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It's been 40 years since Mazda released its first rotary-engine production model, a twin-rotor coupe called Cosmo Sport in mid-1967. By the early 1970s, the rotary seemed poised to conquer the automotive world. That never happened for a long list of reasons, but the lightweight rotary engine found a purpose powering a delightful series of light, nimble, high-revving Mazda sports-touring cars. Over the past four decades, Mazda has manufactured more than 1.9 million rotary-engine vehicles. And we're glad it did.
The latest model in this series, the ingeniously engineered Mazda RX-8, drives like a sports car, with a high-revving engine and perfect 50-50 weight distribution for balanced handling.
Yet the RX-8 is surprisingly practical. It's capable of taking the kids to soccer practice, with passenger space 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. It's not as roomy as a sedan, but it can move people and stuff when needed, while offer the driving experience of a two-seat sports car.
In short, the RX-8 is a true four-seat sports car. And it's the small but powerful rotary engine that makes this possible.
The RX-8 was launched as an all-new model for 2004. Its most significant update since then is the six-speed automatic transmission that arrived for 2006, replacing the previously available four-speed. In addition to two more gears, the six-speed automatic also brought steering-wheel mounted paddle controls for semi-manual shifting; and allowed the engine to be tuned closer to its manual-transmission specification, narrowing the performance gap between the auto-shifting and shift-it-yourself versions.
Still, the manual and automatic models are two different cars. The manual benefits from 232 horsepower at 8500 rpm, while the automatic gets 212 horsepower at 7500 rpm, albeit with the same 159 pound-feet of torque at 5500. The base automatic comes packaged with a softer suspension, smaller wheels and smaller brakes. The bottom line is that the manual model is for driving enthusiasts willing to sacrifice some comfort and convenience for performance. The automatic is for drivers more interested in the look and feel of a sports car than in ultimate performance and for drivers who have to contend with stop-and-go commuting.
To celebrate the 40th anniversary of Mazda's rotary engine, Mazda will offer a limited-edition 40th Anniversary RX-8, featuring Metropolitan Gray paintwork, a Cosmo Red leather interior, and unique 18-inch alloy wheels; plus suspension enhancements, fog lamps, a silver engine cover, and special badging. Look for it early in the 2008 calendar year. Otherwise, the RX-8 is unchanged for 2008.
The Mazda RX-8 bulges with style if not grace. It's about the most aggressive shape possible in stamped steel. 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 vent angled 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 for rigidity and safety against a side impact. (The RX-8 achieved four stars out of five in NHTSA side impact tests.)
The Mazda RX-8 cabin is comfortable and surprisingly roomy. The seats are great, a nice fit with good bolstering. The Sport cloth seat material wasn't as attractive to our eyes as it might have been, however.
Even large adults find the rear bucket seats in the RX-8 comfortable, with plenty of elbow room thanks to the transmission tunnel/console that separates them. Getting into and out of the rear seat is easy. Due to the high front seatbacks, rear-seat passengers can't see much out front without leaning inboard, but they can see out the side windows. The rear side windows don't roll down, but just push outward, so the back seats may not be the best place to spend long periods of time on a hot summer day.
The rear-hinged back door and the pillar-less door configuration allows loading of large, awkward items into the back seat area that simply cannot be handled by other sports cars and sedans. We were able to fit a desk stool (Swopper) and a storage crate inside, without using the front seat, a very impressive feat for a sports car. At other times, however, the counter-swinging doors were cumbersome and got in the way, just as they did on extended-cab pickups, on the Honda Element, and on the Saturn Ion Coupe; there's a reason rear-hinged doors have had limited appeal over the years.
The trunk, a true trunk, can carry two sets of golf clubs. A vertical compartment door (pass-through) opens from the trunk to the rear seat area to allow the carrying of skis and such.
The driver is treated to a stitched leather three-spoke steering wheel that we liked 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. Each knee is comfortably and firmly supported during hard cornering.
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 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, 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.
The available navigation system is DVD-based and features a dedicated, retractable seven-inch screen on top of the dash above the radio and climate controls. Controlled from 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 other 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 Mazda RX-8 handles like a true sports car, with great balance and precise turn-in. Yet the suspension is soft enough for daily comfortable use and not as stiff as that of the Nissan 350Z, which corners like a race car but pays the price with a stiffer ride.
Greatly benefiting the RX-8's handling is its perfect balance, with 50 percent of its weight on the front wheels and 50 percent on the rear. While some conventional, reciprocating-piston sports cars have also achieved this balance, it has usually been at the expense of interior space. The compact size of the rotary engine makes it possible in a four-seater.
Extremely smooth and simple, the rotary has benefited from 40 years of development by Mazda engineers. 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 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 3,045 pounds, more than 500 pounds less than even the lightest version of the two-seat, 3,578-pound Nissan 350Z. The RX-8 is not the sports car that the third-generation RX-7 was but nor is it as expensive.
The rotary engine offers a sweet unique sound under acceleration and is very refined now, with little of the rasp that early RX-7s were known for. The two three-sided rotors deliver six power pulses per turn of the output shaft, the same number as a V12 (and twice as many per revolution as a V6), resulting in an exhaust note that's almost hypnotic on a rhythmic road, and chainsaw-like under full steam. The rotary 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.
The brakes work well. The fact that the RX-8 is so light, thanks not only to the rotary engine but also to the thoughtful use of aluminum in the hood and rear doors, reduces the stopping distance impressively, with performance comparable to that of the 350Z. 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.
Out on the open road the RX-8 feels even better. It hugs the pavement progressively, meaning the deeper it gets into a turn the harder it grips, which is wonderfully confidence-inspiring.
The optional Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) 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 Mazda would understeer (the front tires plowing, and the car going straight instead of turning). When we pushed it still harder, 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, slowing one or more wheels as needed to correct the imbalance. The electronic stability control systems in some other cars correct skidding by closing 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.
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.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Sam Moses filed this report from Irvine, California, with Mitch McCullough reporting from Los Angeles.
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