to the engine's side housings, avoiding the old peripheral ports' timing overlap and allowing all ports to be bigger. Mazda says this is the cleanest and most fuel-efficient rotary ever, meeting California's LEV2 standard.
The RX-8 has gained weight over the previous RX-7 but only about 165 pounds, for a 2900-pound total, which is still some 300 pounds less than the similarly sized BMW 3-series coupes. The RX-8's weight distribution is dead-on 50/50 front to rear, but, crucially, everything imaginable has been done to pull mass into the center of the car's footprint.
The suspension is new: upper and lower control arms in front and a multi-link rear, with gas monotube dampers at each corner. The standard setup uses sixteen-inch wheels, while an optional Sports suspension (standard on Hi-Power) firms everything up and adds larger 12.7-inch-diameter front discs and eighteen-inch wheels. A DSC electronic stability program is also on hand.
Mazda proffered graphs and charts to show how the RX-8 achieves, for example, a five percent lower yaw inertia moment (while we achieved a yawn moment), but, basically, this baby is Switzerland: It'll stay neutral until it falls off the map. Indeed, the RX-8 has such a relaxed, long-wheelbased feel, it's a disappointment after the smack-you-up suddenness and iron-fist turbo delivery of the RX-7. Mazda's charts and the driver's brave-o-meter prove that the RX-8's roadholding limits are higher and that it covers ground just as quickly (holding four people and two golf bags). It just doesn't feel particularly entertaining while doing so.
The Renesis engine, even in Hi-Power guise, delivers syrupy-smooth acceleration through to its power peak at 8500 rpm, but somehow it just doesn't urge you to spin it into oblivion. There's a similar element of understatement to the six-speed gearbox, which numbs its short lever throw with a rubbery shift action and a tallish final-drive ratio.
No sweat with the steering or brakes, either. Turn-in is quick and progressive rather than electric (odd, since the system is electric), but the weighting and feedback are terrific. So you confidently run too fast into corners, roll the RX-8 onto its rim, and let the unobtrusive DSC take over, cradling the chassis in a neutral attitude rather than the expected understeer. Easy. With DSC switched off, it'll enter with understeer and transition to oversteer, all tempered by a sense of long-wheelbase mellowness. Even on bumps, the tracking is pretty much bombproof, with the Sports suspension proving no less composed than the standard setup.
So perhaps the Mazda RX-8 hasn't gotten fat, it's just gotten efficient. Middle age has to have some compensations. Meanwhile, nobody at Mazda is saying that we've seen the last of the RX-7 nameplate.