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.