Introduction

The all-new Mazda RX-8 is one of the most ingenious cars to be designed in years. Its small (but powerful) rotary engine allows the unique configuration of four doors and four seats. The wheelbase and overall length are shorter than a sports coupe yet there is more legroom in the rear, and the weight distribution is a perfect 50-50 for balanced handling.

Mazda says its Miata has recently become the best-selling sports car of all time. It hopes to build on that success with the groundbreaking RX-8. It's intended to be a car for a new generation, while also satisfying the legion of existing Mazda rotary fans, who have been left wanting ever since Mazda stopped importing the RX-7 into the U.S. in 1995 after selling more than 500,000 of them between 1979 and 1995. When you consider that the excellent RX-7 cost about $40,000 in 1995, the technologically superior new RX-8 looks like a steal as the sporty six-speed manual retails for $26,680.

Model Lineup

There are two basic models, the AT with a four-speed automatic transmission ($25,180) and MT with a six-speed manual ($26,680). They are virtually two different cars mostly because of the nature of the high-revving rotary engine, limited by the torque converter in the automatic transmission.

The six-speed manual benefits from 238 horsepower at 8500 rpm and 159 pounds-feet of torque at 5500 rpm, while the automatic produces considerably less, 197 horsepower at 7200 rpm and 164 lb-ft at 5000 rpm. The AT also has smaller wheels and brakes and a softer suspension. The transmission is sequential, with steering-wheel mounted thumb controls.

The bottom line is that the automatic is intended for cruisers who don't care that much about power, but who still want the sports car feel and looks, while the manual is for driving enthusiasts.

A fully loaded RX-8 with every available option, including leather seats, Bose audio, 18-inch tires, moonroof and fog lamps will run approximately $30,000. Three optional packages are available for the manual transmission model: Sport ($1,100), Touring ($2,700), and Grand Touring ($3,900). These same packages are available for the automatic at a higher price. The GT package includes everything: Xenon, headlights, directional stability with traction control, limited-slip differential, 18-inch wheels and tires, Bose audio system, moonroof, leather, 6-way power driver's seat, heated front seats, fog lamps, bigger brakes and a sport tuned suspension. Additional options include a six-disc CD changer for $500, navigation system for $2000, and an appearance package consisting of front air dam and side and rear aero flares for $970.



Walkaround

There is a Japanese word, "takumi," roughly meaning mechanical warmth, and that's what the RX-8 designers tried to deliver, although the result might seem to twist the word more toward "funky." The RX-8 is a car you could walk around and around again, and still find new things to recognize and appreciate, especially if you lifted up the hood and poked around, and crawled underneath it. The first thing you notice are the bulges, which if not graceful certainly have a style of their own. It's the most aggressive shape possible and still be stamped steel, according to a Mazda spokesman.

It's definitely aggressive, in a smallish kind of way. From the double-bubble roof, down the hood and over the bulge that's shaped like one of the engine rotors (same as the logo), 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 again. From the side you see big sharp wheel arches, plus a long black mesh angled vertical vent behind the front wheel to let hot air out of the engine compartment. The headlights aren't as dramatic as they might be. "We think we should design cars with sheetmetal, not with lighting," responds Mazda. We were surprised the RX-8 didn't get more notice on the street while driving around Orange County in Southern California.

The front and rear doors open in opposite directions, which Mazda calls the Freestyle door system (in the '20s such doors were called suicide doors, but we've fortunately gotten away from that expression). This allows very easy ingress and egress for the rear-seat passengers. There is no pillar between the doors, and Mazda has carefully designed the structure with supporting steel crossmembers and braces for rigidity and safety against a side impact. Mazda says its expects to achieve top scores in government and insurance industry crash tests.

2004 Mazda RX-8
2004 Mazda RX-8
Interior Features

Since the four-seat feature is what the RX-8 hangs its hat on, we'll start there. We picked up a friend for our test ride, a big friend measuring 6-foot, 3 inches tall and 248 pounds in girth. "No problem," he said after easily climbing in back. "Honestly, it's comfortable! The only thing is, the visibility forward is poor. But I can see out the rear windows at least. Too bad they don't roll down, but just push outward." He also liked how the console extended like a backbone all the way back between the rear seats, and beyond, as a vertical compartment opens to the trunk to allow the carrying of skis and such.

The trunk can carry two sets of golf clubs.

For the driver, the instrument panel seems to sacrifice efficiency for style, which is always debatable. There are three big rings, dominated by the 10,000-rpm tachometer in the center, with only a digital speedometer located at about 9:00 on the tach face. Because the two large outside rings only include gauges for water temp, fuel and oil pressure, there's space there that could have been used for a separate speedometer. The instruments are illuminated with indirect blue lighting.

The air conditioning wasn't as effective as we expected it to be, and the cloth seat material wasn't as attractive to our eyes as it might have been, but the seats did have a nice fit with good bolstering. We've only seen pictures of the leather upholstery and liked the way it looked, at least. We definitely like the stitched leather three-spoke steering wheel, both for its style and feel.

Another great thing was the drilled aluminum pedals, including a very secure dead pedal. The brake pedal is designed to make rotation of your right foot easier, for heel-and-toe downshifting, and 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 panel forward of the gearshift lever is trimmed in a combination of leather and high-quality vinyl and glossy black plastic. The stereo and climate control knobs are integrated, which may be intended to simplify but can sometimes lead to confusion; control buttons are also on the steering wheel spokes. The doors and seatbacks have ample pockets and cranny space, and four CDs can fit in the console. The soft triangular shape of the engine rotors are found throughout the interior, most noticeably and stylishly in the headrests.

The full complement of airbags includes forward and side thorax airbags for the front passengers, and curtain airbags front and rear.


2004 Mazda RX-8
Driving Impressions

Our first experience driving the RX-8 was on a closed circuit that Mazda had designed with pylons, intending to show off the car's balance. The whole lap was taken in second gear, although at one point the engine neared its 9000 rpm redline, we could hear the little beep that comes at 8500 rpm indicating you're nearly at the limit. When driven correctly, the RX-8 indeed has great balance and a precise turn-in, despite the fact that the suspension is soft enough for daily comfortable use, and not as stiff as some sports cars, say, the Nissan 350Z, which corners like a race car but pays the price with a stiffer ride.

A course like this is good for learning the limits of the electronic stability control (Mazda calls theirs DSC, or Dynamic Stability Control) and how it works, by deliberately driving over-aggressively instead of trying to be smooth. The RX-8 wasn't perfectly forgiving. With too much throttle it would understeer, or plow the front tires, although it should be noted that most cars would have been hopeless under the same abuse. At first we were surprised that the DSC didn't intervene and correct this, so we repeated the experiment until we felt the DSC kick in. 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 it does take over, it does it with brakes, by braking one or more wheels needed to correct the imbalance. Some cars do it by cutting the throttle, which skilled drivers find intrusive. The RX-8 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 (lacking pistons, valves, crankshafts, camshafts, etc.) has been developed by Mazda for 40 years now. The RX-8 introduces the latest and by far the best rotary engine design, called RENESIS. The engine is about 30 percent smaller than an inline four-cylinder as found in economy cars. Its compact dimensions allows it to be mounted in a low and rearward position that results in that perfect balance. It also keeps the center of gravity low and the curb weight down to a stunning 2940 pounds.

Out on the highway the RX-8 felt even better than it did on the small closed course. It hugged 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 exhaust note is almost hypnotic on a rhythmic road. It revs extremely quickly, although its significant weak point is mid-range grunt. Once, on the freeway, cruising at 70 mph in sixth gear at 3500 rpm, we floored the throttle as we moved into the fast lane to pass a truck, and it took so long to accelerate that we nearly got run over. Downshifts for quick acceleration are definitely necessary. Acceleration performance from 0 to 60 mph is less than 6 seconds, according to Car and Driver magazine, making the RX-8 nearly but not quite as quick as a Nissan 350 Z.

But downshifting is redefined by the rotary engine, not to mention 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.

When equipped with the sport suspension and 18-inch wheels, 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 a featherweight, 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, comparable to a Nissan 350 Z.

2004 Mazda RX-8
Summary

The RX-8 is not only all-new, but 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, although it's not strong on mid-range acceleration. It's complemented by a beautiful six-speed gearbox and great brakes.

It may be argued that the difference between a sports car and sports coupe (such as the Infiniti G35) is semantic, so Mazda's claim to be the first and only true four-seat sports car is stretching things a bit. No matter what you call the RX-8, it's a great car with an innovative approach and admirable engineering.


Model Line Overview

Model lineup: RX-8 AT ($25,180); RX-8 MT ($26,680)
Engines: 1.3-liter, twin-rotor Wankel rotary, 197 hp (AT); 238 hp (MT)
Transmissions: four-speed sequential automatic with steering-wheel paddles; six-speed close-ratio manual
Safety equipment (standard): ABS; front, side and side-curtain airbags; electronic braking distribution; traction and stability control; seatbelt pretensioners
Safety equipment (optional): none
Basic warranty: 4 years/50,000 miles
Assembled in: Hiroshima, Japan

Specifications As Tested

Model tested (MSRP): Mazda RX-8 MT ($26,680)
Standard equipment: in-dash 6-disc CD, keyless entry, power windows, mirrors and door locks
Options as tested (MSRP): MT Sport Package ($1100), including Xenon headlights, DSC with traction control, fog lamps; in-dash 6-disc CD ($500); Rotary Accent Package ($139)
Destination charge: ($520)
Gas guzzler tax: N/A
Price as tested (MSRP): $ 28,939
Layout: rear-wheel drive
Engine: 1.3-liter rotary
Horsepower (hp @ rpm): 238 @ 8500
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm): 159 @ 5500
Transmission: six-speed manual
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy: 18/24 mpg
Wheelbase: 106.3 in.
Length/width/height: 174.2/69.7/52.8 in.
Track, f/r: 59.1/59.3 in.
Turning circle: 34.8 ft.
Seating capacity: 4
Head/hip/leg room, f: 35.8/NA/43.0 in.
Head/hip/leg room, m: N/A
Head/hip/leg room, r: 35.5/NA/23.0 in.
Cargo volume: 7.6 cu. ft.
Payload: N/A
Towing capacity: N/A
Suspension, f: A-arms, coil springs, tube shocks, anti-roll bar
Suspension, r: multi-link, coil springs, tube shocks, anti-roll bar
Ground clearance: 5.3 in.
Curb weight: 2940 lbs.
Tires: Bridgestone Potenza 225/45R18
Brakes, f/r: Ventilated discs with ABS and electronic distribution
Fuel capacity: 15.8 gal.

 

Unless otherwise indicated, specifications refer to test vehicle.
All prices are manufacturer's suggested retail prices (MSRP) effective as of June 24, 2003.
Prices do not include manufacturer's destination and delivery charges.
N/A: Information not available or not applicable.
Manufacturer Info Sources: 1-800-222-5500 - www.mazdausa.com

 

Copyright © 1994-2003 New Car Test Drive, Inc.
New Car Test Drive

Copyright © 1994-2009 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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