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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.
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 n
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.