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.