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 Lexus IS300 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.