Let's not mess about, mince words, or try to be coy about it: the RX-8 is fantastic.
The RX-8 is fantastic because everything that is wrong with it is also everything that is right with it. Let's start with the engine: it's got less displacement than two bottles of San Pellegrino water, sounds like a spinning hard drive, and burns both premium gasoline and motor oil at a rate that would make a Prius blush. Then there are the doors -- there are four of them, two of which are fiddly suicide numbers that open backwards. The stereo head unit has a circular design theme, which is chintzy, and when you lift off the gas in first going through a parking lot, the engine makes a horrific sloshing noise -- no, it's not broken, that's how the engine is supposed to work.
But all those little niggles mean nothing. That engine is magic: it spins to 9000 rpm as effortlessly as a piston motor reaches 4000 rpm, and it pulls with a heft that masks its lopsided power/torque figure (it makes 230 hp but only 170 lb-ft of torque). Conversely, it's good everywhere: back roads, the highway, traffic, parking garages -- everywhere. The transmission is exquisite, with a hefty but ultra-precise clutch and the best shifter I've used, ever. The suicide doors make the car a true 2+2, and the stereo is very good, as are the seats.
Then there's the handling -- it's hilarious. I drove the RX-8 shortly after driving an Evo and, for once, I felt like the car's prodigious amount of grip and controllability weren't thanks to a mass of processors and sensors. Skidpad-ing around a traffic circle in second gear was a relatively drama free experience, save for the guffawing lunatic behind the well-weighted, pinpoint-accurate steering wheel.
The RX-8 isn't long for this world, with reason: unlike its older brother, the MX-5, it's probably not very livable -- the RENESIS engine drinks oil and isn't easy to fix, and the gas mileage isn't very good. The RX-8 doesn't command supercar levels of compromise -- it's surprisingly comfortable and not all that expensive -- but it requires more compromise than some competitors. The fact that the RX-8 is leaving is too bad: for those drivers willing to accept the facts of life with an RX-8, the amount of driving joy they'll receive in return is...immense.
Ben Timmins, Associate Web Editor
I've never been more infuriated by or more in love with a car in my life. I've been the not-so-proud owner of a Mazda RX-8 for more than four years, and I can attest to this car's ability to seduce you one day and crush your spirit the next.
It has absolutely no torque, low horsepower, and hit-or-miss styling, inside and out. Stop-and-go highway traffic is a nightmare, as it is very difficult to get the rev-happy Wankel and its six-speed tranny to calm down and go into second gear at low speeds without bogging down and dying.
But once the RX-8 has room to run, it does just that. The engine is smooth, responsive, and peppy with a wide-open throttle, a lovely buzz fills the cabin with exotic noise, and the trans is as quick as it is crisp. But the best part about the Rotary Xperimental is its chassis. After spirited street driving and track day flogging, I have no problem saying that the suspension and body feel of the RX-8 is superior to that of its kin, the MX-5 Miata. It's that good.
Deciding to be the owner of an RX-8 is like deciding to be the owner of a very energetic dog with separation anxiety. You need to give it a lot attention, you need to know what you're getting into, and you need to know that, sometimes, it will piss you off. But on the days you need a smile, you can find solace in the fact it will be waiting for you at home.
Christopher Nelson, Road Test Editor
Mazda has announced that it won't sell the RX-8 for the 2012 model year, so this could be our last chance to drive the only rotary-engine-powered car in the United States. This particular RX-8 is the R3 model, which means it has a more aggressively tuned suspension, nineteen-inch wheels, Recaro sport seats, a body kit, and HID headlights.
Like the Miata, the RX-8 proves that a sports car doesn't need to have astronomical amounts of horsepower to be fun to drive. And the RX-8 really is fun to drive. It's quite entertaining to run the rotary engine up into the high reaches of its rev range (it doesn't hit peak power until 8500 rpm) as you drive a curvy road or even as you're entering the freeway on-ramp. The manual transmission on this car is a must, and it's a good one, with short throws and positive clutch engagement.
I'll be sad to see this car go, but the downsides of the rotary engine - poor fuel economy, thirst for oil - mean we're not likely to see one here again in the near future. That's too bad.
Amy Skogstrom, Managing Editor
I was a guest of Mazda at the Monterey Historic Automobile Races in August at the Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca, and I was provided an RX-8 identical to this tester for my California weekend, so my comments reflect my RX-8 driving in California. From the moment I got behind the wheel in downtown San Francisco, the RX-8 felt like an old friend, and I was dismayed to think about the fact that this would probably be one of the last times I would ever drive one. On the freeway, the RX-8 is relaxed and refined enough to not get tedious, but it really comes into its own on a challenging road. We left Interstate 280 and hopped onto Skyline Boulevard, California Highway 35, which runs along the top of the mountain ridge and connects to CA 9 down to Ben Lomond and into Santa Cruz. This is classic California driving, all dips and bends through soaring pines, the sun probing the dark woods and illuminating patches of asphalt, and it was an absolute joy to be piloting the RX-8 through it. Brilliant body control, fabulous steering feel and accuracy, and an engine that just wanted to be revved and a symbiotic gearshifter and clutch relationship. It was one of my best driving days of 2011.
Joe DeMatio, Deputy Editor
Given the right circumstances, like Joe's drive in California, the RX-8 has the ability to enthrall its driver with its perfect steering, excellent clutch feel, a rewarding short-throw shifter, and superb chassis dynamics. Then again, it also can be frustrating, finicky, and annoying in equal measure. My feelings about the RX-8 have run the gamut between love and indifference but, after driving this R3 version -- in essence the model's swan song -- I know that years from now thoughts of the quirky little RX-8 will bring a smile to my face.
Jennifer Misaros, Managing Editor, Digital Platforms
The various LM20 badges and tri-tone striping may have been unique to our test car, but it's not as if the RX-8 needed any help being special. It's always been the odd-man out in the sports car world. Four seats and doors in lieu of two; two rotors instead of pistons; a engine that revs as if there's no tomorrow; et cetera.
But perhaps the most endearing quality of the RX-8 is its physical demeanor on the road. Simply put, there isn't another offering -- especially at this price point -- that holds a candle to the RX-8. This car offers surgically-precise steering, virtually no body roll, incredible grip, and considerable feedback to the driver. Better yet, it somehow manages to never batter or bruise the passengers seated within. This delectable package proved endlessly entertaining over a weekend, as a wedding routed me through the curvaceous roads of northwestern Ohio -- and unlike my last stint with an RX-8, I wasn't urgently prompted to inspect the dipstick 20 miles into my journey.
Would I buy an RX-8? Perhaps. Would I buy an R3? I'm not so sure. To be honest, the base RX-8 I drove earlier this year left me just as thrilled each time I exited the cockpit, yet cost a whole $5500 less. Unless you plan on regularly entering your RX-8 in gymkhanas or track days, a Sport or Grand Touring model would prove just as entertaining.
While some bemoan the RX-8's death as the loss of an unusual engine, I instead mourn the loss of a semi-affordable, tractable, and surprisingly usable sports car from our market. Here's hoping Mazda finds a way to revive it in the years to come.
Evan McCausland, Associate Web Editor