The RX-8 drives like a sports car, with perfect 50-50 weight distribution for balanced handling and a high-revving engine. It reminds us of the brilliant third-generation RX-7, but it's $13,000 cheaper, and its muscular styling has a zoom-zoom edge.
Yet the RX-8 is surprisingly practical. It's perfectly capable of taking the kids to soccer practice, with ample passenger room for four full-size adults. There's enough room for a weekend's worth of luggage or two full-size golf bags, and the small rear doors and relatively spacious trunk make trips to the home improvement center possible. Granted, it's not as roomy as a sedan, but it can move people and stuff when needed.
The RX-8 was launched as an all-new model for 2004. While the manual transmission model carries over with few changes, but the automatic is far more compelling for 2006 than last year's model. The 2006 RX-8 offers a new six-speed automatic in place of last year's four-speed. What's more, the automatic model gets a significant boost in horsepower. The six-speed automatic comes with steering-wheel mounted paddle controls for semi-manual shifting. This brings the automatic closer in character to the manual version, making it much more appealing to those who don't always want to do the shifting themselves.
Still, the manual and automatic are two different cars due to the specific tuning of the high-revving rotary engine as paired to each transmission. The six-speed manual benefits from 238 horsepower at 8500 rpm and 159 pound-feet of torque at 5500 rpm, while the automatic produces 212 horsepower at 7200 rpm and 164 pound-feet at 5000 rpm. The automatic comes packaged with smaller wheels and brakes and a softer suspension. The bottom line is that the manual is for driving enthusiasts willing to sacrifice some comfort and convenience for performance. The automatic is for drivers more interested in the looks and feel of a sports car than in ultimate performance, drivers who have to contend with stop-and-go commuting.
Mazda RX-8 ($26,435)
The first thing you notice are the bulges, which if not graceful certainly have a style of their own. It's about the most aggressive shape possible in stamped steel. From the double-bubble roof, down the hood and over the bulge that's shaped like one of the engine rotors, to those big wide ears of front fenders, to the headlamps and grille and air intakes that give the RX-8 a face: wide-eyed, startled, big dimples. Head-on, the RX-8 looks like it's getting gently goosed and is saying, Oh!
From the rear it looks good, with upswept lines and wide fender flares. From the side you see big sharp wheel arches, plus a non-functional black mesh angled vertical vent behind the front wheel. The headlights aren't as dramatic as they might be; Mazda says it believes design should be expressed in sheet metal not lighting.
The front and rear doors open in opposite directions, which Mazda calls the Freestyle door system. With no pillar between the doors, this allows very easy ingress and egress for the rear-seat passengers. As with similar systems in pickups, the front door must be opened before the rear door can open. To compensate for the lack of a B-pillar, Mazda has carefully designed the structure with supporting steel crossmembers and braces, as well as reinforcements around the door perimeter and for rigidity and safety against a side impact. The RX-8 achieved four stars out of five in NHTSA side impact tests.
The trunk can carry two sets of golf clubs. We were able to fit a desk chair and storage crate back there, a very impressive feat for a sports car. A vertical compartment door opens to the rear seat area to allow the carrying of skis and such.
The RX-8 has great seats, a nice fit with good bolstering, though the base model's cloth seat material wasn't as attractive to our eyes as it might have been. On the other end of the spectrum, the top-of-the-line Shinka Special Version Package includes much more attractive leather and suede-like upholstery.
We like the stitched leather three-spoke steering wheel, both for its style and feel. Also nice were the drilled aluminum pedals and the solid dead pedal. The brake pedal is designed to make rotation of your right foot easier, for heel-and-toe downshifting. (It also releases upon impact, to lessen leg injuries in the case of a head-on crash.) Each knee is comfortably and firmly supported during hard cornering.
The instrument panel seems to sacrifice efficiency for style, however. There are three big rings, dominated by the 10,000-rpm tachometer in the center, with a digital speedometer readout on the tach face. We miss having a separate analog speedometer. Our feeling is that analog gauges can be interpreted at a glance, while digital readouts have to be read. The two large outside rings include gauges for water temp, fuel and oil pressure. The instruments are illuminated with indirect blue lighting.
The panel forward of the shift lever is trimmed in a combination of leather and high-quality vinyl and glossy piano-black plastic. The stereo and climate control knobs are integrated; redundant controls are on the steering wheel spokes. The air conditioning wasn't as effective as we would have liked, a common complaint about many Mazdas.
The available navigation system is DVD-based and features a dedicated, retractable 7-inch screen on top of the dash above the radio and climate controls. Controlled with an eight-button cluster located just behind the shift lever, the system is simple to operate and the interface is clear, thanks in part to the fact that it does not incorporate radio and climate controls into the screen, as do many navigation systems.
The doors and seatbacks have ample pockets and cranny space, and four CDs can fit in the console, but there aren't a lot of cubbies up front. The soft triangular shape of the engine rotors are a design theme found throughout the interior, most noticeably in the stylish headrests and atop the shift lever.
The Dynamic Stability Control works effectively yet allows the driver to work the tires without intruding. The RX-8 wasn't completely forgiving when driven hard on an autocross circuit. We found with too much throttle the RX-8 would understeer (the front tires plow and the car keeps going straight instead of turning). When we pushed it still farther, driving like hacks, the DSC would kick in to limit the understeer. What we learned is that the DSC is programmed to tolerate small errors but saves you from the big ones. In other words, it will let you get away with two feet of understeer in a curve, but not six feet.
And when DSC does take over, it uses the brakes, by braking one or more wheels needed to correct the imbalance. The electronic stability control systems in other cars correct skidding by cutting the throttle, which skilled drivers find intrusive. The RX-8's DSC will eventually cut the throttle too, but not so early that it frustrates you.
When we switched the DSC off, we discovered two things that together seem paradoxical: how good the DSC is (because we could barely feel it when it was on), and how superb the balance of the RX-8 is, because we could feel it in its natural state.
A brief word about that 50-50 balance, and where it comes from. The rotary engine, which is extremely smooth and simple, has been developed by Mazda for 40 years now. The RX-8 features the latest and by far the best rotary engine design, which Mazda calls Renesis (a shortened form of Rotary Engine Genesis). The engine is about 30 percent smaller than a typical inline four-cylinder, and its compact dimensions allow it to be mounted in a low and rearward position that results in that perfect balance. It also keeps the four-seat RX-8's center of gravity low and the curb weight down to just 3029 pounds, nearly 200 pounds less than the lightest version of the two-seat, 3213-pound Nissan 350Z.
Out on the open road the RX-8 feels even better. It hugs the road progressively, meaning the deeper it gets into a turn the harder it grips, which is wonderfully confidence inspiring.
The engine offers a sweet unique sound under acceleration and is very refined now, with little of the rotary rasp that early RX-7s were known for. The rotary's design features six power pulses per turn of the shaft compared with just three for a V6, resulting in an exhaust note that's almost hypnotic on a rhythmic road, and chainsaw-like under full steam. It revs extremely quickly, but lacks the mid-range grunt of a V6. Downshifts for quick acceleration are definitely necessary. The RX-8 can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph is less than 6 seconds, according to Car and Driver magazine, making it nearly as quick as a Nissan 350Z.
Downshifting is redefined by the rotary engine, especially when paired with the brilliant close-ratio six-speed gearbox. You can drop the RX-8 into second gear at a speed that would cause almost every other car on the planet to scream, if not explode. This baby revs.
When the automatic is equipped with the sport suspension and 18-inch wheels (standard on the manual RX-8), the brake rotors measure a massive 12.7 inches in front and 11.9 inches in rear, with increased ventilation ribs for more resistance to fade. The fact that the RX-8 is so light, thanks not only to the rotary engine but also to thoughtful design with aluminum in the hood and rear doors, reduces the stopping distance to an impressive number, with performance comparable to that of the 350Z.
The Mazda RX-8 is a unique sports car. Its four-seat, four-door configuration is an original design that works. The rotary engine is super smooth, simple, high-revving and almost indestructible. It's complemented by a beautiful six-speed gearbox and great brakes. The RX-8 is a great sports car with an innovative approach and admirable engineering.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Sam Moses filed this report from Irvine, California, with Steve Siler and Mitch McCullough reporting from Los Angeles.