Life After 8000 RPM: Lotus Elise and Mazda RX-8

A. J. Mueller

The auto industry moves too fast to fully appreciate the cars it builds. We haven't even driven the 580-hp Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, and the mere announcement of a 650-hp Ford Shelby GT500 has already hijacked the Chevy's supercharged, eight-cylinder thunder. We typically wouldn't take issue with such a competitive market that consistently leads to faster, more efficient, or simply better replacements, but when the Lotus Elise and the Mazda RX-8 left the U.S. market for 2012, there were no replacements. And that's a problem.

When we learned of those models' mutual demise, we took stock of what the rest of the industry had to offer and then realized that, for the past four years, we had largely ignored two sports cars that are without peer. Both were celebrated as Automobile Magazine All-Stars early in their careers and then...then we more or less forgot about them. Yet even at the end of their life cycles, they are unique vehicles. The Lotus is impossibly light; the RX-8 is powered by an unusual, free-spinning rotary engine.

Suddenly aware of what we were losing, we sought out an RX-8 and an Elise to give these overlooked, singular sports cars their due recognition. OK, we admit it: we selfishly wanted to take one last drive in a couple of cars that we'll miss more now that they're gone than we appreciated when they were here. The ensuing day of track laps and back-road driving was arguably the best possible funeral procession.

These two cars have common origins in 1996. That's the year the rotary engine disappeared from the States for the first time. After just three years on sale, the third-generation RX-7 was pulled from our market despite a sterling reputation. It was a phenomenal car, cherished by owners and praised by critics, yet there weren't enough people willing to lay down $38,000 for the privilege of owning one.

At the same time Americans were bidding farewell to the RX-7, Lotus was birthing the Elise. Following the controversial front-wheel-drive Elan and the problem-child Esprit, Lotus got off on the right foot simply by sending power to the correct set of wheels and starting with new hardware. A modest four-cylinder engine packaged in a remarkably lightweight architecture -- composite body panels over an epoxy-bonded aluminum chassis -- made the car far more significant than any recent Lotus. It was a dynamic masterpiece, but American enthusiasts could only admire Hethel's creation from afar.

Nine years was plenty of time for us to contemplate what we were missing, as the Elise picked up several accolades from European publications and the rare RX-7 became something of a legend. Then, in 2003, Mazda brought back the rotary with the new RX-8 and Lotus announced that its second-generation Elise would be shipped to America in 2004.

Mazda wouldn't make the same pricey mistake with the RX-8 that it made in 1993. To control costs, the RX-7's twin sequential turbochargers were eliminated. The price was slashed, but so was engine output. Power fell from 255 to 232 hp. Torque plummeted. The RX-8's defining characteristic was born.

The dearth of torque -- just 159 lb-ft -- and an 8500-rpm horsepower peak mean going anywhere quickly in an RX-8 requires using lots of revs. The torqueless wonder feels less punchy than many compact cars, but deliberate, committed acceleration is the fast path to love in an RX-8. With the right pedal pinned, the rotors build revs with the quickness of a motorcycle engine and the smoothness of an electric motor.

The RX-8 feels particularly at home on the track, where parking the tach needle in the upper third of its range is more practical. Flicking the stubby shifter back and forth through the tight pattern is a reward for keeping the engine on boil between 6000 and 9000 rpm. That's a powerband normally accessible only in cars like Lamborghinis and Ferraris, and an RX-8 costs a tenth as much as those cars. For another perspective on just what the 9000-rpm redline means, consider that Mazda limited automatic-transmission RX-8s to 7500 rpm. Why? The torque converter self-destructs if it spins much faster.

Mazda claims a dry weight of just 250 pounds for the 13B Renesis engine, a fact made even sweeter by the rotary's tidy dimensions, which allow the engine to be tucked low and far back in the chassis. Through corners, the RX-8 is planted, its neutral handling nothing but predictable. The RX-8's steering is quick without being edgy. Its convincing weight masks the fact that it is electrically assisted, as it has been since 2004, well before the infinitely tunable, fuel-saving technology became widespread. That the RX-8 -- and contemporaries such as the Acura NSX and the Honda S2000 -- absolutely nailed the execution is a testament that such systems can be just as good, if not better, than hydraulically assisted setups.

If the RX-8 is so special, why would Mazda kill it? Back in 2004, lowering the price point wasn't enough to guarantee success. Rather than err toward Elise-like simplicity, Mazda hedged its rotary revival on a suspect premise: practicality. With a pair of rear-hinged half doors, the RX-8 would lay claim to being a truly functional four-seat sports car. No one would ever have reason to buy another Toyota Camry.

That idea -- predictably -- didn't pan out. Splitting the focus between driver and passengers resulted in a wheelbase of 106.3 inches, up from 95.5 inches in the previous RX-7, and as a result the RX-8 isn't as tossable as its predecessor. Compared with the knife-edged Elise, the RX-8 feels almost minivan-ish. The seating position is high, the ride is relaxed, and the view out is framed by so much more car. Relatively speaking. The RX-8 wasn't the great sports car it could have been; it was a great grand tourer. It was also a great engine plunked into a car that wasn't sure of itself.

Mazda has made it clear that rotary development continues even if there isn't an RX-8 successor to announce just yet. Delivering the keynote address at the Los Angeles auto show in November, Mazda boss Takashi Yamanouchi promised, "I am very attached to the rotary engine, so as long as I'm president of Mazda, our R&D in this area will continue."

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That was a tear jerking video. I own a rotary. The insight on the history of the Elise and its purpose was great. Kudos to Automobile Mag, you are one of the few that write about the rotary from the heart. I've been reading since the 90's. thx

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