Mazda's rotary-engined RX-8 is already sporty and quick, but loading it with Mazdaspeed accessories gives it even sharper handling and racetrack looks.
Mazdaspeed is the motorsport performance arm of the company, and it produces a wide variety of factory-tested and warranted accessories for Mazdas.
I drove an RX-8 equipped with the dealer-installed Mazda-speed package, and it turned heads constantly. It adds about $9,000 to the $26,875 sticker price. New front and rear spoilers, plus a wing on the trunk and new side skirts, made it look like a racetrack refugee. But the add-ons are functional. The front spoiler increases cooling and decreases aerodynamic lift. The side skirts and adjustable rear wing also improve high-speed handling. The 18-inch wheels work in concert with the lower springs, stiffer shock absorbers and larger front and rear stabilizer bars for even crisper handling.
Giving the RX-8 a dose of Mazdaspeed steroids turns a fun car into one that is a ball. The lightweight rotary engine is placed down low and well back in the chassis, creating a nearly ideal front-to-rear weight distribution. With an even lower center of gravity, the Mazdaspeed RX-8 becomes an ideal curvy-road dance partner. It is so nimble and well-balanced that it underscores why small, light cars handle so well.
The heart of the RX-8 is its Renesis rotary engine. Although it displaces only 1.3 liters, it cranks out a very impressive 238 horsepower and an engine sound that is quite unique. Floor the gas and the engine whines with glee.
A rotary engine is unique because it doesn't have traditional pistons and cylinders. A pair of three-cornered rotors turn in cocoon-shaped combustion chambers. The engine's displacement isn't measured quite the same as a piston engine, so it is better to compare power output than engine size. Compared with a traditional internal combustion engine, the rotary engine is 60 percent smaller than a V-6 of comparable power. It revs very freely and is quite smooth. The engine's only drawbacks are lack of low-speed torque and the fact that it gets pretty thirsty if you get frisky with the throttle.
The rotary engine is designed to burn small amounts of oil, so it has to be checked at every other fill-up. Mazda also warns that the engine can flood easily if it is started and shut off right away.
Because the engine doesn't have quite the low-speed torque of a regular engine, you have to give it a bit more throttle to move away from a stop.
It wouldn't do to wrap a mundane body around such a special engine, and Mazda chose a design that is bold even without the Mazdaspeed spoilers. The hood is low and the nose leans forward. The cabin is unusually long because it has two tiny doors behind the main doors.
These small, rear-opening doors are similar to those found on extended-cab pickups. They are quite handy, but shut with a shudder because there is no center post. The back seat itself, however, is quite small and is best relegated to kids, pets or your briefcase.
The small engine made it possible for Mazda to design a double-wishbone front suspension that plays a big role in the RX-8's excellent handling. The gas tank is mounted ahead of the rear axle to keep the weight toward the center of the car, and that too accounts for added agility.
Ventilated antilock disc brakes and a limited-slip rear axle are standard.
The cabin is relatively small, but its design is as trendy as the exterior. A console splits both the front and back seats. Small, rotary shapes abound, from the seat headrests to the gearshift knob.
The center stack of the instrument panel has a large, silver circle about the size of a CD surrounding the audio system.
Instruments are nicely designed, but the only speedometer is a digital readout inside the tachometer. It is easy to overlook your speed, which can be troublesome in a car as quick and active as this one.
The seats are mounted low, but the view out is still quite good. The gearshift lever sits high on the center console where it is easy to reach. Because the rotary likes to be revved, you'll be using the shifter a little more than normal.
The base price of the test car was $26,875. Destination charges and the Mazdaspeed accessories brought the sticker price to $36,420.
Three years or 36,000 miles.
Engine: 1.3-liter, 238-horsepower
Transmission: six-speed manual
Wheelbase: 106.4 inches
Curb weight: 3,029 lbs.
Base price: $26,875
As driven: $36,420
Mpg rating: 18 city, 24 hwy.
At A Glance
Point: The RX-8 is lithe and lively, thanks to the 238-horse rotary engine that is placed low and toward the center of the car. The Mazdaspeed accessories give it racetrack handling and racetrack looks.
Counterpoint: You don't want the extra spoilers if you're trying to cut a low profile. The back seat is tiny, the oil needs to be checked frequently, and the only speedometer is a digital readout inside the face of the tachometer.