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The ingenious Mazda RX-8 is a true four-seat sports car and its small but powerful rotary engine makes this possible. 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 and it's $13,000 cheaper.
The RX-8 is a true sports car that can pull double duty. 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 hatchback design make trips to the home improvement center possible. The muscular styling has a Zoom-Zoom edge.
RX-8 was launched as an all-new model for 2004 so the 2005 Mazda RX-8 carries over with minimal changes. Among them: a new exterior paint color and a Sirius Satellite Radio option.
The RX-8 is a car you could walk around again and again and still recognize new things to appreciate (even more so if you lift up the hood and poke around and crawl underneath).
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. 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, 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 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. 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. (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.
Even large adults find the back seat of the RX-8 comfortable. Getting into and out of the back seats is easy. And the seats are comfortable. Rear-seat passengers can't see out front, but they can see out the side windows. Unfortunately, they don't roll down, but just push outward. The console extends back between the rear seats.
The trunk can carry two sets of golf clubs. We were able to fit a desk chair and storage crate back there. A vertical compartment opens to the trunk to allow the carrying of skis and such.
For the driver, the instrument panel seems to sacrifice efficiency for style. 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. The two large outside rings only include gauges for water temp, fuel and oil pressure. We miss having a separate speedometer. The instruments are illuminated with indirect blue lighting.
The RX-8 has great seats, a nice fit with good bolstering, though the cloth seat material wasn't as attractive to our eyes as it might have been. We 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; redundant controls are on the steering wheel spokes. The air conditioning wasn't as effective as we expected it to be.
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 found throughout the interior, most noticeably and stylishly in the headrests.
The RX-8 has great balance and precise turn-in. The suspension is soft enough for daily comfortable use and not as stiff as say, the Nissan 350Z, which corners like a race car but pays the price with a stiffer ride.
The electronic stability control (Mazda calls theirs DSC, or Dynamic Stability Control) works well. The RX-8 wasn't completely forgiving when driven hard on an autocross circuit. 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 features the latest and by far the best rotary engine design, which Mazda calls Renesis. The engine is about 30 percent smaller than an inline four-cylinder as found in economy cars. Its compact dimensions allow 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 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 exhaust note is almost hypnotic on a rhythmic road. It revs extremely quickly, although its significant weak point is mid-range grunt. 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.
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.
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 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.
The 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. It's a great car with an innovative approach and admirable engineering.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Sam Moses filed this report from Irvine, California. With Mitch McCullough reporting from Los Angeles.
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