Mazda RX-8 -- 2004 Review: Fantasy and reality are normally mutually exclusive concepts. Think of the Hollywood stars that comprise your “list,” and now gaze over at your significant other. Imagine the exotic locale at which you most wish you could be relaxing with your favorite ice-cold beverage in hand, and now stare ahead at the brake lights of creeping morning rush-hour traffic while you’re late to your eight o’clock meeting. Dream of slicing through canyons on perfect blacktop two-lane, and then go look in the garage at your humdrum sedan.
Wait a minute. Rewind to that last fantasy vs. reality scenario. Mazda’s got you covered with the RX-8 sports car. Sometimes, fantasy can become reality.
A sports car and a family car in one package
Seriously, the Mazda RX-8 is a true sports car, but with four doors and room aboard for four average-sized adults. Even the trunk is configured to meet the requirements of a daily driver, if not a family road tripper. If there’s anything to complain about here, it’s a dearth of engine power at low revs, natural design concessions given the RX-8’s dual-intent mission, and cartoonish styling that appeals from few angles.
Stylish, but not attractive
Perhaps too stylish for its own good, the Mazda RX-8 is most handsome in profile, with its smiley face front end and boy-racer taillights hidden from view. The front fenders bulge prominently, and side gills add visual interest. The simple five-spoke alloy wheels on our test car, part of the highly recommended Sport package, are gorgeous. In front, the RX-8 possesses a disconcerting smile through its five-point air intake and narrow, upswept headlamps, looking more like a toothless, angry, Bozo the Clown than a menacing sports car. At the rear, especially from a three-quarter viewpoint, we’re reminded of the Studebaker Avanti, a groundbreaking design that, in various permutations, lasted about three decades longer than it should have. Beautiful, like the 1993-95 RX-7, the RX-8 is not, but at least it’s got style and won’t get lost in a crowd.
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Powered by a rotary engine
Power is generated by the latest rotary engine in Mazda’s arsenal. Dubbed the Renesis 13B by cunning marketing types, the RX-8’s rotary engine genesis (get it?) incorporates the 40 years of rotary engine design and development that Mazda has amassed since a Cosmo Sport 110S, the first Mazda sports car with a rotary engine, raced at Germany’s fabled Nurburgring in the 1968 84-Hour Marathon de la Route.
What is a rotary engine? Why use it in the RX-8?
A rotary engine operates differently from any other kind of motor. Rather than employ pistons that pump up and down inside cylinders (inline and V-type engines) or side to side inside cylinders (boxer, or horizontally-opposed engines), the RX-8’s 1.3-liter powerplant spins a triangular rotor within a single cocoon-shaped chamber to manage intake, compression, combustion, and exhaust. With as much as 238 horsepower and 164 lb.-ft. of torque available from just 1.3 liters of displacement, and able the rip all the way up to a lofty 9,000 rpm redline, the rotary engine’s primary benefits are maximum power from minimum mass, and that its small packaging allows it to be placed further back in the engine bay, behind the front axle, to help Mazda achieve a perfect 50:50 front-to-rear weight distribution for optimum balance and handling.
Learn to drive a manual transmission if you’re thinking of buying the Mazda RX-8. Here’s the deal: with the standard four-speed automatic, the RX-8 loses 41 horsepower (197 vs. 238 with the six-speed manual) and 1,500 rpm of rev range (redline drops to 7,500 rpm), but gains five foot-pounds of torque (164 over 159) and makes peak power at lower revs to help compensate. Mazda also throws in SportShift with the automatic, which includes paddle shifters on the steering wheel to manually change gears for “a Formula 1-style driving experience.”
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Our test car had the six-speed manual that comes bundled with 18-inch wheels and lower-profile performance tires in the Sport package, replacing the standard automatic transmission, 16-inch wheels, and less aggressive rubber on the base model. That certainly helped the Mazda RX-8 during our week long evaluation, after which we gave the car our highest ranking in the all-important fun-to-drive category. “Brilliant machine,” enthused one test driver in our notebook.
Suspension and steering
This radical sheetmetal rides on a dedicated platform created specifically for the RX-8, suspended by aluminum double-wishbones up front and a multi-link suspension setup in the rear, damped with gas shock absorbers and rolling on 225/45R18 Bridgestone Potenza RE040 rubber. An electric-assist rack-and-pinion steering system guides the front wheels, while the rear tires transmit power to the ground.
Even with the manual transmission, our test Mazda RX-8 exhibited a dearth of power in the lower part of the rev range. In fact, we felt that we needed to spool the engine to about 4,000 rpm to extract the kind of entertaining acceleration that forces you back into your seat. But from that point on, the rotary blares its characteristic “wahhhhhh” engine note while smoothly and eagerly spinning to redline, which announces itself with a subtle “beep” a few hundred rpm shy of the limiter.
Thankfully, since you’ve gotta row it so often to tap the power, the six-speed manual is sheer bliss to operate. The short-throw shifter, topped with a slick rotary-shaped knob, exhibits positive, fluid gear engagement with no resistance at the gates. Depressing the clutch is not the chore it can be in some sports cars, and it’s easy to modulate in traffic. Pedals are set up perfectly for heel-and-toe downshifting, and despite our eager use of the accelerator, we still managed to extract a 17.2-mpg average during a week of driving.