For all the innovation we hear about in the automotive world, only one vehicle has a genuinely unique engine: the Mazda RX-8 and its rotary.
And that means what, exactly?
Well, this: All the other commercially available internal-combustion engines, whether the massive diesel in a Peterbilt truck or the V-12 in a Ferrari, operate on the same basic principle.
Air and fuel ignite in a cylinder, forcing a piston down, which turns a crankshaft, which turns the wheels. Imagine yourself on a bicycle: Your knees are the pistons. An explosion of power sends your left knee down, and your leg (the piston rod) turns the pedals (the crankshaft), which powers the chain (the drive shaft) and connects to the rear wheel (the differential). As your left knee goes down, your right knee comes up, then it goes down, and your left knee comes up: You are, in effect, a human two-cylinder engine.
Instead of pistons that go up and down, a rotary engine has -- in the case of the RX-8, anyway -- three triangular rotors that spin around inside a cylinder. In a regular engine, when the spark plug ignites gas and fuel, it sends the piston down. In a rotary, it sends the rotors spinning.
I've always loved rotary engines in general, Mazda RX's in particular, especially since I owned one of the original 1979 RX-7s, which was one of my favorite and undeniably most reliable cars ever. I still own a 1987 RX-7 Turbo, and someday I'd like a third-generation RX-7 from the early 1990s, if they ever get cheap enough.
Mazda gave the RX sports car nearly a decade off after that third generation, returning in 2004 with the RX-8. This fourth-generation model is what we have now, and for 2009, it received its first styling makeover, and a few mechanical updates. The 2009 model also gets an optional R3 sports package, which the test car had.
The sport package gets you a firmer suspension, a rear spoiler, body side cladding, a new front bumper and 19-inch aluminum wheels with high-performance tires. Inside, there's a Bose audio system, Bluetooth cell-phone connectivity, superb Recaro-brand front bucket seats and keyless ignition.
Under the hood, that 1.3-liter rotary engine pumps out 232 horsepower when mated to a slick-shifting six-speed manual transmission, which the test car had. If you want an automatic transmission, power drops to 212 horsepower.
Despite mild styling updates, the profile is pretty much the same: The presence of half-sized, forward-opening rear doors -- which do indeed make it easier to get into the tiny back seat, or more likely, put groceries back there -- mandates a slightly lumpy design that is certainly handsome, but not as sporty as, say, the Nissan 370Z.
From behind the wheel, though, all is fine: The interior is well-appointed and comfortable, and the instruments and controls are well placed, aside from some audio controls that take some getting used to.
On the road, the RX-8 handles exceptionally well, and the electric power steering's feel is as good as the old hydraulic systems. The tires are quite loud on rough pavement, and the ride can be jarring on bumpy roads, but it's bearable. The rotary engine feels and sounds right, but 232 horsepower doesn't make it a rocket ship, and typical of rotary engines, fuel mileage is mediocre -- EPA-rated at 16 mpg city, and an optimistic 22 mpg on the highway.
I loved the three previous generations of the RX-7, but I've only managed to like the RX-8. And while I like it a lot -- and at $33,010, loaded with features, it's a reasonably good buy -- it just doesn't raise my blood pressure.
Of course, as I get older, maybe that's a good thing.
Steven Cole Smith can be reached at email@example.com, at 407-420-5699, or through his blog at Enginehead.com.